Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Qualified immunity takes away $62,000 verdict for inmate

This case is a good example of how qualified immunity works. The plaintiff is incarcerated. He won his trial on the due process claim arising from his administrative segregation. The Court of Appeals agrees that plaintiff's rights were violated, but it takes away the verdict because the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

The case is Allah v. Milling, decided on November 22. Connecticut inmates are classified upon entering jail based on certain risk factors, including their disciplinary history and their propensity for violence. Upon his return to prison, he was placed in the a restrictive setting because that's where he was when he last left the Big House. In this setting, he spent 23 hours a day in his cell and endured other indignities, like limited showers and physical restraints. Finding that jail officials violated the due process clause, the trial court ruled in his favor and awarded Allah $62,650 in damages.

The Court of Appeals taketh away the verdict. Prison officials have leeway in classifying pretrial detainee under the due process clause, but they cannot place restrictions solely in order to punish them, particularly since they have not yet been found guilty of anything. There must be a legitimate governmental purpose in classifying inmates. Courts don't like to second-guess jail decisions, but until the Constitution is found to longer apply to prison decisionmaking, judges will not hesitate to rule in an inmate's favor if the facts warrant it.

The Circuit (Lynch, Katzmann and Pooler) finds that Allah's rights were violated because the jailers did not make an individualized decision in placing him in the most restrictive classification. They simply made the placement because that's where plaintiff was when he last left prison. But that does  not end the inquiry. Public officials are immune from suit if they did not violate the plaintiff's clearly-established rights, as determined by settled Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent. Qualified immunity gets many public officials off the hook, as a rights violation may not have been apparent at the time they were exercising their discretionary decisionmaking. That's the case here.

While prison officials many not punish people in jail prior to an adjudication of guilt, that legal principle is too general in determining whether the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. In answering this question, we consider whether other cases on these or similar facts are on the books. There are none. Instead, the jailers were following established Department of Corrections practice in sending Allah to administrative segregation. "No prior decision of the Supreme Court or of this Court ... has assessed the constitutionality of that particular practice." In dissent, Judge Pooler states that Allah was placed in solitary for no good reason and that the Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish has prohibited such decisionmaking.

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