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Seventh Circuit Revives Prisoner’s Challenge to Seized $10,000

by David M. Reutter

On August 7, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed summary judgment for Defendant Wisconsin prison officials in a prisoner’s lawsuit that alleged a due process violation when he was deprived of an impartial disciplinary hearing decision maker.

Terrance Prude helped a friend and former prisoner file a successful civil-rights lawsuit, which resulted in a $40,000 damage award. As a token of gratitude, the friend paid $10,000 to retain an attorney to represent Prude in his criminal case. But Prude wanted to hire his own counsel, so the attorney sent a check for $10,000 to Prude to be deposited in his prisoner account.

The check raised the suspicion of Waupu Correctional Institution Security Director Anthony Meli, who seized the $10,000 as contraband. He then charged Prude with lying, threats, enterprises and fraud, as well as unauthorized use of the mail. Prude admitted to unauthorized use of the mail and threatening Meli, but he maintained he was not guilty of lying or enterprises and fraud.

Prude was subsequently found guilty at a disciplinary hearing held by Captain Jeremy Westra, whose supervisor was Meli. He imposed 180 days disciplinary segregation and seized the $10,000. Prude exhausted his administrative remedies and filed a pro se civil rights complaint in federal court for the Western District of Wisconsin. That court dismissed Westra as a defendant and ultimately granted Meli’s motion for summary judgment. Prude appealed.

The Seventh Circuit’s analysis began by citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), to note that due process in a disciplinary hearing requires advance notice of the charges, an impartial decision-maker and the right to call witnesses and present evidence. “Adjudicators enjoy a presumption of honesty,” though, “and thus the constitutional standard for impermissible bias is high,” the court said, pointing to Zimmerman v. Hanks, 248 F.3d 1162 (7th Cir. 2000). Yet, “[i]f an officer is substantially involved in the investigation of the charges against an inmate, due process forbids the officer from serving on the adjustment committee,” the Court continued, citing Whitford v. Boglino, 63 F.3d 527 (7th Cir. 1995).

Here the Court found that “significant evidence in the record permitted reasonable inference that Meli, the investigating officer, conspired with or controlled Westra to predetermine the hearing outcome.” It was “undisputed that, having previously been warned against doing so, Meli decided what evidence Price could submit at his hearing.” Though the Court said that “in itself, is insufficient to constitute a due process violation on its own,” it did, however, “reflect Meli’s involvement in Prude’s hearing.” That Meli so intervened “without any explanation or investigation into what evidence Prude sought to present,” the Court declared, “plausibly suggests biased judgment rather than impartiality.”

It was further alleged that Meli made statements to Prude that the outcome of the hearing was preordained. Westra also allegedly told Prude that “his hands are tied” as to the outcome and sanction to be imposed, adding that Prude “really must’ve pissed Meli off.” The district court refused to consider those statements, which it called mere hearsay. But “if the district court had not abused its discretion in denying Prude’s motion to reinstate Westra, Westra would have been a defendant and his statements would have been admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(A),” wrote the Seventh Circuit. Since the statements point to Westra’s partiality, they were admissible.

Turning to the merits of the due process claim, the Court concluded that “Meli’s interference in Prude’s hearing violated his right to an impartial decisionmaker.” It also found Meli was not entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the grant of summary judgment to him.

As to Westra, the district court found the allegations “suggest that [he] merely followed Meli’s orders, not that he acted out of bias against Prude,” the Seventh Circuit recalled. But it is not required “that a decisionmaker have personal animus against a prisoner to violate his due process rights,” the Court said, only that the prisoner “is denied an impartial decisionmaker”—so if Meli gave him orders prior to the hearing, “then Westra was not impartial,” and dismissing him as a defendant and refusing to reinstate him was an abuse of discretion. Thus the claims against Westra were reinstated, too. Before the Court, Prude was represented by attorneys William R. Langley and Madison K. Haueisen with Winston & Strawn LLP in Houston. See: Prude v. Meli, 76 F.4th 648 (7th Cir. 2023).

The case has now returned to the district court, where Haueisen continues representing Prude, along with another attorney from her firm, Brandon W. Duke. Jury selection for trial is set for April 2024, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Prude v. Meli, USDC (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00336.  

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Prude v. Meli

Prude v. Meli