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Fourth Circuit Holds South Carolina DOC Lawyers Entitled to Qualified Immunity

The Court’s August 20, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by former prisoner Marion K. Campbell, who was convicted in December 2011 of distribution of cocaine. He alleged Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations from a memorandum written by Chris Florian, SCDC’s deputy general counsel who interpreted the state’s Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010. Florian concluded the Act made prisoners who committed a “no parole offense” were now eligible for parole, but they were still required to serve 85% of their sentence if they were not granted parole. That interpretation was approved by David Tatarsky, SCDC’s general counsel.

Prisoner Michael Bolin challenged the memo. The South Carolina Administrative Law Court endorsed Florian’s interpretation of the Act. The South Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that under the Act an offense under S.C. Code Section 44-53-375(B) is no longer a “no parole offense.” That meant persons convicted of those offenses were eligible for work and good time credits. See: Bolin v. South Carolina Dep’t of Corrections, 718 S.E.2d 914 (S.C. Cut. App. 2016).

As of that opinion, SCDC re-calculated Campbell’s release date, and he was released in March 2016. At that point, he had served about five years of his seven-year sentence. After his release, Campbell filed a class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging SCDC’s initial interpretation of the Act precluded the application of good-time and work credits based on the 85% rule, and he was held longer than provided by law.

The defendants, Florian and Tatarsky, moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, holding they were entitled to qualified immunity. Campbell appealed.

The Fourth Circuit found Florian acted reasonably in coming to his legal conclusion. It found he took appropriate steps in making a statutory interpretation, especially in the face of contradictory provisions of existing law and those contained in the Act. It noted that it is not uncommon for courts to make an interpretation only to have a higher court find error with that interpretation.

The court further found that “Tatarsky could rely on the good judgment of his subordinates until he had reason to believe otherwise.”

Although it is now settled that Florian and Tatarsky were wrong in interpreting the Omnibus Act, “legal error alone is not deliberate indifference.” The district court’s order was affirmed. See: Campbell v. Florian, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 26489. 

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Related legal case

Campbell v. Florian