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Francis v. Coughlin

decided: December 4, 1989.

ALBERT FRANCIS, JR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
THOMAS A. COUGHLIN, III, COMMISSIONER, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES; CHARLES J. SCULLY, SUPERINTENDENT, GREEN HAVEN CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; CAPT. RONALD E. MILES, GREEN HAVEN CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; LT. CHARLES GREINER; SGT. B.J. FARRELL; RONALD LEIGHT, RICHARD W. PROUTY, FRANK ARIZMENDI, CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS; HAROLD J. SMITH, SUPERINTENDENT, ATTICA CORRECTIONAL FACILITY; AND CHARLES HERNANDEZ, ALL OF NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES, JOINTLY, SEVERALLY & INDIVIDUALLY, RESPECTIVELY, DEFENDANTS, CHARLES GREINER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Owen, Judge, in a prison inmate case, rejecting defendant's claim of entitlement to qualified immunity, and denying his motion for judgment on the pleadings, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Affirmed in part; reversed in part; and remanded.

Meskill, Pierce, and Mahoney, Circuit Judges.

Author: Pierce

PIERCE, Circuit Judge:

This appeal involves the rights of an inmate during the course of a prison disciplinary hearing. We must determine whether, in July 1982, an inmate charged with violating regulations in a New York State prison enjoyed a clearly established constitutional right (1) to a hearing before a hearing officer who had not prejudged his guilt; (2) to be informed about and to comment on the evidence against him; and (3) to be present during the testimony of his witnesses. The district court ruled in favor of plaintiff-appellee on each point. We hold that the first and second rights were clearly established, and, hence, as to those rights, we affirm.*fn1 As to the alleged third right, we conclude that such a right was not clearly established, and, hence, we reverse.

BACKGROUND

In July of 1982, appellee Albert Francis, Jr., was an inmate at New York State's Green Haven Correctional Facility. On July 23, 1982, Francis was accused by two corrections officers of participating in a fight between inmates and prison officials. On July 30-31, 1982, in accordance with prison policy, a "Superintendent's Proceeding" was held to determine whether Francis violated prison rules. The hearing was conducted by appellant, Lt. Charles Greiner, who was assigned to serve as hearing officer and who found Francis had violated the rules. As a sanction, Francis was, inter alia, segregated from the general prison population and penalized 365 days good time credit.

Francis was subsequently transferred to Attica Correctional Facility, where he commenced an Article 78 proceeding in New York State Supreme Court, Wyoming County, seeking release from the segregated Special Housing Unit ("SHU") into which he had been placed and restoration of his good time allowance. Converting the suit into a habeas corpus action, the New York court vacated the findings of the Superintendent's Proceeding, concluding that the proceeding was conducted in violation of state law. A second hearing was held by the prison authorities on March 4, 1983, with substantially the same outcome and the same punishment imposed as at the first hearing. The second hearing -- which was not conducted by Charles Greiner -- was also successfully challenged by Francis in New York State Supreme Court. Francis was then released into the general prison population, having spent 311 days in SHU.

After prevailing in the second state court proceeding on April 29, 1983, Francis, on March 21, 1984, commenced a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. In this action, Francis, pro se, alleged that various state officials had violated his federal constitutional rights by knowingly bringing false charges against him and by conducting the subsequent disciplinary hearings in an unlawful manner. Defendants, including Greiner, moved for dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The motion was denied by the district court. On appeal, a panel of this circuit reversed and remanded, holding that the district court erred in failing to address the qualified immunity defense that was raised in the Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Francis v. Coughlin, 849 F.2d 778 (2d Cir. 1988) (per curiam). Upon remand, the district court again denied the motion, which, because discovery had been completed in the interim, this time included in the alternative a request for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Pursuant to the collateral order doctrine, Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 524-30, 86 L. Ed. 2d 411, 105 S. Ct. 2806 (1985), Greiner again appeals to this court, pressing his claim that he is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Francis's claims that Greiner denied him (1) his right to a hearing before a hearing officer who had not prejudged his guilt; (2) his right to be told what the evidence against him was, and to comment on that evidence; and (3) his right to call witnesses and to be present for their testimony.

Discussion

The broad contours of the doctrine of qualified immunity were delineated by the Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396, 102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982); Harlow instructs that government officials performing discretionary functions are immunized from suit "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. at 818. To defeat an official's claim of qualified immunity, the individual's right must have been clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Id.

Several guidelines have emerged from case law to clarify a court's inquiry into when a right is clearly established. First, the particular right under consideration must be defined with reasonable specificity. Next, the court must determine whether the decisional law of the Supreme Court or the appropriate circuit court has clearly established the right in question. The ultimate inquiry is whether in light of preexisting law the unlawfulness of the defendant official's actions is apparent. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 107 S. Ct. 3034, 3039, 97 L. Ed. 2d 523 (1987).

A. Bias and Prejudgment

Francis alleges that he "was entitled to a hearing before a hearing officer who had not prejudged his guilt," and that this right was clearly established in 1982. For the reasons stated below, we agree.

We recognize that the degree of impartiality required of prison hearing officials does not rise to the level of that required of judges generally. Because of the special characteristics of the prison environment, it is permissible for the impartiality of such officials to be encumbered by various conflicts of interest that, in other contexts, would be adjudged of sufficient magnitude to violate due process. See Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 203-04, 88 L. Ed. 2d 507, 106 S. Ct. 496 (1985). This fact, however, is not dispositive of the claim at issue here. Francis's allegation goes beyond the mere assertion that Greiner was less than a perfectly neutral arbiter, and that Francis was thus denied a fair chance to prevail at the disciplinary hearing. Instead, Francis contends that because of Greiner's bias, he (Francis) had no chance to prevail at the hearing. Since the touchstone of the right of due process is freedom from ...


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