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Second Circuit Restores Qualified Immunity for Parole Commissioners Imposing Onerous Conditions for Prisoner’s Release

by Keith Sanders

On March 20, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a lower court’s denial of summary judgment to members of the New York Board of Parole Commission and Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator’s claims of absolute and qualified immunity (QI), in a suit brought by a state prisoner who alleged his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the Board imposed special conditions to his release recommended by the Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator.

Following two rape convictions, Leroy Peoples was denied early release from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in October 2018. Gina Leon, an Offender Rehabilitation Counselor, had recommended 36 special conditions for Peoples’ Post-Release Supervision (PRS), including restricted access to the internet. Leon’s recommendations were based on “her review of relevant documents and records,” according to the appellate decision.

After conducting a parole release interview with Peoples, according with N.Y Comp. R. and Regs. tit. 9, §§ 8002.1-8002.3 (2023), and following guidelines pursuant to N.Y Comp. R. and Regs. tit. 9, § 8002.3 (2023), a three-member parole board headed by Parole Commissioner Ellen Alexander determined that Peoples should be “held until the maximum expiration date [June 7, 2019] of the incarcerated component of his sentence and then released subject to the thirty-six special conditions recommended by Leon.”

Peoples subsequently filed suit against Leon and Alexander in November 2018 in federal court for the Northern District of New York under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that some of the special conditions, especially limiting his internet access, violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Peoples said he filed the 1983 suit “because there was no process for appealing the special conditions.”

The defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that Peoples was barred from monetary and injunctive relief against Alexander due to absolute judicial immunity and that furthermore his claims against both defendants were barred by qualified immunity (QI).

The district court, adhering to the Report and Recommendations of the magistrate judge, “dismissed on the merits Peoples’ challenges to some but not all of the special conditions” and determined that “disputed issues of facts” existed to preclude Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The court also dismissed Peoples’ claims against Leon for declaratory or injunctive relief because she was no longer employed by DOCCS.

Defendants appealed the district court’s denial of summary judgment.

The Second Circuit first noted that the actions by Leon and Alexander were “quasi-judicial acts.” It relied on the “firmly established” doctrine of absolute immunity for judges who act “within their judicial jurisdiction,” as laid out in Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193 (1995). The Court also pointed out the Supreme Court in that case extended absolute immunity to individuals “who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process.”

The Court had previously determined that parole board officials “perform a sufficiently quasi-judicial function to qualify for absolute immunity” in Montero v. Travis 171 F.3d 757 (2nd Cir. 1999). Following both Montero and Cleavinger, the Court concluded that imposing special conditions also fell within the scope of quasi-judicial acts – pointing as well to Thornton v. Brown, 757 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 2013) and Mayorga v. Missouri, 442 F.3d 1125 (8th Cir. 2006)).

Finally, the Court addressed Peoples’ claim that Leon deprived him of his constitutional right to internet access. Leon pointed out that an individual’s right to internet access did not become fully established by the Court until January 2019, three months after she made her recommendations to the parole board. Citing United States v. Eaglin, 913 F.3d 88 (2nd Cir. 2019), the Court agreed with Leon and determined she was entitled to QI.

As for the other special conditions, the Court determined that Peoples did not demonstrate that Leon’s recommendations for specific sex offender conditions, as well as financial monitoring, “violated his clearly established rights.” Peoples challenged the parole board’s broad authority to impose the special conditions because they were “vague and arbitrary,” and he said the financial monitoring requirement violated due process “because it was not reasonably reflected in his past conduct.”

But because Peoples was given notice of his special conditions, the Court determined they did not violate due process. A special condition would have to be so vague that Peoples would have to “guess” in order for it to be void, the Court said, relying on LoFranco v. U.S. Parole Comm’n, 986 F Supp. 796 (S.D.N.Y. (1997), aff’d 175 F.3d 1008 (2nd Cir. 1999). But here it determined that was not the case.

Accordingly, the district court’s denial of summary judgment for Defendants was reversed and the case remanded. Peoples was represented by attorneys with Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP in New York City. See: Peoples v. Leon, 63 F.4th 132 (2d Cir. 2023).

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