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Fourth Circuit: Prison Officials Not Liable for Poor Conditions Unless Prisoner Also Alleges They Knew About Them And Did Nothing

By Mark Wilson

Prisoners making court challenges to their conditions of confinement must walk a legal tightrope to avoid pitfalls fatal to their claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit schooled a North Carolina prisoner in this on January 20, 2022, when it dismissed claims he was subjected to unconstitutional conditions in disciplinary segregation because he failed to allege that prison officials specifically knew he spent 20 days there without a mattress – or bedding or access to toilet paper or running water or soap – and refused to do anything about it.

The prison where officials operate in this blissful bubble of ignorance is North Carolina’s Lumberton Correctional Institute. There prisoner James Gary Moskos was pepper-sprayed after a physical altercation with guards on August 2, 2013. The details of the incident were “hotly” disputed by the parties, the Court recalled. Guard James Hardee accused Moskos of attacking him without provocation. But Moskos insisted Hardee sucker-punched him from behind.

After a prison disciplinary hearing, unsurprisingly, Moskos was found guilty of assault, profane language and disobeying an order. He was sanctioned to 60 days in segregation and lost 15 earned good-credit days. He was also transferred to a maximum-security prison.

With the aid of Raleigh attorneys Jason M. Burton of Burton Law Firm PLLC and co-counsel from Alston & Bird LLP, Michael A. Kaeding and Ryan P. Ethridge, Moskos filed suit in the district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing prison officials of violating his due-process rights with a “sham” disciplinary proceeding. He also said they violated his Eighth Amendment rights by holding him segregation under such shoddy conditions.

On Moskos’ objections to the disciplinary proceeding, the district court granted defendants judgment as a matter of law. Since the results of the hearing would necessarily be invalidated were he to prevail on his claim, it must be filed as a habeas corpus petition, as laid out in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

Judgment as a matter of law was also granted to defendants on Moskos’ claim they were deliberately indifferent to his needs when they made him wait an unreasonably long time – 90 to 120 minutes, he said – before letting him shower off the pepper spray. The record established by testimony from prison officials showed his wait was much shorter – imagine that! – meaning there was no evidence they “completely fail[ed] to consider [his] complaints,” as held in Bridges v. Keller, 519 F. App’x 786 (4th Cir. 2013).

As to Moskos’ complaints about the conditions he suffered in disciplinary segregation, the district court helpfully reminded him that he was “in a state correctional facility, not a hotel,” quoting Gallishaw v. Reed, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62919 (D.S.C.). It granted defendants judgment as a matter of law on those claims, too. A jury then heard Moskos’ claims of excessive force, assault and battery. Finding defendant prison officials more credible than the prisoner, the jury granted them summary judgment. Moskos appealed.

The Fourth Circuit began by upholding judgment as a matter of law on Moskos’ due process claim, agreeing it was procedurally barred in a § 1983 action by Heck. Instead it would have to be brought as a habeas corpus petition because “[i]n law, unlike history,” the Court chided, “not all roads lead to Rome.”

The district court had also given Moskos “every opportunity to prove his claims at trial,” the Court said. So “the jury heard the complete testimony of both plaintiff and defendants and found the defendants more credible,” and the Court needn’t review the grant of summary judgment against Moskos on his excessive force, assault and battery claims.

As for his deliberate indifference claim arising from the conditions he endured in solitary, the Court again upheld judgment as a matter of law. Why? Because the subjective prong of an Eighth Amendment violation claim was not met. Quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), the Court said that unless a prison official “knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety,” there is no liability.

But isn’t it safe to assume that a prison official is aware of conditions in his prison? Not necessarily, the Court said. “Moskos did not produce any evidence at trial indicating that any of the defendants were responsible [for] or aware of the alleged conditions that he experienced.” Absent that, a jury verdict for plaintiff would necessarily be based upon “speculation and conjecture,” so judgment as a matter of law “must be entered,” the Court concluded, quoting Myrick v. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc., 395 F.3d 485 (4th Cir. 2005).

Thus the district court’s judgment was affirmed. See: Moskos v. Hardee, 24 F.4th 289 (4th Cir. 2022).

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Related legal case

Moskos v. Hardee