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Booker v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 28, 2017

PATRICK L. BOOKER, Plaintiff - Appellant,

          Argued: December 6, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston. Mary G. Lewis, District Judge. (2:12-cv-01957-MGL)


          David Meir Zionts, COVINGTON & BURLING LLP for Appellant.

          Michael D. Freeman, Sr., GRIFFITH, SHARP & LIIPFERT, LLC for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Robert A. Long, Jr., COVINGTON & BURLING LLP for Appellant.

          Hillary G. Meyer, GRIFFITH, SHARP & LIIPFERT, LLC for Appellees.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and TRAXLER and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

          GREGORY, Chief Judge:

         Patrick Booker, an inmate of the South Carolina Department of Corrections ("SCDC"), brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that he received a disciplinary charge in retaliation for filing a prison grievance. The district court found that Booker's First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for filing a grievance was not clearly established, and it accordingly held that Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity and granted summary judgment in their favor. Because we find that Booker's right was clearly established, we vacate the judgment and remand to the district court for further proceedings.


         Booker mailed a legal document to the Dorchester County Sherriff's Office on November 8, 2010, but it was returned to him at Lieber Correctional Institution because he had not affixed the mailing address. Booker inspected the letter and noticed a slit along the length of the envelope. According to Booker, the sergeant who returned the mail to him indicated that the "confidentiality of its contents had been compromised." J.A. 18.

         After learning this information, Booker initiated the prison grievance process by submitting a form known as a Request to Staff Member ("RSM"). The SCDC grievance process consists of several steps. Inmates must first try to "informally resolve a complaint" by either discussing their complaint with the appropriate supervisor or, as Booker did, by submitting an RSM form. J.A. 52. If informal resolution proves unsuccessful, inmates may submit a formal grievance to the Inmate Grievance Coordinator within fifteen days of the incident (known as a Step 1 grievance), with appeals to the SCDC's central Grievance Branch (a Step 2 grievance) and eventually to the South Carolina Administrative Law Court. The SCDC has a policy document titled "Inmate Grievance System, " which provides that "[n]o inmate will be subjected to reprisal, retaliation, harassment, or disciplinary action for filing a grievance or participating in the resolution of a grievance." J.A. 57-58.

         Booker's RSM, which he addressed to the "Mailroom, " made its way to Appellee Sylvia Jones, the mailroom supervisor at Lieber. J.A. 83-84. In his RSM, Booker objected to the prison's opening of and tampering with his legal mail and added that he intended to pursue civil and criminal remedies if he found his mail meddled with again.

         Jones contends that in addition to filing the RSM, Booker verbally threatened her regarding the mail incident-a fact that Booker disputes. What is undisputed is that shortly after receiving the RSM, Jones submitted an "Incident Report" recommending that Booker be charged with an "809" disciplinary offense of "Threatening to Inflict Harm on/Assaulting an Employee and/or Members of the Public." J.A. 71, 84. An 809 offense is a Level 2 Disciplinary Offense, which carries penalties of disciplinary detention, loss of accrued good behavior time, and loss of visitation, employment, television, and other privileges. J.A. 67-68, 71. A hearing was later held on the disciplinary charge, at which Booker was found not guilty because he had made "legal threats" against Jones, not physical threats. J.A. 77.

         In June 2012, Booker, proceeding pro se, filed suit in state court against Jones, SCDC, and two other SCDC employees, Ann Sheppard and Thierry Nettles. Booker alleged, along with other state and federal claims, that Jones filed a false disciplinary charge against him in retaliation for his submission of the RSM form. J.A. 18-19, 32. Booker identified the First Amendment as the source of this claim: "Sylvia Jones, Ann Sheppard and Thierry Nettles are liable unto Plaintiff in their individual/personal capacity for violating Plaintiff's First Amendment right to free speech and expression, and to be free from wrongful interference and unlawful retaliation for the exercise of such right." J.A. 32. Appellees removed the case to federal court and later moved for summary judgment.

         In its order granting the motion, the district court explained that a First Amendment retaliation claim under § 1983 consists of three elements: (1) the plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected First Amendment activity, (2) the defendant took an action that adversely affected that protected activity, and (3) there was a causal relationship between the plaintiff's protected activity and the defendant's conduct. J.A. 115 (citing Suarez Corp. Indus. v. McGraw, 202 F.3d 676, 686 (4th Cir. 2000)). The court assumed, without deciding, that Booker had engaged in constitutionally protected activity when he filed the RSM form. J.A. 113. The district court still granted Appellees' motion, however, finding Booker had failed to produce sufficient evidence that he had suffered "adverse action as a result of the 809 [disciplinary] charge." J.A. 114.

         In the first appeal, this Court vacated the district court's summary judgment order as to Booker's claim that Jones violated his First Amendment rights by submitting a disciplinary charge in retaliation for the grievance Booker submitted. Booker v. S. Carolina Dep't of Corr., 583 F.App'x 43, 45 (4th Cir. 2014). Limiting our review to the second element, as the district court did, we concluded that Booker had "produced sufficient evidence that Jones' conduct would likely deter prisoners of ordinary firmness from exercising their First Amendment rights." Id. at 44. We added that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Booker, supported a finding that the disciplinary charge filed against Booker was false. Id. We did not decide whether Booker had engaged in constitutionally protected conduct when he filed the RSM form. Id. at 44-45.

         On remand, Appellees again moved for summary judgment. The district court did not reach the merits of Booker's retaliation claim this time, instead determining that Appellees were protected by qualified immunity. The district court specifically found that a "prison inmate's free speech right to submit internal grievances" was not clearly established. J.A. 136. The court acknowledged that the right was "perhaps sufficiently recognized in other federal circuits." J.A. 136. But because "there has been no published case law from the Supreme Court of the United States, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, or the Supreme Court of South Carolina that squarely establishes" the right at issue, it concluded the right was not clearly established. J.A. 136-37. Accordingly, the court held that Appellees deserved qualified immunity on the retaliation claim and therefore granted their motion for summary judgment.

         Booker timely noticed this appeal.


         We review de novo a grant of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Durham v. Horner, 690 F.3d 183, 188 (4th Cir. 2012). Summary judgment is proper "only if taking the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, " there are no genuine disputes of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

         Qualified immunity protects officials "who commit constitutional violations but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful." Id. The doctrine weighs two important values-"the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). In conducting the qualified immunity analysis, "our first task is to identify the specific right that the plaintiff asserts was infringed by the challenged conduct." Winfield v. Bass, 106 F.3d 525, 530 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc). We then engage in a two-step inquiry, asking "whether a constitutional violation occurred" and "whether the right violated was clearly established" at the time of the official's conduct. Melgar ex rel. Melgar v. Greene, 593 F.3d 348, 353 (4th Cir. 2010). Courts have discretion to take these steps in either order. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         The "clearly established" prong lies at the heart of this case-we do not evaluate the merits of Booker's claim. A "right is clearly established only if its contours are sufficiently clear that 'a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'" Carroll v. Carman, 135 S.Ct. 348, 350 (2014) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). The unlawfulness of the official's conduct must be "apparent" in "light of pre-existing law." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640. To be clearly established, "existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011).

         We must consider not only "specifically adjudicated rights, " but also "those manifestly included within more general applications of the core constitutional principles invoked." Wall v. Wade, 741 F.3d 492, 502-03 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Pritchett v. Alford, 973 F.2d 307, 314 (4th Cir. 1992)). In other words, defendants "can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances, " so long as the law provided "fair warning" that their conduct was unconstitutional. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002).

         In conducting the clearly established analysis, we first examine "cases of controlling authority in [this] jurisdiction, " Amaechi v. West, 237 F.3d 356, 363 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 617 (1999))-that is, "decisions of the Supreme Court, this court of appeals, and the highest court of the state in which the case arose, " Owens ex rel. Owens v. Lott, 372 F.3d 267, 279 (4th Cir. 2004) (quoting Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 251 (4th Cir. 1999)).[1] We "ordinarily" need not look any further than decisions from these courts. Id. But when "there are no such decisions from courts of controlling authority, we may look to 'a consensus of cases of persuasive authority' from other jurisdictions, if such exists." Id. at 280 (emphasis added) (quoting Wilson, 526 U.S. at 617).

         The Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist, articulated that courts may rely on "a consensus of cases of persuasive authority" to determine whether a "reasonable officer could not have believed that his actions were lawful." Wilson, 526 U.S. at 617. Since Wilson, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that "qualified immunity is lost when plaintiffs point either to 'cases of controlling authority in their jurisdiction at the time of the incident' or to 'a consensus of cases of persuasive authority.'" Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 742 (quoting Wilson, 526 U.S. at 617).[2] And in evaluating whether a right is clearly established in a given circuit, the Supreme Court has looked to precedent from other circuits. See, e.g., Pearson, 555 U.S. at 244 (considering decisions from "three Federal Courts of Appeals" and noting officers "were entitled to rely on these cases, even though their own Federal Circuit had not yet ruled on" constitutional issue); Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2004) (discussing Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuit cases in finding right not clearly established in Ninth Circuit).



         Before we apply these rules to the instant case, we must first define the right at the "appropriate level of specificity, " Wilson, 526 U.S. at 615, keeping in mind that the Supreme Court has cautioned against defining the right at too "high [a] level of generality, " Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 742. See also id. (noting, for example, the "general proposition" that whether "an unreasonable search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment is of little help in determining whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established").

         At the outset, we preempt a possible point of confusion-Booker did not allege in his complaint that he has an absolute right to file prison grievances pursuant to the First Amendment. Rather, Booker alleged that he has a First Amendment right to be free from retaliation when he does file a grievance pursuant to an existing grievance procedure.[3]See J.A. 32.

         More particularly, Booker asserts that this right is rooted in the First Amendment's Petition Clause, which guarantees individuals the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." U.S. Const. amend. I. Booker contends that an inmate's right to petition is violated when he is retaliated against for filing a grievance. Appellees suggest in passing that we should not examine whether the right was established under the Petition Clause, apparently referencing the district court's refusal to consider the right to petition. With minimal explanation, the district court limited its analysis to the Free Speech Clause, stating that an "inmate's free speech right to submit internal grievances" was the right "pressed by the Plaintiff throughout this litigation." J.A. 136.

         The district court should not have limited itself so. To the extent the court considered only the free speech right because Booker mentioned that clause in his pro se complaint, we note that Booker also generally alleged a violation of the First Amendment, J.A. 31, and that courts are obligated to "liberally construe[]" pro se complaints, "however inartfully pleaded, " Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).[4] Booker also directly argued to the district court that "[i]nstead of analyzing the first element to a First Amendment retaliation claim in the context of [] public employee speech, the [magistrate judge] should have realized that the facts in this case related more to a deprivation of Plaintiff's right to petition the government." Pl.'s Objections to Report and Recommendation, Dist. Ct. ECF No. 160, at 5 (May 6, ...

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