Thursday, June 11, 2009

No due process claim for federal inmate typist

Inmates have some rights. Not a lot of rights, but some rights. In this case, though, the inmate who was fired from his job as a clerk typist had no rights at all. At least not under the due process clause.

The case is Johnson v. Rowley, decided on June 11. Johnson was a federal inmate at Otisville, where he worked as a typist for UNICOR, a government corporation that provides work for inmates. One night, after working overtime, he hung around to work on his "rusty" skills, and he sent his wife some examples of his work with different fonts and pitches to show off his progress. This extra work got Johnson fired for engaging in the unauthorized use of facility equipment. He sued under the due process clause.

In order to proceed under the due process clause, you need to show that the government deprived you of a property interest without fair process. A property interest is a legal term of art. Not everything is a property interest. Under Supreme Court precedent, property interests derive from state law, and they consist of "rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." In other words, the property interest must create a legitimate claim of entitlement for the plaintiff.

This legal standard knocks out a lot of due process claims, as unsuccessful plaintiffs try to turn various interests into property interests. Even at-will government employees in the free world do not have a property interest in their jobs. Johnson doesn't have a chance in this context. Even worse for Johnson, the Second Circuit has previously held that inmates in the state prison system do not have a property interest in a particular job assignment, see, Frazier v. Coughlin, 81 F.3d 313 (2d Cir. 1996). This legal principle is contrasted with civil service employees who work for the government -- those employees have a property interest in their jobs. The holding in Frazier is now extended to the principle that federal inmates have no property interest in any job assignment with UNICOR. In other words, Frazier's reasoning now applies in the federal context, consistent with court decisions from around the country on the same issue.

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