Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Ninth Circuit Says Qualified Immunity Warranted for Comb-Binding Denial

On December 2, 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a prison librarian was entitled to qualified immunity for denying a prisoner’s request to comb-bind his legal papers.

Oregon prisoner Frank Phillips intended to file a petition for writ of certiorari, challenging his conviction in the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition was due on or before June 18, 2001.

On June 8, Phillips was called to the library to bind his petition but the comb-binding machine was not available. On June 11, 2001, Phillips asked to be rescheduled to use the binder. He did not mention his deadline.

Prison librarian Lynn Hust received Phillips’ request on June 13, 2001, and on June 18, the filing deadline, she denied Phillips’ request to use the machine. On June 25, 2001, Hust’s supervisor granted Phillips’ request; he comb-bound the petition four days later, but the Supreme Court rejected it as being “out of time.”

Phillips sued Hust in federal court, alleging that she denied him access to the courts when she denied him access to the comb-binding machine. The district court granted summary judgment to Phillips. See: Phillips v. Hust, 338 F.Supp.2d 1148 (D.Or. 2004) [PLN, Apr. 2006, p.35]. Following a bench trial, the court awarded Phillips compensatory damages of $1,500. Prison officials paid him $1,250 to settle a separate retaliation claim.

Hust appealed, and “the panel majority concluded that Hust’s actions denied Phillips his right of access to the courts and that Hust was not entitled to qualified immunity because the right was clearly established at the time Hust acted.” See: Phillips v. Hust, 477 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2007). Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain dissented.

Hust sought rehearing en banc, which was denied by the full court. However, Chief Judge Kozinski, joined by nine other judges, dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc. See: Phillips v. Hust, 507 F.3d 1171 (9th Cir. 2007). Hust then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court; the Court granted the petition, vacated the panel opinion and remanded for reconsideration in light of Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct 808 (2009) [PLN, Sept. 2009, p.42].

In Pearson, “the Court abandoned the rigid two-step order of battle” required by Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) in qualified immunity cases. “The Court explained that ‘while the sequence set forth there is often appropriate, it should no longer be regarded as mandatory.’”

Judge O’Scannlain issued the unanimous Ninth Circuit panel decision on remand. Citing Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), the appellate court noted that “the conferral of a capability to bring a non-frivolous legal action does not require states to turn prisoners into litigating machines.” Prisoners have a right to meaningful, but not ideal access to the courts. Therefore, “for Phillips to prevail, he must show that use of the comb-binding machine was necessary to allow him ‘meaningful access’ to the courts.”

Exercising its newfound authority under Pearson, the Court of Appeals did “not decide whether Hust’s actions violated Phillips’s constitutional rights.” It proceeded, instead, “directly to ask whether Hust is entitled to qualified immunity.” The Ninth Circuit concluded with no difficulty that Hust was so entitled, given “the Supreme Court’s flexible rules for pro se filings, which do not require and perhaps do not even permit comb-binding.”

The appellate court found that Hust’s “view that comb-binding was not required was reasonable, as the Supreme Court’s flexible rules make plain.” Given “the general tenor” of Lewis, “it was ‘objectively legally reasonable’... for Hust to conclude that her denial of access to the comb-binding machine would not hinder Phillips’s ‘capability’ to file his petition.”

Finally, since Phillips did not notify Hust of the impending due date for his petition, “the delay in ... responding to Phillips’s request was not unreasonable.” The Ninth Circuit remanded with instructions to grant Hust’s motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. See: Phillips v. Hust, 588 F.3d 652 (9th Cir. 2009).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Phillips v. Hust

Phillips v. Hust

Phillips v. Hust

Phillips v. Hust