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Second Circuit Rules No Property Interest in Prison Industries Job, Joining Third, Fifth and Seventh Circuits

In an unpublished opinion, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that federal prisoners do not have a protected property interest in a UNICOR job assignment. The court also affirmed the dismissal for non-exhaustion.

Neil Johnson was a prisoner at the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, where he worked as a clerk for Federal Prison Industries, Inc., (UNICOR). One of Johnson's primary tasks was typing but his "skills were very rusty" when he was hired, so, Johnson claimed, he practiced typing daily.

On January 9, 2004, Johnson typed a letter to his wife using various fonts and pitches, as "typing practice." He printed and mailed the letter to his wife but prison officials intercepted the letter. On January 12, 2004, supervisor Michael Rowley terminated Johnson's employment for using UNICOR equipment to type the letter to his wife.

Johnson brought federal suit, alleging that he was denied due process when he was terminated. He also alleged that he was terminated due to Rowley's personal animus towards members of the Islamic Faith, in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The district court granted Rowley's motion to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(1) and 12(c).

The Second Circuit noted that it had "never addressed whether a federal prisoner has a protected property interest in" a "UNICOR job assignment," but observed that the Third, Fifth and Seventh Circuits "have held that there is no property interest in a federal prisoner's UNICOR job assignment." See: James v. Quinlan, 866 F2d 627, 629-30 (3d Cir. 1989); Bulger v. US Bureau of Prisons, 65 F3d 48, 50 & n. 4 (5th Cir. 1995); and Garza v. Miller, 688 F2d 480, 485-86 (7th Cir. 1982). The court was "persuaded by the reasoning provided by those courts" and joined them in holding "that a federal prisoner has no protected interest in a UNICOR job assignment. Accordingly, the district court properly dismissed Johnson's due process claim."

The court then affirmed the dismissal of Johnson's First Amendment claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Johnson apparently did not appeal the dismissal of his RFRA claim. See: Johnson v. Rowley, 569 F.3d 40, 45 (2d Cir.2009).

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Rowley