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Fourth Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Prison Official Who Gave Prisoner No Notice Before Hearing That Resulted in Transfer to Security Detention

by David M. Reutter

In a ruling on March 30, 2021, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prison officials were entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that a prisoner had a right to fair notice of a security detention hearing.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal filed by Tamara Ravenell, the Chairperson of the Institutional Classification Committee (ICC) at South Carolina’s Lieber Correctional Institution. A federal district court had denied her motion for summary judgment based upon qualified immunity in a civil rights action seeking damages asserted by prisoner Fred R. Halcomb, Jr.

Halcomb was serving a life sentence when a search of his cell on March 23, 2016, revealed contraband, including drugs, weapons, and escape tools. He received a two-week notice of a disciplinary hearing at which he was then found guilty, resulting in his transfer from short-term detention status to disciplinary detention status.

Four days after the hearing, on April 18, 2016, the ICC conducted a detention hearing to determine whether Halcomb should be transferred to security detention. Halcomb did not receive notice of the hearing or its purpose until he arrived at the hearing. He was recommended for placement on security detention, and that recommendation was adopted by a senior classification official.

In the federal civil rights complaint he then filed, Halcomb “alleged that his right to due process was violated because he did not receive notice of the security detention hearing prior to arriving at the hearing,” the Court recalled.

In her answer to the complaint, Ravenell asserted a qualified immunity defense and moved for summary judgment. The district court denied the motion, and Ravenell timely appealed. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court “that the right is appropriately framed as the right to ‘fair’ notice of a security detention hearing, rather than a specific right to 48 hours’ notice.”

But the Court noted that Halcomb’s complaint framed the right as one to 48 hours’ notice “because the South Carolina Department of Corrections policies describe an entitlement to 48 hours’ notice in certain circumstances.”

More importantly, it found the crux of Halcomb’s argument was “that the lack of prior notice deprived him of an opportunity to prepare for the hearing.” Thus, construing the complaint liberally, Halcomb had in fact complained “that he did not receive ‘fair’ notice of the hearing,” the Court determined.

The Court then considered whether that right was clearly established. It noted that in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court held “a policy that provided inmates with notice at least 48 hours before an administrative segregation hearing passed constitutional muster.”

“Importantly, however,” the Court added, the ruling in that case “did not hold that 48 hours’ notice prior to the hearing was constitutionally required.”

The Court allowed that in Williamson v. Stirling, 912 F.3d 154 (4th Cir. 2018), it said it had given “clear notice to jail officials in 2015 that a long-term detention in solitary confinement—even when imposed for security reasons—justifies some level of procedural protection,” pointing to an earlier ruling in Incumaa v. Stirling, 791 F.3d 517 (4th Cir. 2015).

However, the clarification and emphasis in the Williamson decision—upon which the district court had relied—had not come out until two years after the incident at issue in Halcomb’s case. And, as the Court further noted, the Incumaa decision upon which the reasoning rested provided only that prisoners are entitled to ‘some’ level of protection.

“Thus,” the Court determined, “we cannot conclude that the case law is so clearly established that a reasonable official would know whether prior notice of an administrative segregation hearing is required.”

Accordingly, the district court’s order was reversed and the case remanded with instructions to grant Ravenell’s motion. See: Halcomb v. Ravenell, 992 F.3d 316 (4th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Halcomb v. Ravenell