by David M. Reutter
On January 13, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to review its dismissal of an appeal from a Maryland prison supervisor to a $700,000 jury verdict for a detainee whom his subordinate guards assaulted. When the high court weighs in later this year, it will likely resolve a circuit split the Fourth Circuit acknowledged in its ruling in the case. See: Dupree v. Younger, 143 S. Ct. 645 (2023).
The decision in question was reached on March 11, 2022, when the Fourth Circuit said supervisor Neil Dupree’s appeal was doomed because he failed to raise a legal argument post-trial – even though it was originally presented in a motion for summary judgment.
The case was brought by Kevin Younger, who was a pretrial detainee at Maryland Reception, Diagnostic, and Classification Center on September 30, 2013, when he was assaulted by a trio of guards who mistakenly thought him guilty of attacking one of their own. Left severely injured, Younger filed a civil rights complaint in federal court for the District of Maryland in 2016. Defendants, including Dupree, moved for summary judgment, alleging that Younger failed to exhaust his administrative remedies through the prison grievance process, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.
The district court denied that motion. Deciding that the grievance process was effectively unavailable to Younger, it excused his failure to exhaust under PLRA. After presenting his claims to a jury in February 2020, Younger was awarded $700,000 in damages from Dupree and four of his coworkers. Three of them – the guards who beat Younger – by then had been fired, charged and convicted of the assault. [See: PLN, Aug. 2020, p.56.]
Dupree filed a post-trial motion seeking remittitur with respect to the verdict. Importantly, he did not raise the exhaustion issue again. When the district court denied the motion, Dupree turned to the Fourth Circuit, raising his contentions regarding exhaustion once again. But the Court noted that Dupree’s argument was not raised in the post-trial motion, which prohibited appellate review under the Court’s precedent.
What precedent is that? As laid out in Chesapeake Paper Prods. Co. v. Stone & Webster Eng’g Corp., 51 F.3d 1229 (4th Cir. 1995), the Court said it “will not review, under any legal standard, the pretrial denial of a motion for summary judgment after a full trial and final judgment on the merits,” except when the issue rejected pretrial has been pursued in the district court via a post-trial motion. That ruling applies to both factual and purely legal issues, the Court added, citing Varghese v. Honeywell Int’l, 425 F.3d 411 (4th Cir. 2005).
The circumstances of Dupree’s “appeal fall precisely within the scope of our Chesapeake - Varghese precedent,” the Court continued. Since the district court carefully considered and rejected the pretrial exhaustion contention, and Dupree failed to reassert and preserve his exhaustion argument in a post-trial motion, his appeal was dismissed, the Fourth Circuit said.
However, “there is a circuit split concerning appellate review of a purely legal issue in circumstances such as these,” the Court noted, allowing that its “precedent on this issue adheres to the minority view.” In fact, the Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, D.C. and Federal Circuits will review legal issues resolved pretrial but not presented in a post-trial motion. The First and Fifth Circuits, on the other hand, like the Fourth Circuit, do not permit appellate review in such circumstances.
At the Court and throughout the case, Younger was represented by attorneys with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP in Columbia. See: Younger v. Dupree, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 6392 (4th Cir. 2022).
Before going to the Supreme Court, Dupree sought a rehearing before the full Fourth Circuit en banc. But that was denied on April 8, 2022. See: Younger v. Dupree, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 9573 (4th Cir. 2022).
Beyond Dupree’s tenacity in fighting payment to Younger for the injury his guards caused, the case has presented other moments of ugly candor – including the testimony at trial of one of the fired guards, Richard Hanna.
“How is it that you could think you could engage in that conduct and get away with it?” demanded one of Younger’s attorneys, Allen E. Honick.
“That’s just how the jail was run,” Hanna testified, adding: “It’s a fighting institution.”
Was he ever worried about getting in trouble?
“Nobody ever gets in trouble,” Hanna declared to the jury. “Inmates don’t say anything. Officers don’t say anything. It’s handled like street justice.”
Very unequal justice, that is. Hanna and the other two guards received suspended sentences for beating Younger. He spent 120 days in solitary for an assault he didn’t commit.
Additional source: Baltimore Sun
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