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Forced Work in Dangerous Washington Prison Job Conditions States Eighth Amendment Claim

by John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that known dangerous prison working conditions can give rise to an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claim, even where the prisoner ?volunteered? for the job. The court also held that the supervising prison official was not entitled to qualified immunity after he ordered the prisoner to continue working on the known dangerously defective prison equipment.

Steven Morgan was incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington, where every prisoner is required by law to work. However, one can volunteer for ?choice? higher-paying jobs, and Morgan had thus gained a job in the prison print shop. In 2003, Morgan told his supervisor, Tom Canady, that his printing press was seriously malfunctioning, having bucked and nearly torn off two of his fingers. Canady, anxious to complete a print job, nonetheless ordered Morgan to continue the press run but to ?be very careful.? Shortly thereafter the press caught Morgan?s hand and tore off his right thumb. He sued Canady and other prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming Eighth Amendment violations for cruel and unusual punishment and Fourteenth Amendment violations for compelling him to work under dangerous conditions.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming qualified immunity. The district court (U.S.D.C., W.D. Wash.) granted summary judgment for all defendants except Canady. Canady took an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit, solely on the qualified immunity ruling. The court reviewed the ruling de novo, using the two-prong test from Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) to determine if the alleged conduct violated Morgan?s constitutional rights, and if so, if Canady was on notice that his conduct was thus unconstitutional.

As to the first prong, the court found the working conditions ?objectively, sufficiently serious? and that Canady?s orders were deliberately indifferent to Morgan?s safety. Canady defended by claiming that because Morgan worked in the print shop ?at his own choice,? it was impossible to conclude that he had been ?compelled? to perform labor endangering him. Morgan successfully rebutted that because he was lawfully required to work, his choice of job did not turn that employment into a voluntary act. Thus, Morgan did not waive his Eighth or Fourteenth Amendment rights by taking the job. Canady continued to argue that Morgan could have simply refused to work, resigned his job, or filed a grievance. The court recognized that refusal of a direct order is punishable, and that the question of whether Morgan had any viable options was a disputed material fact issue not reviewable in a summary judgment motion.

As to the second prong, whether the asserted right was clearly established at the time, Canady posited that the question had been addressed with mixed results in several circuits. But the court found in-circuit support in Osolinski v. Kane, 92 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 1996). Like the current case, Osolinski involved a prisoner?s work supervisor ordering the prisoner to continue working with known defective equipment. Therefore, there was sufficient precedent putting Canady on notice that his actions would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court?s denial of Canady?s qualified immunity-based summary judgment motion and remanded for further proceedings. See: Morgan v. Morgensen, 465 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Morgan v. Morgensen