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Fifth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Texas Prisoner’s Failure-to-Protect Claim

Texas state prisoner Richard Luna saw his claim revived against officials with the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on February 6, 2023, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit determined that a lower court erred when it dismissed his challenge to a housing assignment that resulted in an assault by other prisoners – just as Luna had predicted and warned, but prison officials ignored him.

Luna was in boot camp housing at TDCJ’s Terrell Unit in May 2019 when other prisoners allegedly began harassing and threatening to kill him. He filed for a protection investigation and asked a guard sergeant for transfer to another unit. The investigation found his claims were unsubstantiated. But the Unit Classification Committee (UCC) approved his request anyway, and he was moved.

However, on January 7, 2020, Luna was returned to the boot camp housing by Ar’Lisa Simon-Hastings, the prison’s chief classification officer. The same day he was sent back, Luna was assaulted by other prisoners – proving him right and protection investigators wrong. He suffered facial injuries, a dislocated arm and the loss of several teeth. When he saw Simon-Hastings after being attacked and beaten, she reportedly told him that “the assault would teach him a lesson about going over her head with housing moves.”

Seeing his attack resulted not from an honest mistake but a decision by prison officials who were casually malicious, Luna filed suit pro se in federal court for the Western District of Texas. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he raised a number of claims, but only his First Amendment retaliation and Eighth Amendment failure-to-protect claims survived a motion to dismiss by defendant TDCJ officials. The district court then granted summary judgment to Simon-Hastings based on qualified immunity (QI); incredibly, it found that Luna had failed to show a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the classification officer was aware that he faced a substantial risk of serious harm when she returned him to boot camp housing.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the First Amendment retaliation claim, since Luna abandoned it on appeal. But the Court reversed dismissal of Luna’s Eighth Amendment claim, finding he raised a genuine dispute of material fact in the affidavit stating that Simon-Hastings told him the assault would “teach him a lesson” – an allegation the district court had wrongly discounted as “conclusory” and self-serving.

The Fifth Circuit explained that when considering self-serving affidavits and declarations, jurists must determine whether their contents are conclusory, vague or not based on personal knowledge. While detailed or particularized allegations can raise genuine issues of material fact, those that are broad and unsupported by specific facts generally do not.

Luna had stated in his affidavit that Simon-Hastings “had personal knowledge that he was transferred [from boot camp housing] because of the threats and harassment he purportedly experienced,” the Court recalled, because she reviewed the basis for housing assignments as part of her job duties. Her decision to move Luna back to boot camp housing despite that knowledge, and her comment that the assault would “teach him a lesson,” were not conclusory or vague statements, the Court said, but rather sufficiently detailed and based on personal knowledge.

Thus, the district court erred when determining “whether there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding Simon-Hastings’ deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm that Luna faced,” the Court determined. It rejected Simon-Hastings’ own self-serving argument that her decision to return Luna to boot camp housing was “an unintentional act not meant to cause” him harm.

Accordingly, Luna’s Eighth Amendment claim was remanded for the lower court to determine whether Simon-Hastings violated “clearly established law” – the second prong of the test for a QI defense, which had not been reached in the summary judgment order. See: Luna v. Davis, 59 F.4th 713 (5th Cir. 2023).

The case has returned to the District Court, where Luna was appointed counsel on March 7, 2023, from attorneys Ashley J. Wright and Jervonne D. Newsome with Winston & Strawn in Dallas. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Luna v. Collier, USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00685.  

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Related legal case

Luna v. Davis