United States District Court, D. New Jersey
August 9, 2005.
MELVIN WILLIAMS and TIANEE WILLIAMS, Plaintiffs,
STEVE FRANCISCO and PLAINFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BISSELL, Chief Judge, District
This matter comes before the Court on its Order to Show Cause
as to whether this action should or should not be dismissed, in
whole or in part, on the grounds of the defenses of absolute
and/or qualified immunity asserted by the Defendants. This Court
has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
FACTS & BACKGROUND
Plaintiffs Melvin and Tianee Williams filed a Complaint in 1998
which alleged that, subsequent to their arrest, the Defendant
Steven Francisco revealed Plaintiffs' HIV positive status to
administrators of the Union County Jail who then allowed that
information to spread through the institution. Plaintiffs had
voluntarily provided that information to Officer Francisco. On
September 4, 2002, the undersigned sent a letter-memorandum to
Mr. Williams and Nia H. Gill, Esq., counsel for Defendants. This
memorandum requested that Ms. Gill address the impact of Doe v.
Delie, 257 F.3d 309 (3d Cir. 2001), on the case at bar. This
Court specifically asked the Defendants to address the following
questions: (1) do Defendants assert that the right to privacy of
HIV status was not clearly established as of December 2, 1997;
(2) do Defendants assert that advice regarding Plaintiffs' HIV
status at the initial processing of these Plaintiffs served
legitimate penological concerns which, on balance, defeat
Plaintiffs' claims in this matter; and (3) what is the
significance, if any, of the fact that Plaintiffs voluntarily
revealed their HIV status to Officer Francisco at the time of
their arrest? The Defendants did not file or submit a response to
this Court's September 4th memorandum.
On June 29, 2005, this case came before the Court on a Notice of Call for Dismissal pursuant to Local Civil Rule
41.1(a). At this hearing, Plaintiffs indicated that they wished
to continue to prosecute this action. Accordingly, this Court
entered an Order to Show Cause as to whether this action should
or should not be dismissed, in whole or in part, on the grounds
of the defenses of absolute and/or qualified immunity asserted by
the Defendants. Defendants submitted a brief in support of the
defense of qualified immunity. Plaintiffs submitted no papers on
or before August 3, 2005, the date they were due. Counsel for the
Defendants appeared for oral argument on August 8, 2005. Although
advised in advance that an appearance was expected on that date,
Plaintiffs did not appear; therefore no oral argument ensued.
A. Doe v. Delie
The Third Circuit's decision in Doe v. Delie, 257 F.3d 309
(3d Cir. 2001), deserves significant consideration in the case at
In Delie, an HIV-positive former inmate of the Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming
that prison practices violated his right to medical privacy under
the Fourteenth Amendment and under the Pennsylvania
Confidentiality of HIV-Related Information Act, 35 P.S. § 7601
et seq. Delie, 257 F.3d 309, at 311. The district court
granted defendants' motions to dismiss the claims on the basis of
qualified immunity. Although its reasoning differed from that of
the district court, the Third Circuit agreed that the defendants
were entitled to qualified immunity. Id. The Third Circuit held
that the Fourteenth Amendment protects an inmate's right to
medical privacy, subject to legitimate penological interests;
however, because this right was not clearly established at the
time of the alleged conduct, the Court affirmed the dismissal of
the complaint. Id.
"When the defendant in a § 1983 action claims qualified
immunity, a court must first determine if the plaintiff's
allegations are sufficient to establish the violation of a
federal constitutional or statutory right." Id. at 314. "If the
plaintiff's allegations meet this threshold, a court must next
determine whether the right that the defendant's conduct
allegedly violated was a clearly established one, about which a
reasonable person would have known." Id. A defendant is
entitled to qualified immunity and dismissal of the case if the
plaintiff's allegations fail to satisfy either inquiry. Id.
Under that framework, the Third Circuit determined that an
HIV-positive inmate has a right to privacy in his medical
information, however, this right was not clearly established at
the time of the alleged violations in 1995. Id. at 315.
The Third Circuit stated that "[i]t is beyond question that information about one's HIV-positive status is information of the
most personal kind and that an individual has an interest in
protecting against the dissemination of such information." Id.
at 317. Moreover, the Court held that a prisoner's right to
privacy in this medical information "is not fundamentally
inconsistent with incarceration." Id. With regard to the second
prong of the qualified immunity analysis, the Court stated that
"qualified immunity applies if `reasonable officials in the
defendants' position at the relevant time could have believed, in
light of what was in the decided case law, that their conduct
would be lawful'." Id. at 318 (quoting Good v. Dauphin County
Social Servs. for Children & Youth, 891 F.2d 1087, 1092 (3d Cir.
1989)). After reviewing the relevant case law, the Court stated:
Based on the foregoing, we cannot conclude that the
cited authorities, individually or in combination,
clearly established an inmate's constitutional right
to privacy in his medical information. Governmental
officials must stay abreast of constitutional
developments, but they are not expected to predict
the future course of constitutional law. We conclude
that the contours of defendants' legal obligations
under the Constitution were not sufficiently clear in
1995 that a reasonable prison official would
understand that the non-consensual disclosure of a
prisoner's HIV status violates the Constitution.
Id. at 322 (citing Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603
, 617 (1999))
(internal citations omitted).
The Court further concluded that "[a]lthough the exact boundaries of such a right have yet to be established, we hold
today that prison inmates retain a Fourteenth Amendment
substantive due process right to privacy in their medical
information." Id. at 323.
B. Application of Doe v. Delie
The allegations in the case at bar stem from the Plaintiffs'
arrest on December 2, 1997. As the Third Circuit stated in
Delie, as of 1995, an inmate's constitutional right to privacy
in his medical information was not clearly established. After a
thorough analysis of circuit and district court opinions decided
between 1995 and 1997, this Court determines that right was also
not clearly established at the time of the Plaintiffs' arrest in
December of 1997. Accordingly, this Court concludes that the
contours of defendants' legal obligations under the Constitution
were not sufficiently clear in 1997 "that a reasonable prison
official would understand that the non-consensual disclosure of a
prisoner's HIV status violates the Constitution." Delie, at
C. Plaintiffs' Application for Pro Bono Counsel
The Court has considered once again the question of whether
Plaintiffs need the assistance of pro bono counsel,
particularly in addressing qualified immunity. The Court believes that its
thorough research of the well-defined issues regarding this
defense has amply protected the Plaintiffs' interests, and that
efforts of pro bono counsel on their behalf would not affect
the result stated above. Accordingly, the Court declines to
appoint pro bono counsel.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court declines to appoint pro
bono counsel to represent the Plaintiffs and rules that the
Defendants have established, as a matter of law, their defense of
qualified immunity. Therefore, this action is dismissed in its
entirety, with prejudice, but without costs in light of
Plaintiffs in forma pauperis status.