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Prison Officials Acted Under State-Agent Immunity

by David Reutter

The Supreme Court of Alabama held that prison officials acted under protection of state-agent immunity and that a prisoner did not show any facts exempting either from liability. The court granted mandamus and ordered the trial court to enter a summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Cheryl Price, warden at Donaldson Correctional Facility (DCF), and Greg Lovelace, deputy commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), were being sued in their individual capacities by Marcus Parrish, a guard at DCP, for willfully breaching their duties by failing to monitor the prison for unsafe conditions, such as faulty, unrepaired locks and failing to remedy understaffing at the prison.

Parrish stated that he was supervising prisoner showers in segregation when he had to temporarily step away to retrieve shaving equipment. When he returned, he found prisoner Rashad Byers had already entered a cell that was supposed to have been locked. Byers indicated that he was done, and Parrish walked over to handcuff him to return him to his cell. Byers unexpectedly exploded out of the cell and attacked Parrish. He took Parish’s baton and repeatedly struck Parrish, knocking him unconscious and inflicting severe injury. Parrish alleged that this incident would not have occurred had Price and Lovelace not been remiss in their duties.

Price and Lovelace moved for summary judgment, alleging they were entitled to state-agent immunity. The trial date denied the motion, concluding that genuine issues of material fact existed. Price and Lovelace then petitioned the Supreme Court of Alabama for a mandamus ordering the trial date to enter summary judgment in the case.

The court stated that summary judgment is not reviewable by mandamus unless (as in this case), it is a claim of immunity. Then it will be reviewed only if there is a clear legal right and the respondent had an imperative duty to perform and refused to do so.

The court held that a state agent shall be immune from civil liability in his or her personal capacity when the agent is formulating plans, policies or designs required of their station, or exercising their judgment in the administration of a department or agency, such as making adjudications, allocating resources, negotiating contracts or hiring or firing personnel.

Price testified that, as warden, she was responsible for the security of the prison, including the safety of the guards. Additionally, her position involved planning and decision making in the administration of her office. She testified that she received reports of some issues with locks, which she addressed individually. There also were reports of inmates jamming locks. It became department policy that those locks needed to be periodically checked and cleaned of debris used to join them. This was an unwritten policy implemented in previous administrations and continued under Price.

These facts, the court found, clearly place Price under immunity enjoyed by those who formulate plans, policies and designs as a state agent, as well as those exercising judgment in the administration of a department agency.

Lovelace, in his deposition, stated his responsibilities included renovations to and modifications of ADOC’s facilities. He was in charge of the entire central maintenance division. As such, he qualified for immunity.

Once it was established that Price and Lovelace showed they were performing duties protected by state-agency immunity, the court then looked at Parrish’s exemption allegations that Price and Lovelace acted willfully and maliciously in not addressing the problems with the locks or the understaffing. The court found this argument to be unpersuasive; willfulness has been defined with the accompaniment of design or purpose to inflict injury. No evidence was presented to prove that either Price or Lovelace had specific intent to cause injury. Parrish did not meet his burden of showing the existence of an exception to immunity.

The court held that there was a clear legal right to immunity for Price and Lovelace and that that the defendants were refused summary judgment. Therefore, the petition for mandamus was granted and the trial court was ordered to enter summary judgment on behalf of the defendants.

See: Ex Parte Cheryl Price and Greg Lovelace, __ S. Ct. __ (2017).


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Related legal case

Ex Parte Cheryl Price and Greg Lovelace