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No Qualified Immunity for Inadequate Iowa Disciplinary Notice

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s denial of qualified immunity to prison officials on an Iowa prisoner’s inadequate disciplinary notice claim.

Iowa prisoner William Dible was granted work release in April 2003, and placed at a residential treatment facility. He “was privileged to use and automobile, work five days per week, attend rehabilitation sessions, take furloughs, and have four hours of free time each day.”

On July 22, 2003, Dible was issued a disciplinary notice alleging, based on confidential information, that he threatened and choked a citizen. “It did not identify the alleged victim, name any witnesses, or specify the date or location of the alleged assault.” Dible requested time to gather evidence and assistance from staff. He also requested “a lawyer, witnesses and statements, which Dible was willing to receive with the confidential information redacted.”

Five days later, Dible was found guilty of assault and making threats, based upon confidential information. He “was reclassified, lost 60 days of good time credit and his work-release status.”

Dible brought suit in federal court, alleging that he was denied due process of law when the disciplinary notice failed to contain adequate information, including the name of the alleged victim, a general time, and/or general location. These deficiencies precluded him from defending himself in a meaningful manner.

Prison officials moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. Dible filed a cross motion for summary judgment on the merits. “The district court denied qualified immunity and granted Dible’s cross motion, leaving damages as the sole issue for trial.” Prison officials immediately sought an interlocutory appeal of the denial of qualified immunity.

Under the first qualified immunity prong, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the district court did not err in finding that the disciplinary notice failed to comport with due process. “The written notice must be adequate to enable the accused prisoner to ‘marshal the facts and prepare a defense.’” Moreover, “to prevent arbitrary deprivations, the notice should spell out ‘more than a conclusory charge; an inmate must receive notice of at least some specific facts underlying the accusation.’…If known, prison officials should provide general information about the date, place, and nature of the alleged misconduct.” In Dible’s case, “under the terms of the notice, the incident could have occurred any time during the three months he was at the Sioux City facility, or even during the nine years he was incarcerated in Iowa. As a prisoner with work-release status, the class of potential victims (or false accusers) was exceedingly large. The record does not disclose any reasons why specific facts were not included in the disciplinary notice.”

Turning to the second qualified immunity prong, the court found that Dible’s constitutional right to adequate disciplinary notice had been clearly established since the 1974 Supreme Court opinion in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). “Twenty-nine years is enough time that ‘a reasonably competent public official should know the law governing his conduct.’” Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of qualified immunity. See: Dible v. Scholl, 506 F.3d 1106 (8th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Dible v. Scholl