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No Summary Judgment on Claim that Guard Stole Prisoner’s Wedding Ring

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held that factual disputes about a guard’s alleged theft of a prisoner’s wedding ring precluded summary judgment in a lawsuit that has been pending for the past eight years.

In November 2004, Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) staff at the John Liley Correctional Center (JLCC) confiscated prisoner Sonny L. Harmon’s wedding ring, watch and other personal property. Prison guard Paul Cradduck placed the ring in a desk, where it disappeared.

Harmon’s efforts to informally resolve the loss of his ring were unsuccessful and he filed a grievance on January 5, 2005. His grievance was rejected on January 28 for failure to comply with DOC procedures. The response directed Harmon to appeal within 15 days but his appeal was rejected as premature, with directions to resubmit the initial grievance. The resubmitted grievance was then rejected, however, because Harmon had failed to correct the original grievance within 10 days of the January 28 response.

Harmon filed suit in state court, seeking the return of his ring or compensation for its value. On April 18, 2006 the defendants filed an affidavit from Cradduck in which he stated the ring had been placed in an unsecured desk and stolen by an “unknown person or persons.” The defendants also produced a disciplinary letter in which Cradduck was reprimanded for violating DOC policy in connection with mishandling Harmon’s ring; the letter referenced several prior disciplinary actions taken against Cradduck, including two incidents involving lost prisoner property.

The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss due to Harmon’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies or provide a tort claim notice before filing suit.

The Court of Appeals reversed in 2007, finding that Harmon had exhausted his administrative remedies and that “a trier of fact, based on documentation uncovered during DOC’s internal investigation, could ‘conclude that a JLCC property room officer intentionally diverted [Harmon’s] property.’” The appellate court also allowed Harmon to amend his pleadings to comply with Oklahoma’s tort claim notice provisions.

On remand, Harmon amended his complaint to assert a conversion claim against Cradduck and conspiracy claims against other defendants. The defendants moved for summary judgment, rearguing that Harmon failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and relying on a second affidavit from Cradduck in which he denied taking Harmon’s ring. However, a supplemental internal investigation revealed that Cradduck had received another letter of reprimand related to the loss of Harmon’s watch. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed, holding first that “the settled-law-of-the-case doctrine does not allow for reconsideration of Harmon’s compliance with the administrative exhaustion requirements.” Rather, the Court of Appeals was bound by its initial decision that Harmon had exhausted his administrative remedies.

The Court also reversed the grant of summary judgment to Cradduck, finding that his “repeated disciplinary history for displaced inmate property, the admitted loss of the gold ring with stones, and Cradduck’s undisputed access to the ring, provide sufficient evidence to create discord over the essential elements of Harmon’s conversion claim.” The Supreme Court noted that while “he denied misappropriating the ring, Cradduck’s self-serving affidavit alone does not eliminate the existence of a factual dispute on the issue,” which precluded summary judgment. Harmon’s constitutional claims, related to denial of due process in connection with the loss of his ring, were dismissed. See: Harmon v. Cradduck, 2012 OK 80, 286 P.3d 643 (Okla. 2012).

Following remand, the case settled in October 2013 for $500 plus $7,000 in Harmon’s attorney fees. While Harmon is to be commended for his fight to receive compensation for his stolen ring, it unfortunately took him almost 9 years to receive that modicum of justice.

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