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Eighth Circuit Denies Civilly Confined Minnesota Patients 1983 Action

Civilly-committed patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) officials, alleging that various conditions of their confinement were unconstitutional. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants which was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The MSOP operated various facilities, including two units on the grounds of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake (MCF-ML) at the time the lawsuit was filed. Due to an increasing patient population, the MSOP took over the two units at MCF-ML, known as the Annex. The Annex was connected by a separate razor wire fence to the prison but DOC officials did not have contact with Annex patients or visitors. The DOC consulted with DHS to help implement security policies for MSOP patients after various security-related incidents, and the plaintiffs found those policies objectionable because they were being held in civil confinement, not as convicted prisoners.

Specifically, they alleged that they had been transferred to the Annex in retaliation for filing lawsuits; that unclothed visual body searches were unconstitutional; that use of restraints during transport to and from various facilities was unreasonable; that the MSOP’s seizure of patient televisions was an unreasonable seizure; that the MSOP’s mail and telephone policies were not reasonable; that double-bunking and communal showers violated their privacy rights; that they were subjected to unsanitary conditions; and that one plaintiff, Wallace J. Beaulieu, had a property and liberty interest in access to a computer for legal research, and had been transferred to the Behavioral Therapy Unit (BTU) in retaliation for filing the instant lawsuit.

The plaintiffs argued the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to the defendant DHS and DOC officials because there were triable issues of fact.

The Eighth Circuit, in reviewing the lower court’s order de novo, found that the plaintiffs’ claim regarding their placement at the Annex was moot as they had since been transferred out of the Annex and “there is no suggestion that they might be returned.” The Court of Appeals rejected the retaliation claim, noting that although prison officials are prohibited from “punish[ing] an inmate because he exercises his constitutional right of access to the courts,” citing Sisneros v. Nix, 95 F.3d 749 (8th Cir. 1996) [PLN, Aug. 1997, p.21], he bears a heavy burden of “proving that but for an unconstitutional, retaliatory motive the transfer would not have occurred.”

The appellate court also rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments concerning unclothed body searches, finding that such searches of civilly-committed patients are permissible on security-based grounds. Although an involuntarily committed patient of a state hospital is not a prisoner per se, his or her confinement is subject to the same safety and security concerns as that of a prisoner. Andrews v. Neer, 253 F.3d 1052, 1061 (8th Cir. 2001).

On the issue of restraints, the Eighth Circuit held that “The MSOP’s articulated reasons for using full restraints are for the safety of the public and staff and to prevent escapes and attempted escapes,” and that “such policy is a proper exercise of the DHS officials’ professional judgment.” The test, according to the appellate court, was whether the force used to effect a particular seizure was “reasonable.” The Court of Appeals also noted that the plaintiffs did not introduce any medical records to show that “they suffered any long-term or permanent physical injury” due to the restraints.

The Eighth Circuit further reviewed the seizure of the plaintiffs’ 20-inch TVs because they exceeded the size limitations imposed by the MSOP. The appellate court weighed the “intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion” pursuant to Baribeau v. City of Minneapolis, 596 F.3d 465 (8th Cir. 2010), and found no Fourth Amendment violation.

The plaintiffs’ claim related to the opening of their mail also was rejected, except as to legal mail – although the Court of Appeals found the plaintiffs had “provided no evidence that any inadvertent openings of their legal mail resulted in actual prejudice.” The MSOP had instituted a phone system that permitted only outgoing calls and limited the duration of calls, which was upheld. Similarly, claims regarding double-bunking, sanitary issues and privacy concerns related to bathroom and shower facilities were decided in favor of the defendants.

While the appellate court recognized that prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts and to meaningful legal research tools pursuant to Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), it held that no property or liberty interests had been identified, and Beaulieu’s access-to-court claim therefore failed. The Eighth Circuit noted that “although Beaulieu missed a court deadline, the court gave him an extension of time; therefore, he has not proven an ‘actual injury’ resulting from his purported denial of access to the legal computers,” as required by Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996).

Accordingly, the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants was affirmed. See: Beaulieu v. Ludeman, 690 F.3d 1017 (8th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Beaulieu v. Ludeman