Eighth Circuit: Ruling Required on Prison Officials’ Qualified Immunity Defense
by Mark Wilson
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a district court erred in failing to resolve a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity with respect to a prisoner’s claims related to interference with his mail.
Between October 13, 2010 and March 23, 2011, Nebraska prison officials confiscated prisoner Christopher Payne’s incoming and outgoing mail. Payne is incarcerated for sexual assault of a child, and the officials claimed “the censored correspondence was pedophilia-related and included efforts by Payne to obtain sexually related stories, pictures, and information about children, including information about Payne’s prior victims.” Prison officials alerted the FBI, which declined to open a criminal investigation.
Payne filed suit in federal court for interference with his incoming and outgoing regular mail (not legal mail). He strongly disputed the claim that his letters were “pedophilia-related.”
The defendants moved to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds. Rather than rule on that motion, the district court ordered them to supplement the record with evidence supporting their qualified immunity defense. The court also treated the motion to dismiss as a summary judgment motion since it considered matters outside the pleadings.
The district court ultimately denied the motion, finding that “questions of fact remain regarding the content of [Payne’s] incoming and outgoing mail and the reasonableness of the [officials’] continued detention of that mail.” However, the court “did not decide whether the officials were entitled to qualified immunity or assess whether any alleged violations were of clearly established federal law.” The defendants appealed.
Following O’Neil v. City of Iowa City, Iowa, 496 F.3d 915, 918 (8th Cir. 2007), the Eighth Circuit held on April 16, 2014 that remand was necessary because “prison officials are legally entitled to a ruling on their assertions of qualified immunity.” Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals expressed sympathy for, and understanding of, the “seemingly reasonable, but impermissible, path” that the district court chose to take.
Noting that “prison officials continue to hold the confiscated mail, and, other than [one] letter, such mail has not been made available for the courts’ review,” the Eighth Circuit observed that “the contents of the withheld mail appear to be contested” – and perhaps for good reason, since the FBI did not pursue the issue.
“It would seem that if the content of the mail is contested, the district court cannot grant qualified immunity to the officials in this case without first reviewing the withheld mail,” the Court of Appeals concluded. See: Payne v. Britten, 749 F.3d 697 (8th Cir. 2014).
Following remand, the case was transferred to Senior Judge Richard G. Kopf due to the appellate court’s “stinging criticism in dissent about how this case was handled at the district court level.”
On August 15, 2014, the court reconsidered the defendants’ motion to dismiss the two claims in Payne’s complaint: 1) that the defendants had opened and read his ordinary mail without a warrant; and 2) that they had held and continued to hold some of his outgoing mail for several years without justification.
In the former regard, the district court held “it is clear that prison officials may open and read a prisoner’s regular mail for security reasons,” and thus granted qualified immunity to the defendants on that claim. As to the withholding of Payne’s outgoing mail, however, the court wrote that while there was “no doubt that the Defendants could hold mail for a short period of time based upon the request of an outside law enforcement agency ... it was clearly established by the time the Defendants acted that prison authorities cannot hold mail indefinitely by exercising their authority to screen an inmate’s mail ‘overzealously.’”
Therefore, the motion to dismiss was denied as to the second claim. See: Payne v. Britten, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113659 (D. Neb. 2014). The court subsequently ordered the defendants to release and return 13 of the letters they had withheld, and to file the remaining letters with the court for review. Counsel was appointed to represent Payne on November 18, 2014; this case remains pending.
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Related legal cases
Payne v. Britten
|749 F.3d 697 (8th Cir. 2014)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition
Payne v. Britten
|2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113659 (D. Neb. 2014)