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Fifth Circuit Kills Suit by Louisiana Prisoners Whose Release Dates Were Incorrectly Calculated

by David M. Reutter

On February 14, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a lower court’s denial of qualified immunity (QI) to James LeBlanc, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DPSC), in a lawsuit alleging he was liable for detaining prisoners beyond their sentence expiration – by incorrectly calculating their release dates, not by failing to notify the people charged with making release happen, which is the subject of another suit. [See: PLN, Aug. 2023, p.??.]

Percy Taylor was sentenced in 1995 to 10 years and subsequently released on parole. He committed a new offense in July 2001, but he wasn’t arrested until February 20, 2002. Taylor was then convicted on October 15, 2003, and sentenced to life imprisonment as a habitual offender. His parole was also revoked. The life sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years with “credit for all time served.”

Taylor learned in 2017 that his full-term release date was March 16, 2021, and his good-time adjusted date was May 5, 2020. Taylor believed his release date should have been the end of October 2017, but no later than January 1, 2018, with proper good-time credit application. Prison officials denied his grievances, however, stating he could not receive double credit for 18 months of pretrial detention on both the 20-year sentence and the parole violation.

A state district court disagreed, finding that the law in effect at the time Taylor was a pretrial detainee on the new offense and the parole violation did not expressly prohibit double counting of credit. That court ordered Taylor’s master prison record recalculated to give credit for time served on both sentences. Taylor was released from prison on February 18, 2020, just over two years after the latest release date he alleged should have been his.

In late 2020, Taylor sued various state officials for false imprisonment in state court. The action was removed to federal court, and Defendants moved to dismiss, which the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana granted in part and denied in part. Relevant on appeal was the denial of QI on the supervisory liability claim against LeBlanc. That claim alleged Taylor’s unlawful detention was the result of a pattern of unlawful detentions by DPSC resulting from inadequate training and guidance that was traceable all the way to the top of the prison system’s management.

Taylor cited various cases, reports and statements to suggest LeBlanc “was aware of similar constitutional violations but failed to correct them.” In denying LeBlanc QI, the district court addressed the issue of deliberate indifference, but it failed to address the separate issue of whether LeBlanc’s acts were objectively unreasonable. LeBlanc appealed.

The Fifth Circuit found Taylor failed to present any meritorious argument that LeBlanc acted in an unreasonable manner in this case. The Court first rejected an argument that it lacked jurisdiction to review the issue. It then found that Taylor failed to adequately brief the issue of LeBlanc’s objective unreasonableness, noting his argument amounted to a single conclusory statement: “It is inherently unreasonable for the secretary . . . to fail to enact policies and procedures to ensure the prompt release of inmates who have served their sentences in accordance with law.” As such, Taylor forfeited the issue, and the district court’s order denying LeBlanc QI was reversed.

Just over two months later, the Court withdrew that opinion and substituted another that came to the same conclusion from a different angle. Gone was any fussiness about whether Taylor sufficiently briefed his arguments against granting LeBlanc QI. In its place, the Court said that Taylor’s argument was this: that LeBlanc acted unreasonably by failing to delegate sentence calculation to lawyers. However, since sentences are routinely calculated by non-lawyers, the Court found it “hard to say that it was objectively unreasonable for LeBlanc to delegate sentencing calculations to non-lawyers as well.”

Taylor was represented before the Court by attorney Donna U. Grodner with Grodner & Associates, A.P.L.C. in Baton Rouge. See: Taylor v. LeBlanc, 68 F.4th 223 (5th Cir. 2023).