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Ninth Circuit: Prisoner’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment Classification Claims Fail Sandin Test

by John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, applying the “atypical and significant hardship” test of Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), affirmed a U.S. District Court’s (N.D. Cal.) ruling that denied relief from an allegedly unconstitutional prison classification decision. The Court also affirmed the denial of claims regarding participation in an in-house prison publication, but remanded on an unrelated First Amendment claim.

James Myron, a prisoner at Salinas Valley State Prison, raised six complaints related to “oppressive conditions” of confinement. The district court initially dismissed two of the claims because Myron had demonstrated no physical injury resulting from “overcrowding.”

In the published portion of its ruling, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of Myron’s complaint regard-ing his restrictively high security classification level, holding that no liberty interest attached to that classification. This Fourteenth Amendment-based finding was predicated upon the standard in Sandin v. Conner that requires proof of condi-tions amounting to “atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”

Here, the appellate court found that Myron’s newly-assigned Level IV security housing was not more onerous than his prior Level III housing. Nor did the Court accept Myron’s Eighth Amendment argument, holding that Level IV classification per se did not “inflict pain.”

Of interest to PLN readers, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling that Myron had no protectable liberty in-terest when prison officials denied him participation in the publication and distribution of a prison newspaper. In this in-stance, the participation “right” was set forth in California prison regulation 15 CCR § 3250, which vests unfettered discre-tionary approval by the warden to produce such in-house publications. However, applying Sandin again, the appellate court readily found that intervention in that aspect of the day-to-day management of prisons “does not present the type of atypical significant deprivation in which a State might conceivably create a liberty interest.”

In a separate unpublished portion of the ruling, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Myron’s challenge to the adequacy of the prison grievance system, finding that there is no constitutional right to an effective grievance system. Further, the Ninth Circuit relied on Jones v. N.C. Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119 (1977), to hold that Myron had no constitutionally protected right to form a political action committee in prison. Next, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Myron’s limited law library access hours during a lockdown did not impinge upon a federally protected liberty interest, as California prison regulation 15 CCR § 3120(a) gave the warden discretion in setting library access.

Finally, the Court found meritorious Myron’s allegation that he was being unconstitutionally denied receipt of magazines and newspapers absent the defendants demonstrating a legitimate penological interest in imposing such restrictions. The Ninth Circuit relied upon Crofton v. Roe, 170 F.3d 957 (9th Cir. 1999) [prisoners may re-ceive gift publications] in reversing and remanding the district court’s earlier blanket dismissal of Myron’s law-suit. See: Myron v. Terhune, 225 Fed.Appx. 434 (9th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) and 476 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied [withdrawing and superseding opinion at 457 F.3d 996 (9th Cir. 2006)].

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Related legal cases

Myron v. Terhune

Myron v. Terhune