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Eighth Circuit Issues Primer on Informal Due Process Procedures to Missouri Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

On April 24, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a lower court and granted qualified immunity (QI) to officials with Missouri’s Department of Corrections (DOC) in a state prisoner’s complaint accusing them of violating his due process rights with a false disciplinary report and then throwing him in solitary confinement when he filed grievances about it. Though a loss for prisoner James Spann, the case presents a primer on informal due process procedures that apply whenever a prisoner is being considered for administrative confinement.

Spann was accused by his cellmate of sexual assault in April 2014. Guards investigated and compiled a report with interviews, witness statements, photographs and a test from the incident that detected a “stain consistent with semen.” Based on that, Spann was issued notice in July 2014 of a “major conduct violation.” Before a disciplinary hearing was held, one guard on the adjustment board sent an e-mail to another member stating, “[h]e is guilty.” Sure enough, Spann was found guilty of sexual assault and thrown into solitary confinement.

As a result of his placement in “administrative segregation,” Spann “lost eligibility for parole,” as the Eighth Circuit later recalled. Though his stay in solitary “was subject to 90-day reviews,” the Court added, “he remained in administrative segregation for almost six years until his release from prison.”

Between 2014 and 2016, Spann filed multiple grievances over his confinement. His civil rights complaint alleged he suffered retaliation for those grievances via “two [falsified] conduct violations—one for possessing tobacco and another for passing prescription medications,” neither of which he ever had, he claimed. He filed three lawsuits alleging Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and First Amendment retaliation claims, which were consolidated by the federal court for the Western District of Missouri, denying Defendants summary judgment.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed in part and remanded the case for further proceedings. But back at the district court, Defendants’ renewed motion for summary judgment on Spann’s due process and retaliation claims was again denied, after it was concluded that the due process rights allegedly violated were clearly established in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), and that genuine disputes of material fact existed as to the retaliation claims. Once more, Defendants appealed.

They claimed QI on Spann’s due process claim, arguing that he had no clearly established liberty interest in avoiding assignment to administrative segregation, per Hamner v. Burls, 937 F.3d 1171 (8th Cir. 2019). Spann countered that Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005), clearly established a liberty interest on comparable facts. The Eighth Circuit noted that Defendants “reviewed Spann’s status in administrative segregation more frequently” than in Wilkinson but said it “need not decide whether Wilkinson nonetheless clearly establishe[d] that Spann’s transfer to administrative segregation interfered with a liberty interest.”

Instead, the Court concluded, the procedures employed in Spann’s case met the informal due process standard that applies when a prisoner is being considered for administrative confinement—that is, he was given enough time “to prepare adequately for the administrative review” and “an opportunity to present his views” to a neutral decisionmaker. If a hearing is held, the Court explained, the prisoner need not be present, nor does he have a constitutional right to call witnesses or require prison officials to interview them.

In closing, the Court said there is “no clearly established constitutional right to a pristine” disciplinary hearing process. Spann failed to cite authority supporting his argument that expressing a view on a disciplinary matter before a hearing occurs prohibits a prison official from being a “neutral decisionmaker” or “otherwise deprives the inmate of due process,” the Court said. Importantly, it noted that “[n]o final disciplinary decision was rendered in Spann’s matter until the decisionmakers conducted a hearing and received Spann’s submission.” The Court also rejected Spann’s retaliation claim because there was “some evidence” to support the administrative finding of guilt. Thus, the Court said, Defendants were entitled to QI on these claims. Not at issue on appeal was a pending retaliation claim on other facts.

Spann was represented before the Court by attorneys with Lear & Wertz in Columbia as well as Samuel Weiss of Rights Behind Bars in Washington, D.C. See: Spann v. Lombardi, 65 F.4th 987 (8th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Spann v. Lombardi