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Ninth Circuit Revives Ad Seg 24-Hour Lighting Claim

Ninth Circuit Revives Ad Seg 24-Hour Lighting Claim

by Mark Wilson

On January 16, 2014, the Ninth CircuitCourt of Appeals reversed a summary judgment order dismissing a prisoner’s claim related to 24-hour lighting in a segregation cell.

While incarcerated at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, Washington prisoner Neil Grenning was placed in administrative segregation (ad seg) for thirteen days “pending investigation” of his alleged involvement in a fight. Ad seg cells are lit by three four-foot-long fluorescent light tubes. Prisoners can turn off two of the tubes, but one remains illuminated at all times.

Grenning stated in a grievance that he could not sleep and suffered headaches due to the constant lighting. When prison officials refused his request to replace the tube with something that produced less light, he filed suit. He alleged that the continuous lighting violated the Eighth Amendment because “the light was so bright he could not sleep, even with ‘four layers of towel wrapped around his eyes.’” Grenning also claimed “that the lighting gave him ‘recurring migraine headaches’ and that he could not distinguish between night and day in the cell.” He said the light caused him pain and disorientation.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials, holding that Grenning had not established an Eighth Amendment violation.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. The appellate court first rejected the defendants’ argument that Grenning’s claims were barred by the “physical injury” requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e).

Citing Oliver v. Keller, 289 F.3d 623 (9th Cir. 2002) [PLN, April 2003, p.24], the Court of Appeals noted that § 1997e(e) applies only to claims of mental and emotional injury. “This section does not bar Grenning’s case,” the Court held, “because he does not seek recovery for ‘mental or emotional injury.’”

The Ninth Circuit then observed it had previously “held that continuous lighting can satisfy the objective” prong of a deliberate indifference claim, and that issues of fact as to how bright the light was, its effect on Grenning and whether prison officials were deliberately indifferent precluded summary judgment. Further, the appellate court rejected the defendants’ argument that Airway Heights was accredited by the American Correctional Association and complied with ACA standards for cell lighting.

Noting that qualified immunity had not been addressed, the Court of Appeals left that issue “for the district court to determine in the first instance on remand.”

Additionally, Grenning was allowed to proceed in forma pauperis and the district court withheld 20% of his prison wages to pay court fees pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b). The Ninth Circuit also granted Grenning in forma pauperis status on appeal, and another 20% of his funds was withheld to pay the appellate filing fee.

Relying on Torres v. O’Quinn, 612 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2010), Grenning asked the Ninth Circuit to cap the total fee withholdings at 20% under “a method called the ‘sequential’ or ‘per prisoner’ approach.” The defendants argued that 40% was proper under “a method termed the ‘simultaneous’ or ‘per case’ approach.” The appellate court declined to decide the issue, however, directing the lower court to consider it on remand.

This case remains pending before the district court, with Grenning now represented by counsel. See: Grenning v. Miller-Stout, 739 F.3d 1235 (9th Cir. 2014).

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Related legal case

Grenning v. Miller-Stout