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Prison Records Officer Entitled to Qualified Immunity; No Evidence of Deliberate Indifference to Sentencing Errors

On April 22, 2010, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Pennsylvania prison records officer was entitled to qualified immunity for a prisoner allegedly being confined 10 months beyond his maximum term of imprisonment.

On August 11, 1992, Miguel Montanez was sentenced to 60 months in prison with a 30-month minimum. Under Pennsylvania law a prisoner may be paroled after expiration of the minimum sentence. Montanez’s sentence began on July 23, 1992 and was to expire on July 23, 1997. However, soon after his minimum sentence expired, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole (Board) paroled Montanez on January 28, 1995.

Montanez was arrested on numerous state sex offenses on February 9, 1996. He was found guilty of those charges and on April 30, 1996 was again sentenced to a 60-month maximum with a 30-month minimum. He appealed his conviction on May 24, 1996.
On July 29, 1996, the Board found Montanez to be a convicted and technical parole violator. It imposed a 36-month sanction for the new crime and a concurrent 6-month sanction for a technical violation.

Montanez finally pleaded guilty to the 1996 criminal charges on June 9, 1997 and was again sentenced to 60 months with a 30-month minimum, but the judgment did not indicate he was entitled to credit for time served while awaiting sentence.

On November 26, 1997, the Board rescinded the 36-month sanction but sustained the 6-month sanction. The Board “noted that the case was retroactively closed effective July 23, 1997, the maximum release date on the” 1992 conviction.

On May 22, 2001, Montanez wrote to Pat Thompson, a Records Specialist for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC), seeking information about his commitment credit. Thompson informed Montanez that on February 8, 2001 she had sent a letter to the 1997 sentencing judge regarding his commitment credit.

Montanez was eventually credited with 30 days – five days between his 1996 arrest and the Board’s detainer, and 25 days between the 1996 conviction and his appeal. Thompson and her supervisors soon realized, however, that Montanez was entitled to full credit for time served between his February 9, 1996 arrest and June 9, 1997 sentencing. With this credit, Montanez had served the maximum term of imprisonment and was released on December 15, 2001. He believed, however, that he should have been released in February 2001.

On October 6, 2005, Montanez sued Thompson and several other defendants in federal court, alleging that they were deliberately indifferent to resolving his sentence calculation errors in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Thompson moved to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion and Thompson then moved for summary judgment, again based on qualified immunity. The court denied the motion and Thompson filed an interlocutory appeal.

The Third Circuit exercised jurisdiction over Thompson’s appeal, finding that it could resolve the matter on a purely legal issue: “whether Thompson is entitled to qualified immunity under the ‘clearly established’ prong of Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001).”

“Considering the facts adopted by the District Court, it would seem unlikely that Montanez could show he was held beyond his maximum release date,” the Third Circuit concluded. Additionally, “there are no facts in the record, either identified by the District Court or found by our own review, suggesting that Thompson ignored Montanez’s claims or even failed to follow established DOC policy during her involvement with the investigation of Montanez’s claims.”

“The District Court did not identify any facts that would suggest Thompson’s actions were in any way responsible for the delay in releasing Montanez,” the appellate court continued. “As such, the court did not believe that “the established law … would have put Thompson on notice that her conduct was clearly unlawful; [thus] summary judgment based on qualified immunity is appropriate.”

The Court of Appeals noted that Montanez also raised a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim which had not been addressed by the lower court or briefed by the parties on appeal. The case was remanded to the district court for review of his due process claim. See: Montanez v. Thompson, 603 F.3d 243 (3d Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Montanez v. Thompson