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“Third Time Is Not the Charm” For Texas Jailers Barred by PLRA from Enforcing Prior Settlement Agreement Against Prisoner in New Suit

by Matt Clarke

On January 12, 2024, the federal court for the Western District of Texas refused a motion by Williamson County Correctional Facility (WCCF) officials, which argued for dismissal of claims by former detainee Rodney A. Hurdsman, 55, that jailers recorded his privileged calls with his attorney and shared the recordings with police and prosecutors in his criminal case.

Importantly, Defendants were barred from enforcing a clause in an earlier settlement agreement with Hurdsman that said it “encompass[ed] any claims” of his, including any he “may acquire or discover in the future.” The Court said that because Hurdsman is a prisoner, his suit is subject to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e, which does not recognize such private agreements.

Hurdsman’s claim dates to 2015, when he arrived at the jail on a burglary charge. He allegedly warned that he would be making privileged phone calls to his defense attorneys, even providing their phone numbers, names and addresses. The jail’s then-chief, Mike Gleason, allegedly agreed that the phone calls would be unmonitored and unrecorded, but instead listened to and recorded them, secretly sharing the recordings with law enforcement officials.

In 2017, Hurdsman was released from WCCF to face charges related to a theft in neighboring Wise County. That same year, he filed his first suit in the Court pro se, accusing Williamson County and WCCF of impeding his access to the courts by refusing to post legal mail that he couldn’t afford to post himself. The county ultimately settled that case in September 2020 for $83,500, which included costs and fees for counsel Hurdsman had by then been appointed from Scott, Douglass & McConnico, LLP (SD&M) in Austin. See: Hurdsman v. Pokluda, USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00290.

Meanwhile, Hurdsman was tried and convicted on the Wise County theft charges. That’s also when his criminal defense attorney obtained copies of the calls recorded at WCCF—the first Hurdsman knew of them. He was sentenced to a 75-year prison term, so his next suit was filed in the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the county and now-Sheriff Mike Gleason, as well as Inmate Calling Solutions (ICS), the jail’s private phone service vendor. The pro se complaint raised claims under the First, Fourteenth, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments, seeking to hold the county liable for damages under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Svcs. of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

The Court appointed Hurdsman counsel, and Gleason moved for judgment on the pleadings. On September 14, 2023, a magistrate judge recommended dismissing all but the Fourth and Sixth Amendment claims. He also said that Hurdsman’s request for punitive damages should survive, since the complaint alleged sufficient facts to support a reasonable inference that Gleason acted with callous indifference to Hurdsman’s constitutional rights.

The Court adopted all but two of the magistrate’s recommendations, deciding that Hurdsman’s federal wiretapping claim should also proceed, along with First Amendment claims that his rights to protected speech and free association had been violated. See: Hurdsman v. Gleason, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6569 (W.D. Tex.).

Gleason and the County moved to stay the case and appeal denial of their motion to dismiss. On February 8, 2024, the Court rebuffed both requests. Defendants argued that their earlier settlement with Hurdsman voided his claims. However, in a rare instance where being a prisoner helped his legal case, the Court said that Hurdsman’s claims could not be voided by a private settlement agreement under PLRA. Noting that Defendants had made the same argument twice already, the Court said “the third time is not the charm” and rejected it again. Given how clearly PLRA controlled, there was simply no question of law at stake to appeal, the Court said, adding it would be unfair to delay Hurdsman’s other claims against ICS. See: Hurdsman v. Gleason, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22113 (W.D. Tex.).

The case remains pending, and PLN will update developments as they are available. Hurdsman is represented by SD&M attorneys Cynthia L. Saiter, Paige A. Amstutz and Rebecca D. Jahnke. See: Hurdsman v. Gleason, USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:22-cv-00254.  


Additional source: Austin American Statesman

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Related legal cases

Hurdsman v. Gleason

Hurdsman v. Gleason

Hurdsman v. Pokluda