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Media Alerts - Craig Williams and Shaun T. Walker v. Sec. Pa. Dept. of Corrections - Third Circuit
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February 14, 2017
  Craig Williams and Shaun T. Walker v. Sec. Pa. Dept. of Corrections - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit provides fair and clear warning that "those no longer subject to the death penalty have a due process right to be free from indefinite conditions of solitary confinement"; qualified immunity will not bar future claims

Area of Law: Due Process, Qualified immunity

Issues Presented: Whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement?

Brief Summary:
Plaintiffs sued various Department of Corrections officials, alleging the officials violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process by continuing to subject them to the deprivations of solitary confinement on death row without meaningful review of their placements for years after their death sentences had been vacated. Plaintiffs' appeals from summary judgment rulings for the defendants were consolidated.

On appeal, the Third Circuit established that there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the State's ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence, initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions, is no longer operative. However, because this principle was not clearly established, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

Extended Summary: Craig Williams and Shawn T. Walker ("Plaintiffs") are inmates in the custody of the Pennsylvania Dept of Corrections ("DOC"). Each was sentenced to death and housed on the death row of his respective institution. Eventually, their death sentences were vacated, but several years elapsed before they were resentenced to life without parole and placed in the general population. In the interim, Plaintiffs were kept on death row in solitary confinement, without regular placement reviews to determine if the deprivations of those placements were necessary.

Each Plaintiff brought suit, seeking damages from various DOC officials ("Defendants"). Their suits alleged the officials violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process by continuing to subject them to the deprivations of solitary confinement on death row without meaningful review of their placements after their death sentences had been vacated. Defendants argued that DOC policy required Plaintiffs' continued confinement on death row until they were resentenced to life imprisonment. According to Defendants, this policy only permitted removal from death row when a death sentence had actually been modified. They claimed that the grants of resentencing merely put Plaintiffs' sentences on hold because reimposition of the death penalty was possible. In any event, Defendants asserted they were protected from Plaintiffs' suits by qualified immunity.

Defendants' motions for summary judgment were granted for both cases. Plaintiffs' appeals from those rulings were consolidated. The Third Circuit established there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that prohibits indefinite conditions of solitary confinement but that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because the right had not yet been clearly established. The Court conducted a two-part inquiry. First, it determined whether a right of the Plaintiffs had been violated; and second, it determined whether that right was clearly established when violated such that it would have been clear to a reasonable person that his conduct was unlawful.

With regards to the first inquiry, the Court held that "virtual isolation for almost eight years" in solitary confinement created a protected liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court explained a liberty interest may arise from the Constitution or "from an expectation or interest created by state laws." To rise to the level of a liberty interest, the right alleged must confer "freedom from restraint which . . . imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life."

Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged atypical hardship for several reasons. Plaintiffs' isolation on death row lasted six and eight years after the initial justification for subjecting them to such extreme deprivation, their death sentences, ceased to exist. Moreover, their isolation contrasted sharply with other common forms of solitary confinement because it was indefinite. Plaintiffs' continued confinement on death row after their death sentences were vacated continued for years with no ascertainable date for their release into the general population. The Court noted researchers have found that even a few days in solitary confinement can cause cognitive disturbances. Thus, the conditions Plaintiffs had to endure while awaiting re-sentencing constituted an "atypical . . . hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life."

The Third Circuit also found Plaintiffs sufficiently alleged significant hardship. It explained in detail that the conditions Plaintiffs experienced on death row "differ[ed] significantly from 'routine' prison conditions in Pennsylvania state institutions." For example, Plaintiffs were confined to their respective cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day and ate all meals accompanied only by the emptiness within the walls of their cells, among other hardships. Additionally, the Court again noted research has shown that such conditions can trigger devastating psychological consequences, and that these hardships are stark departures from conditions in the general prison population.

In opposition to the Court's reasoning, Defendants argued that Plaintiffs' continued confinement on death row could not be atypical since the appropriate standard in this case is not the general prison population. Instead, Defendants claimed the metric that should have been applied was either the conditions imposed on inmates eligible for the death penalty, or what Plaintiffs' convictions have "authorized the State to impose." However, the Court found Defendants' argument failed for several reasons. First, the Court explained that the "similar sentence" standard Defendants proposed was inconsistent with Third Circuit precedent. The Court had previously judged the conditions of solitary confinement "in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life" or relative to "'routine' prison conditions." Second, the metric Defendants proposed was unworkable in the context of this case. The Court explained it could not resolve Plaintiffs' claims by reference to "inmates serving similar sentences" because, during the period at issue, Plaintiffs were not serving any sentence whatsoever. Their sentences had been vacated and resentencing had been ordered. Defendants' other metric - what the State is authorized to impose - was also based on a similarly mistaken premise.

Finally, the Court pointed out that the cases Defendants relied on in arguing against Plaintiffs' liberty interest were readily distinguishable from the cases at hand. While those cases held that inmates confined under a death sentence did not have a liberty interest that precludes confinement on death row without regular review, those inmates were all confined pursuant to death sentences that had not been vacated. Accordingly, confinement on death row was not a significant or atypical hardship for them. Rather, it was expressly within the "expected perimeters of the sentence imposed." The Court found that their liberty interests were thus unparalleled to those of inmates with active death sentences that arguably require continued placement on death row.

For these reasons, the Court held that Plaintiffs had a due process liberty interest in avoiding the extreme sensory deprivation and isolation endemic in confinement on death row after their death sentences had been vacated.

The Third Circuit next held that, although the precedent that existed when Defendants continued Plaintiffs' confinement on death row should have suggested caution, it was not sufficient to inform Defendants that their conduct violated clearly established law. Instead, Defendants were merely following a prison policy that required appellants to remain on death row until they were resentenced. The Court concluded that Defendants read the policy as creating a rule that required "prisoners like Williams and Walker, whose death sentences have been vacated but who are still exposed to the death penalty, [to] remain [on death row] until resentenced to something other than death." Thus, Defendants' continued confinement of Plaintiffs on death row resulted from a reasonable interpretation of the policy. According to the Court, Defendants' actions were neither "plainly incompetent" nor a "knowing[] violat[ion of] the law." Defendants should have qualified immunity from suit.

In conclusion, the Third Circuit affirmed the district courts' grants of summary judgment based on qualified immunity in favor of all Defendants and against both Plaintiffs. The Court also stressed that despite their ruling against Plaintiffs, its holding-- that Plaintiffs had a protected liberty interest-- provided "fair and clear warning" that qualified immunity will not bar such claims in the future.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/141469p.pdf

Panel: McKee, Fuentes, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: April 18, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: February 9, 2017

Docket Number: No. 14-1469

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Brooke A. Hutchins

Counsel: James J. Bilsborrow, Esq., Counsel for Appellants; John G. Knorr III, Kemal A. Mericli, Esq., Randall J. Henzes, Esq., and Claudia M. Tesoro, Esq., Counsel for Appellees

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge McKee

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 02/14/2017 01:51 PM     3rd Circuit  

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