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August 22, 2016
  Aref v. Lynch
Headline: D.C. Circuit allows suit by federal prisoners isolated in Communication Management Units to proceed.

Issue Presented: Whether federal prisoners who spent years housed in Communication Management Units (CMUs) with curtailed access to family and the outside world suffered "atypical and significant hardships in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life" sufficient to assert a due process violation.

Brief Summary: CMUs represent an effort to keep federal prisoners incarcerated for terrorism-related convictions from communicating with extremist groups outside of prison. Inmates assigned to CMUs face restrictions on visits and monitoring of their letters and telephone calls. Several prisoners housed in CMUs in Indiana and Illinois for a period of years filed suit against the Bureau of Prisons challenging their CMU placement on various grounds, alleging procedural and substantive due process violations and an unlawful retaliatory transfer in violation of their First Amendment rights. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed most of the claims before discovery and granted summary judgment as to the remaining claims relating to procedural due process and First Amendment retaliation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed in part. The court first determined that the issue was not moot despite plaintiffs' transfer out of CMU, noting that the government's voluntary cessation of challenged conduct can moot a controversy only where it is absolutely clear there is no chance that the conduct or situation will recur.

The court then examined whether plaintiffs had asserted a liberty interest under the standard set out by the Supreme Court in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), which examined whether the inmates suffered "atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Id. at 484. The court observed that circuits have split on what the appropriate baseline is by which to determine the "ordinary incidents" of prison life, with some comparing inmates' treatment to the general population, some to administrative confinement, and some to conditions that obtain in the harshest facilities in a state's most restrictive prisons. The court found itself bound on this question by Hatch v. District of Columbia, 184 F.3d 846 (D.C. Cir. 1999), in which the D.C. Circuit held that an inmate's treatment should be compared to the most restrictive treatment routinely imposed on inmates serving similar sentences, evaluating not merely conditions of treatment but also duration. The court also noted that the Sandin/Hatch framework applied even though the plaintiffs' assignment to CMUs was a non-punitive classification rather than a punitive, disciplinary measure.

Turning to the facts, the court indicated that, while the question of whether a liberty interest existed was a close call, the indefinite length and selectivity of assignment to CMU gave rise to "atypical and significant hardship" even though conditions, in the abstract, were no more severe than ordinary administrative confinement. Because the district court had not reached the question of whether plaintiffs received constitutionally adequate pre- or post-deprivation process, the D.C. Circuit remanded. In doing so, the court noted that prison administrators are given broad leeway and that only minimal process was likely due.

With respect to the retaliatory transfer claim, one plaintiff had claimed that his transfer from CMU was denied because of a sermon he gave as part of a Muslim prayer group meeting, in violation of the First Amendment. Invoking Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the court found that the prison's denial of transfer was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. The court agreed with the government that prison administrators could reasonably have construed plaintiff's sermon as an attempt to radicalize inmates, thereby constituting a security risk. The court found the inmate still had means to communicate his dissatisfaction, despite his assignment in CMU, and affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the government.

Finally, the court examined plaintiffs' claims for damages against the prison warden in his individual capacity under Bivens. The court began with an issue of first impression for the circuit, whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) permitted damages for constitutional violations without a showing of underlying physical injury. The court observed that circuits had split on the question of whether constitutional violations are independently compensable absent a showing of physical harm and ultimately concluded that the statutory language at issue, which required a showing of physical injury in order to render mental and emotional damages compensable, negated the inference that physical injury was a required showing for other kinds of injuries. Ultimately, though the court permitted suit for compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages under the PLRA, it found the particular claims alleged by plaintiffs were foreclosed by qualified immunity because the prison warden could not have known his actions violated a clearly established constitutional right.

For the full text of the opinion, please see

Panel: Brown, Srinivasan, Edwards

Argument Date: March 15, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: August 19, 2016

Docket Number: 15-5154

Decided: Reversed in part.

Counsel: Rachel Anne Meeropol, Pardiss Kebriaei, and Gregory Stewart Silbert for appellants.

Carleen M. Zubrzycki, Benjamin C. Mizer, and H. Thomas Byron III for appellees.

Author of Opinion: Brown

Case Alert Author: Elizabeth Beske

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Elizabeth Beske, Ripple Weistling

    Posted By: Ripple Weistling @ 08/22/2016 08:13 AM     DC Circuit  

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