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Rodney Burns v. Pa Department of Corrections; Sci - Graterford; *Secretary

April 20, 2011


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Civ. No. 2:05-CV-03462-BMS) District Judge: Hon. Berle M. Schiller

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKEE, Chief Judge.


*(Pursuant to Rule 43(c), Fed. R. App. P.)

Argued September 23, 2010

Before: McKEE, Chief Circuit Judge, AMBRO and CHAGARES, Circuit Judges


Rodney Burns appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of all defendants in the suit he brought against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (―DOC‖) and several Department employees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm in part and reverse in part.*fn1

I. Facts and Procedural History

The background of this dispute has been described in detail by both this court and the district court. See Burns v. Penn. Dept. of Corr., 544 F.3d 279 (3d Cir. 2008) (―Burns 1‖); Burns v. Penn. Dept. of Corr., 2009 WL 1475274 (E.D.Pa. May 26, 2009); and Burns v. Penn. Dept. of Corr., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8679, (E.D. Pa. Feb. 6, 2007).

Accordingly, we will only set forth the facts that are relevant to this appeal.

A. The Alleged Misconduct

On February 14, 2005, a corrections officer at the State Correctional Institute at Graterford discovered that inmate Charles Mobley had burns on his face that had been caused by another inmate throwing scalding water on him four days earlier. Although Mobley did not know the assailant, he initially said that the inmate who assaulted him occupied cell BA-1022. One of the two occupants of that cell, Ricky Holmes, was placed in administrative custody during the investigation that followed.

SCI Graterford has a special hotline phone number that is given to a select number of inmates who can use it to provide confidential information to corrections officials. Two callers used the hotline to report that Burns, and not Holmes, was responsible for the assault. Defendant Thomas Dohman, Captain of Security at SCI Graterford, believed this information to be credible because he recognized the voices and knew that the callers had previously provided reliable information. Dohman therefore concluded that Mobley had mistakenly identified Holmes instead of Burns because they were similar in appearance and because Mobley, an older inmate, was ―semi-coherent‖ at times, making it plausible that his identification was simply wrong.

Burns claims that when Dohman subsequently interviewed him, Dohman told him that the incident had been recorded on a video surveillance camera and that the videotape showed Burns committing the assault. Dohman disputes this account. He insists that the assault was not recorded and that he never told Burns otherwise.

Although Burns denied any involvement, Dohman issued a misconduct report charging Burns with assaulting Mobley. That report stated that the charges were based on statements from two reliable confidential informants who had witnessed the assault as well as information from other inmates given to another corrections officer, Lt. Abdul Ansari.

B. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Disciplinary Scheme

The Pennsylvania Administrative Code establishes a baseline policy for prisons to manage disciplinary infractions. See generally 37 Pa. Code § 93.10. As part of that policy, prisons must develop ―[w]ritten procedures which conform to established principles of law for inmate discipline‖ that include, at minimum, ―[w]ritten notice of charges,‖ a ―[h]earing before an impartial hearing examiner,‖ an ―[o]pportunity for the inmate to tell his story and to present relevant evidence,‖ ―[a]ssistance from an inmate or staff member at the hearing if the inmate is unable to collect and present evidence effectively,‖ a ―[w]ritten statement of the decision and reasoning of the hearing body, based upon the preponderance of the evidence,‖ and an ―[o]pportunit[y] to appeal the misconduct decision in accordance with procedures in the Department of Corrections Inmate Handbook.‖ Id.

The Administrative Code also lists types of sanctions that may be imposed if an inmate is convicted of a disciplinary infraction. 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(a). Depending on the type of misconduct, those sanctions include ―[c]hange of cell assignment, including placement in the restricted housing unit or restrictive confinement in a general population cell [,]‖ ―[s]uspension of privileges for a specified period of time[,]‖ and ―[c]hange, suspension or removal from job.‖ Id.

Additionally, an inmate found guilty of misconduct can be sanctioned for ―[p]ayment of the fair value of property lost or destroyed or for expenses incurred as a result of the misconduct.‖ Id. One type of ―expenses‖ that can be ―incur[ed] as a result of the misconduct‖ is medical expenses. The Pennsylvania Administrative Code also establishes regulations for medical treatment of prisoners. See generally 37 Pa. Code § 93.12. While the Department of Corrections provides some prisoner medical services for free, other medical services incur a charge. The Administrative Code also provides that ―[t]he Department will charge a fee to aninmate for any of the following . . . (4) Medical service provided to another inmate as a result of assaultive conduct engaged in by an inmate to be charged the fee.‖ 37 Pa. Code § 93.12(c). As a result, prisoners who are found guilty of assaults in which the victim needs medical treatment may be required to pay the cost of the treatment.

C. Burns' Disciplinary Hearing

After Dohman issued the misconduct report, Burns responded by filing timely requests to call Mobley as a witness at his disciplinary hearing and to present the purported videotape of the incident.*fn2 Both requests were consistent with the prison's disciplinary procedures.

Burns renewed his request for the production of the videotape when his disciplinary hearing began. Mary Canino, the hearing officer, responded by continuing the hearing to investigate Burns' request. Five days later, Canino conducted an in camera proceeding during which Dohman told Canino that the incident had not been recorded. However, Canino did not attempt to view the relevant tapes in order to resolve the conflict between that representation and Burns' statement that Dohman had told him that the incident had been recorded.*fn3 Dohman also testified about the confidential informants during the in camera proceeding. However, he did not reveal their names to Canino, and Canino did not receive any direct testimony from them, either in writing or in person. Canino also met with Mobley in camera, but he refused to testify either in camera or at the disciplinary hearing. Canino accepted Mobley's refusal to testify, and did not inquire into why Mobley refused.*fn4

Canino then reconvened the hearing with Burns present. She informed Burns that Mobley had refused to testify and that there was no videotape of the incident. She also informed Burns that she found the information from the confidential informants credible and reliable. She then found Burns guilty of the assault. As a result, she imposed the following sanctions: 180 days of disciplinary confinement in a restricted housing unit (―RHU‖), and loss of his prison job. Canino also assessed Burns' prison account for the amount of Mobley's medical expenses resulting from the assault. Despite the assessment, prison administrators did not deduct any part of Mobley's medical expenses from Burns' inmate account. Nevertheless, the threat of assessment remained for several years, and that continuing threat was the initial focus of this suit.

D. Subsequent Procedural History

After his administrative appeals were unsuccessful, Burns filed this pro se § 1983 action in the district court claiming that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and certain officials violated his due process rights during the prison's disciplinary proceedings when it assessed his prison account.*fn5 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all counts after concluding that the assessment of Burns' account was not a sufficient liberty or property interest to support a claim under § 1983.

Burns appealed that judgment, and we reversed and remanded.*fn6 We held that ―the Department of Corrections' assessment of Burns' institutional account constituted the deprivation of a protected property interest for purposes of procedural due process‖ and ―[t]hat deprivation [was]sufficient to trigger the protections of the Due Process Clause.‖ Burns, 544 F.3d at 291. However, we remanded the case so that the district court could determine what process Burns was due and whether the disciplinary hearing described above satisfied the procedural protections Burns was entitled to under the Due Process Clause. If the district court found that due process was violated, the question of remedies also needed to be addressed.

On remand, the district court found that Burns' due process rights had been violated by the hearing officer's failure to independently evaluate the credibility of the confidential informants, but it did not find that Burns' procedural due process rights were violated by the hearing officer's refusal to compel Mobley's testimony or by her failure to view the alleged videotape. Despite finding a due process violation, the court found that the state officials were protected by qualified immunity and that Burns could therefore not recover damages from them. Burns v. PA Dept. of Corr., 2009 WL 1475274, *5 (E.D. Pa. May 26, 2009). The court did, however, grant Burns' request for a declaration that his prison account could not be assessed. The district court denied all of Burns' other requests for injunctive relief.

Burns now argues that his right to due process was also violated by the hearing officer's failure to compel Mobley to testify as well as her failure to view the videotape, that the prison officials are not entitled to qualified immunity, and that the district court erred in denying his requests for relief for the harms he suffered as a result of the violation of due process.

II. Standards of Review

―We review an award of summary judgment de novo, applying the same test on review that the District Court should have applied.‖ MBIA Ins. Corp. v. Royal Indem. Co., 426 F.3d 204, 209 (3d Cir. 2005). On summary judgment, we review ―the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor.‖ Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir. 1994). We review the district court's grant of qualified immunity de novo as it raises a purely legal issue. Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 279 (3d Cir. 2002).

We generally review a district court's grant of relief for abuse of discretion, but ―we must exercise a plenary review of the trial court's choice and interpretation of legal precepts and its application of those precepts to the historical facts.‖ Universal ...

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