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Ineffective Attempts to Protect Texas Prisoner Were Sufficient

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s denial of summary judgment to prison officials who had failed to safeguard a Texas state prisoner, saying their ineffective attempts to protect him were sufficient.

Gregory Moore was incarcerated at the Beto Unit for sex offenses when a guard used the state’s sex offender registry to publish a list of prisoners who had been convicted of sex crimes, and urged reprisals against them. Beto guards brought copies of the list to work and distributed it to prisoners. Multiple assaults against sex offenders at the facility followed, resulting in a month-long lockdown.

During the lockdown, Moore received death threats and filed a life endangerment claim stating that a gang of prisoners had initiated a plan to “eliminate all sex offenders on the Beto Unit,” and that two named prisoners were part of the group. He also said he had overheard threats specifically directed against him. Moore was attacked by one of the prisoners he had identified about three months later. Before then, he was in and out of transient lockdown housing three times while four life endangerment claims were investigated. He was twice recommended for transfer by Unit Classification Committees that included Major Charles D. Lightfoot. Those recommendations were overruled by State Classification Committee member J. P. Guyton.

Five prisoners believed to be in the group planning the assaults, including the ringleader and one other prisoner named by Moore, were transferred from Beto. The other prisoner identified by Moore remained at the facility. Moore was allegedly coerced into returning to general population, whereupon that prisoner assaulted him. Moore filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials had failed to protect him. The defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court denied. They then filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Fifth Circuit held that the defendants’ actions may have been a violation of Moore’s Eighth Amendment rights, but were objectively reasonable because they returned him to general population only after transferring five threatening prisoners, including the alleged gang leader. A reasonable prison official would not have known that was insufficient to protect Moore from assault. Therefore, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment and remanded with instructions to enter an order dismissing the case. See: Moore v. Lightfoot, 286 Fed.Appx. 844 (5th Cir. 2008).

Based upon the appellate ruling, the district court dismissed Moore’s case on remand. Moore moved for reconsideration, arguing that he still had valid claims against two defendants who “did not assert qualified immunity in their motion for summary judgment ....” The court denied Moore’s motion, holding that it lacked the power to act on the motion given that dismissal of his case was mandated by the Court of Appeals. “While Moore appears to argue that the Fifth Circuit’s deci-sion was incorrect and that the Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, that is not a determination which the district court can make.”

Moore appealed from that order, but the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court on November 4, 2009, finding that he had “presented no evidence or argument supporting reconsideration of the issue.” See: Moore v. Cockrell, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 24235.

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Related legal cases

Moore v. Cockrell

Moore v. Lightfoot