Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Prisoners Can Challenge Deductions Taken From Their Accounts

The court’s October 1, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by prisoner Aquil Johnson, who sought a refund of monies from his inmate account pursuant to Act 84 because no procedural safeguards were in place when the deductions began. Johnson was convicted in March 2013 on two counts that resulted in an aggregate term of about 20 to 40 years’ incarceration.

The sentence also required him to pay $1,166 in costs and contributions to the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) began making deductions from Johnson’s inmate account in June 2013 because they were authorized under Section 9728 of Act 84 of 1998. The withdrawals were made without advance notice to Johnson.

Upon learning of the deductions, Johnson filed a grievance with prison officials. It was denied. In 2014, a federal court held that the Due Process Clause required an administrative pre-deprivation process before Act 84 deductions are made. Specifically, the court ordered PDOC to inform the prisoner of its policy concerning Act 84 deductions, the amount of his total obligation to the Commonwealth, the rate at which funds are to be deducted, and which funds will be subject to such withdrawals. See: Montane v. Secretary Pa. DOC, 773 F.3d 472 (3d Cir. 2014).

Four years later, Bundy v. Wetzel, 646 Pa. 248, 184 A.3d 551 (2018) held that in cases where procedural safeguards are not feasible in the pre-deprivation time frame, the availability of meaningful post-deprivation remedies satisfied the Due Process Clause. Based on Bundy, Johnson filed another grievance, which was denied. Johnson’s action in the Commonwealth Court was similarly denied.

On appeal, the Supreme Court concluded that Johnson’s facts could not support a negligence claim, and that such a claim was barred as being brought beyond the two-year statute of limitations for such claims. It then turned to the Due Process Clause claim.

It said that clause required notice to certain items and a reasonable opportunity to object before Act 84 deductions are made. Yet Johnson and other prisoners had deductions made before Bundy and Montanez were announced. They relied on those decisions to demand pre-deprivation procedural safeguards.

The court held that the aspect of Bundy that requires “the availability of a meaningful post-deprivation remedy” applies to prisoners “whose accounts were subject to Act 84 deductions without the benefit of pre-deprivation safeguards.” PDOC must give a “grievant notice of the items required by Bundy and a reasonable opportunity to explain why the past and/or intended deductions should not take place notwithstanding the dictates of Act 84.”

Applying that holding to Johnson’s case, the court found the record did not clarify whether all of the information contemplated by Bundy and Montanez was provided to Johnson. The matter was remanded for the record to be developed on that point.

Finally, the court agreed with the Commonwealth Court that an administrative ability-to-pay hearing is required by Bundy only where a material change in circumstances occurs between sentencing and the first Act 84 deduction. Johnson failed to make such a showing. As such, he was not entitled to such a hearing.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Johnson v. Wetzel