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Fifth Circuit Reverses $250,000 Award to Mississippi Prisoner Held too Long

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Christopher B. Epps, the Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC), was entitled to qualified immunity after a prisoner was held beyond the date he was supposed to be released.

Will Terrance Porter, a former Mississippi state prisoner, was convicted of breaking into a car and sentenced to five years. The trial court suspended four years of the sentence and ordered that he serve one year in an Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) run by the MDOC, which included house arrest.

While under house arrest Porter was arrested on suspicion of a misdemeanor. As a result, an ISP officer issued a Rule Violation Report and Porter was taken to an MDOC facility, where a disciplinary hearing officer determined he had violated the terms of his ISP. The MDOC’s records department decided that, since Porter’s ISP had been revoked, he was not entitled to have the last four years of his sentence suspended. After appealing the disciplinary action through the MDOC’s three-step grievance procedure, Porter filed a motion for post-conviction relief in state court.

The court found the MDOC had no authority to reinstate a suspended sentence, and ordered Porter, who by then had been incarcerated for 27 months, released immediately.

Porter subsequently filed a civil rights suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that he had been falsely imprisoned. After all of the defendants except Epps were dismissed, the case went to trial. The jury was instructed on the issue of qualified immunity, but nonetheless found against Epps and awarded Porter $250,000 in damages.
The district court denied Epps’ motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, and he appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted there was a clearly established right to timely release from prison, but held Epps was entitled to qualified immunity if his actions were not objectively unreasonable. Porter had claimed that Epps was liable for failing to promulgate adequate policies in the MDOC’s records department, failing to train and supervise records department employees and denying Porter’s third-step grievance appeal. The appellate court observed that this appeared to be an isolated incident as Porter had not shown any other case of similar delayed release. Therefore, the records department policies were not objectively unreasonable.

Regarding the training and supervision of records department staff, Epps had brought in a lawyer to train the employees in how to interpret sentencing orders and had created a career ladder based, in part, on training. Thus, the error in Porter’s case was insufficient to prove objective unreasonableness in training and supervision.

The Fifth Circuit also noted that although the third-step grievance answer bore Epps’ name and signature, trial testimony proved that he had delegated the responsibility for evaluating third-step grievances to a deputy commissioner who signed Epps’ name. Since Epps was not personally involved in the denial of Porter’s third-step grievance, he could not be held liable in that regard.

Finally, the Court of Appeals found that the MDOC’s interpretation of the state court’s sentencing order was objectively reasonable, even though “such an interpretation was incorrect.” Therefore, Epps was entitled to qualified immunity and the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and the $250,000 jury award. See: Porter v. Epps, 659 F.3d 440 (5th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Porter v. Epps