Wake Forest Law Review

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By Daniel Stratton

On December 29, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part, and reversed in part, a district court’s dismissal of an inmate’s Federal Tort Claims Act (“FCTA”) claim, after he was stabbed and severely beaten by fellow inmates  in the published civil case Rich v. United States. The appellant, Joshua Rich, argued on appeal that the district court incorrectly dismissed his claim after determining that the FCTA’s discretionary function exception applied to the prison officials’ conduct. The Fourth Circuit, after reviewing Rich’s appeal, affirmed the district court’s determination that the prison officials’ decisions on prisoner placement were shielded by the discretionary function exception, but reversed the lower court’s decision regarding Rich’s opportunity to engage in discovery about the prison officials’ claims that they properly searched Rich’s attackers before placing them in proximity to Rich.

Rich is Sentenced to Fifty-Seven Years, Claims He was Targeted by Aryan Brotherhood While Incarcerated

In 2008, Rich was sentenced by the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah to fifty-seven years’ imprisonment, following his conviction for armed bank robbery, and for carrying a firearm in relation to the crime. He entered the U.S. Bureau of Prison (“BOP”)’s custody in September 2008.

Rich alleges that he was targeted by the white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood, almost immediately after entering the BOP’s prison system for refusing to participate in the group’s criminal activities. Rich was transferred to several prisons over the course of 2008 to 2011 and required separation from the Aryan Brotherhood. In February 2011, Rich was moved to a U.S. penitentiary in West Virginia, USP Hazelton. While at USP Hazelton, Rich was attacked by five inmates on August 5, 2011, after they were put into the same recreation area, or “cage.”

Rich was severely beaten and stabbed multiple times. His injuries included laceration to his liver, among others, and he underwent several invasive surgeries as a result. A nine-inch homemade knife was recovered in the cage where the attack occurred.

Rich sued the federal government under the FCTA, claiming negligence on the part of the prison officials when they failed to protect him from harm. He argued that the prison’s correctional officers should have kept him separated from his attackers, and that those officers had failed to properly screen or search the other inmates before placing them in the same cage as Rich. The government moved to dismiss Rich’s claim, asserting that the discretionary function exception applied to both the prison officials’ decisions about separating Rich and his attackers and to the way in which the officers searched the attackers. The district court agreed with the government, and additionally found that Rich was not entitled to any discovery about whether the prison had any directives mandating a particular approach to performing pat downs and searches. As a result, the district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The FCTA, the Discretionary Function Exception, and Their Application to Federal Prisons

The United States is generally immune from suit under the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, however the FCTA provides an exception. Under the FCTA, sovereign immunity is waived when the federal government “would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred” for torts like negligence when they are committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment.  The FCTA’s discretionary function exception limits this waiver, however, in situations where an employee must perform a discretionary function or duty.

To determine whether conduct fits within this exception, courts generally apply a two-pronged test. First, the court determines if the challenged conduct involves an element of judgment or choice. If a statute, regulation, or policy sets out a specific course of action to the degree that there is no exercise of discretion, then the exception does not apply. If the action does involve an element of judgment, the court must then tackle the second prong, which is to determine whether the judgment was based on considerations of public policy. If it was, then a government employee defendant can assert that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the exception.

If a defendant disputes the allegations in a complaint that could establish subject matter jurisdiction, a court may engage in an evidentiary hearing to determine if there are facts that support the jurisdictional allegations. Generally, under these circumstances, a plaintiff’s allegations in his complaint are not afforded a presumption of truthfulness. However, if the jurisdictional facts are intertwined with merit facts central to the complaint, a presumption of truthfulness will attach to the plaintiff’s claims. While the application of the discretionary function exception to decisions about the separation of prisoners is an issue of first impression for the Fourth Circuit, other circuits have weighed in on this issue previously.

The Fourth Circuit Decides that the Discretionary Function Exception Applies to Decisions about Separating Prisoners

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by determining if the discretionary function exception applied to the prison officers’ decision to place Rich and his attackers in the same cage. The first step in this analysis was to apply prong one of the two-pronged test. Noting that the BOP is tasked with protecting and caring for all persons in its custody, the Fourth Circuit explained that the BOP retained discretion in implementing those tasks. Prison officials must consider and balance several factors when determining if an individual inmate may require separation. This, the Court concluded, satisfied the first prong of the test.

The Court, noting the issue of first impression, drew on other circuits’ experiences in determining whether the second prong was met. Other circuits, including the Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh have previously held that prisoner placement and potential threats to prisoners against one another was a standard part of the public policy considerations of maintaining order and security in federal prisons. Those circuits viewed factors such as available resources, proper classification of inmates, and appropriate security levels as inherent in various policy questions. Following in the other circuits’ footsteps, the Fourth Circuit agreed that prison officials should be afforded discretion in determining prisoner placement and separation. This, the Court held, meant that the discretionary function exception shielded prison officials from liability regarding whether they should have kept Rich separated from his attackers.  The Fourth Circuit, in turn, affirmed the lower court’s refusal to grant discovery on this issue.

Turning to the question of whether Rich should be granted discovery as to his allegations that the prison did not properly search the attackers before putting them in his recreation cage, the Fourth Circuit diverged from the district court. On this claim, the Fourth Circuit found that the disputed jurisdictional facts were intertwined with the merits of Rich’s claim that the prison had not properly executed pat downs of the attackers. Citing the fact that the prison officials’ signed declarations that they had performed pat downs of the attackers stood in contrast to Rich’s allegations, the Fourth Circuit explained that the allegations applied to both the merits of Rich’s claim as well as the jurisdictional questions over his claim.

The Court argued that a period of discovery would give Rich the opportunity to challenge the prison officials’ declarations that they carried out the searches. The Court also explained that even if they accepted the declarations as fact, those did not resolve the question about whether the pat down searches were carried out correctly. The Fourth Circuit reasoned that because the pat downs were to be conducted as outlined in the Correctional Services Manual, this suggested the existence of specific directives which Rich should be permitted to find in discovery.

Because inmates who have a history of weapons possession are required to undergo visual searches, including a body cavity search, prior to entering a recreation area, discovery could reveal whether any of the attackers had such a history and if such a search was undertaken.

The Court finally noted that Rich could potentially establish jurisdiction under this claim if he could show that the discretionary conduct engaged in by the prison officers was marked by carelessness or laziness, because such conduct cannot be grounded in policy decisions.

The Fourth Circuit Vacates and Remands to Allow Discovery on the Prison Officials’ Pat downs

While the Fourth Circuit affirmed that the discretionary function exception shielded the decision to place Rich and his attackers in the same recreation cage, the Court vacated and remanded to allow Rich to engage in discovery on the issue of whether and how prison officials performed pat downs and searches.