by Lonnie Burton
On January 24, 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a ruling by a New York federal district court that dismissed a lawsuit brought by a prisoner who had challenged the constitutionality of his 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement. The appellate court concluded there were triable issues of fact regarding whether prison officials had afforded the prisoner substantive due process; it also held the district court erred in granting summary judgment without adequate notice.
Patrick Proctor has been incarcerated in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) since the late 1980s, when he was sentenced to 32½ years to life on convictions for murder, robbery and attempted escape. Proctor’s early years in prison were rife with misconduct, and he eventually was sanctioned to ten years in disciplinary segregation after he and an accomplice escaped from the maximum-security Shawangunk Correctional Facility in 1994.
During his time in solitary, Proctor continued to receive infractions for such misbehavior as removing his handcuffs, throwing feces at staff, setting fires and stabbing other prisoners. Later, however, his behavior began to improve and his time in segregation was reduced to nine years and one month.
On the day Proctor was scheduled to be released from solitary, however, DOCCS officials served him with a recommendation that he be retained on administrative segregation (ad-seg). After a hearing it was determined that Proctor was a threat to prison safety and security due to his past behavior, and he was kept in ad-seg for the next 13 years. During that time Proctor’s behavior markedly improved, though he still received the occasional disciplinary report. His status in segregation was reviewed every six months, and each time it was recommended that he remain in ad-seg.
Proctor filed multiple legal challenges to his continued placement in segregation. In 2005, he brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against prison officials alleging substantive due process violations. After that claim was dismissed on appeal, Proctor filed another suit in 2009. In that case, also brought under § 1983, he argued that the periodic reviews violated substantive due process because they were “prefunctory, shams, and meaningless,” and merely a pretext to keep him in ad-seg indefinitely.
The case was initially dismissed on collateral estoppel grounds, but reinstated and remanded for further consideration after appeal. Proctor was then appointed counsel, who filed an amended complaint which, in addition to the due process claim, asserted that his 22 years in segregation had inflicted physical and psychological injuries in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Summary judgment was again granted in favor of DOCCS officials after the district court held they had complied with due process by giving Proctor periodic reviews which were meaningful “as a matter of law.” The court then went on to rule on Proctor’s substantive due process claim, even though the defendants had not moved for summary judgment on that issue. Holding that prison officials “were never made aware of the alleged devastating effects of Proctor’s continuing placement in Ad-Seg,” the court therefore found their conduct was not “conscious-shocking” and they were entitled to summary judgment on that claim as well.
Proctor appealed and the Second Circuit reversed.
The appellate court found that DOCCS’ own statements raised “serious doubts” as to whether Proctor’s periodic reviews were conducted with pre-ordained outcomes, including one affidavit which said that once placed in ad-seg, the practice of the DOCCS was that a prisoner “never” gets out. That alone provided at least a triable factual question regarding whether Proctor’s reviews were meaningful, the Court of Appeals wrote.
“[P]eriodic reviews of Ad Seg satisfy procedural due process only when they are meaningful,” the Court stated. “Reviews are meaningful only when they involve real evaluations of the administrative justification for confinement, they consider all of the relevant evidence that bears on whether that administrative justification remains valid, and they ensure that Ad Seg is used as neither a form of punishment nor a pretext for indefinite confinement.”
The Second Circuit also held that the district court erred when, on its own initiative (sua sponte), it dismissed Proctor’s substantive due process claim without “giving notice and a reasonable time to respond,” contrary to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(f).
“Indeed, Defendants concede that they failed to move for summary judgment on substantive due process and that the District Court violated Rule 56(f) in granting them relief,” the appellate court wrote.
The judgment of the lower court was thus vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings, where it remains pending trial. See: Proctor v. LeClaire, 846 F.3d 597 (2d. Cir 2017).
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