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Denial of Qualified Immunity Reversed in Michigan Prison Wage Suit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a district court’s denial of qualified immunity for Michigan prison officials accused of violating a prisoner’s due process rights.

In April of 2001, David Pickelhaupt was given a physical plant maintenance job at the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) North Ryan Facility (NRF). Ava Roby, the Classification Director at the time, set Pickelhaupt’s wages at $3.04 per day because he had a state certified mechanics license, a certificate of completion in auto mechanics from a local community college and over 1,000 hours of training.

In April 2005 a new Classification Director, Montina Malone, reduced Pickelhaupt’s wages to $1.77 a day, concluding that he was not entitled to the higher pay rate because he was not using his mechanics license in the course of his prison job. This reduction occurred without any advance notice or a hearing.

Pickelhaupt sued in 2005 alleging the reduction in his wage without advance notice or a hearing violated due process. The district court denied summary judgment in part, holding genuine issues of material fact remained in dispute regarding whether the MDOC’s pay policies created a protected liberty interest. The defendants took an interlocutory appeal.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), courts looked to the language of prison regulations in determining whether a particular regulation created a protected liberty interest. Sandin shifted this inquiry to an approach focused on “the nature of the deprivation,” and in particular, whether it imposes an “atypical and significant hardship…in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.” Id. at 484.

Post Sandin, the circuits have been split on whether Sandin also applies to property interest claims. The Second and Fifth Circuit have held that it does not, the Seventh and Tenth Circuit have held that it does. The Sixth and Ninth Circuits, on the other hand, have suggested, but not directly held, that Sandin does not apply to property claims.

Given the uncertainty of the law on the issue, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court erred in denying qualified immunity for the defendants. “[I]t was not clearly established in 2005 that Pickelhaupt had a constitutionally protected property interest in a prison job at a set wage based on state regulations,” the court wrote.

In light of the court’s resolution of the qualified immunity issue, the court declined to decide whether Sandin applies to protected property interests, leaving the issue for another day. By refusing to address the merits of the claim it is difficult to determine how the law will become “clearly established” if the courts won’t rule on the matter. This decision is unpublished. On October 4, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review to resolve the circuit split. See: Pickelhaupt v. Jackson, 364 Fed.Appx. 221 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Pickelhaupt v. Jackson