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First Circuit Vacates Massachusetts Prisoner’s $325,956.36 Damages, Attorney Fee Award

First Circuit Vacates Massachusetts Prisoner’s $325,956.36 Damages, Attorney Fee Award

by Mark Wilson

On September 24, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that Massachusetts prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity for segregating a pretrial detainee. Accordingly, the Court reversed the prisoner’s $47,500 damage award plus an award of $258,000 in attorney fees and $20,456.36 in costs.

Albert Ford was confined at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction (MCI-Cedar Junction). He was repeatedly placed in the Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU), a maximum-security housing unit, for weapon possession, conspiring to introduce heroin, conspiring to assault other prisoners and other serious misconduct.

Ford violently attacked two guards and took a nurse hostage in 2002. He stabbed both guards with a 4½-inch shank, then held the knife to the nurse’s throat. One guard required immediate medical care for puncture wounds to his mid- and lower back.

Ford was charged with armed assault with intent to murder. At a January 2003 disciplinary hearing, he was also sanctioned with 10 years in DDU – the maximum possible DDU sanction.

Ford completed his original sentence on January 6, 2007 but remained incarcerated as a pretrial detainee on the assault charges. His DDU sanction continued without a hearing despite his change in status from a sentenced prisoner to a pretrial detainee.

Ford was released on bail in March 2007, but his bail was revoked three months later after he mailed heroin to another prisoner. He returned to the DDU at MCI-Cedar Junction, again without a hearing to determine if the DDU sanction should be enforced.

Ford pleaded guilty to assault and mailing heroin to a prisoner on April 30, 2008; he was sentenced to an additional prison term with credit for time served. His DDU sanction continued, without a new hearing, after his conviction. He returned to the prison’s general population on August 4, 2011 and was released in April 2012.

Ford filed suit in federal court, alleging that the DDU sanction violated his substantive and procedural due process rights.

The district court granted Ford summary judgment, holding that prison officials were not entitled to qualified immunity for violating Ford’s substantive and procedural due process rights by continuing to hold him in DDU – a punitive sanction – when he was a pretrial detainee.

Following a three-day bench trial the court awarded damages totaling $47,500 and ordered injunctive relief, requiring Ford’s access to transitional programs and termination of his 10-year DDU sanction. [See: PLN, June 2012, p.42]. The court then awarded Ford attorney fees totaling $258,000 and costs of $20,456.36.

The state appealed and the First Circuit reversed, finding the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on both of Ford’s claims. Accordingly, the appellate court dismissed the $45,000 damage award.

The Court of Appeals also held that Ford’s release from prison mooted his equitable relief claims. Nevertheless, those claims were not moot when the district court had granted injunctive relief; therefore, the First Circuit remanded the case to determine an appropriate amount of attorney fees and costs limited to the district court’s grant of injunctive relief. The case remains pending on remand. See: Ford v. Bender, 768 F.3d 15 (1st Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Ford v. Bender