E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Inmate’s Civil Claim For Procedural Due Process Violations
Claude P. Lacombe v. Sergeant Kevin R. McKenna, et al.
Claude P. Lacombe v. Sergeant Kevin R. McKenna, et al. involved the United States District Court for the District of Delaware’s screening of an inmate’s civil rights lawsuit against a prison guard and two (2) prison officials, pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b). The Court concluded that the inmate failed to allege a violation of his procedural due process rights as set forth in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974). Thus, the Court dismissed the inmate’s Complaint as frivolous.
By way of factual background, Plaintiff Claude P. Lacombe (“Plaintiff”), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants, Sergeant Kevin R. McKenna (“McKenna”), Lieutenant Larry Savage (“Savage”), and Lieutenant Brian Reynolds (“Reynolds”), violated his constitutional rights. On November 11, 2015, Plaintiff was in a common shower area when McKenna entered the area. McKenna stated that he smelled marijuana and told Plaintiff that if Plaintiff did not implicate who was smoking, he would be moved to segregation and charged with any contraband found in the area. Plaintiff refused to cooperate. The inmates in the area were strip searched, but no contraband was found on Plaintiff. During McKenna’s search of the area, he discovered ash, wire, and white paper. McKenna told Plaintiff that, because he refused to cooperate, he would be charged with the found contraband and moved to segregation. Plaintiff alleged that McKenna falsified a report that he “saw [Plaintiff] smoking” and “witnessed [Plaintiff] destroy evidence of marijuana.” Once Plaintiff received the write-up, he provided a urine sample which tested negative for any drugs. The substance abuse claim was dropped, but Plaintiff was charged with promoting prison contraband and falsifying physical evidence. He was found guilty, appealed, and the appeal was denied by prison officials.
Plaintiff alleged that Savage and Reynolds, who presided over Plaintiff’s disciplinary hearing, failed to correct McKenna’s “error” after Plaintiff explained to them “a more reasonable theory contrary to McKenna’s false statement.” He alleged that Savage and Reynolds violated his right to procedural due process under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution for failing to provide him relief on the remaining write-ups when it was proven that the contraband was found in a common area and not on Plaintiff’s person. Plaintiff also alleged that McKenna’s actions violated his right to procedural due process. Finally, Plaintiff alleged that his right to procedural due process was violated through the introduction of McKenna’s false statements, thus prejudicing the disciplinary proceedings and, therefore, unjustly punishing him.
The Court began its analysis by noting that “a federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b) if the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” See Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) (in forma pauperis actions); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (prisoner actions brought with respect to prison conditions).
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that, to the extent Plaintiff alleged that McKenna authored a false write-up, the claim failed. The Court explained that the “filing of false disciplinary charges does not constitute a claim under § 1983 so long as the inmate was granted a hearing and an opportunity to rebut the charges.” See Crosby v. Piazza, 465 F.App’x 168, 172 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Smith v. Mensinger, 293 F.3d 641, 653-54 (3d Cir. 2002)). The Court noted that there were no allegations that Plaintiff was denied a hearing and, to the contrary, Plaintiff stated that the matter was heard, that he appealed the guilty finding, and that his appeal was denied. Therefore, the Court concluded that it would dismiss the claim to the extent it was based on McKenna’s allegedly false statements.
Similarly, the Court found that Plaintiff’s procedural due process claim also failed. The Court noted that, “while prisoners retain certain basic constitutional rights, including procedural due process protections, prison disciplinary hearings are not part of criminal prosecution, and an inmate’s rights at such hearings may be curtailed by the demands and realities of the prison environment.” See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556-57 (1974); Young v. Kann, 926 F.2d 1396, 1399 (3d Cir. 1991). The Court explained that the requirements of due process in prison disciplinary hearings are that an inmate is entitled to: (1) “written notice of the charges and not less than 24 hours to marshal the facts and prepare a defense for an appearance at the disciplinary hearing;” (2) “a written statement by the fact finder as to the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action;” and (3) “an opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense when to do so will not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or correctional goals.” See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 563-71.
The Court noted that Plaintiff complained that McKenna issued a false write-up and that Reynolds and Savage failed to correct McKenna’s “error.” The Court reiterated that there were no allegations that Plaintiff was denied a disciplinary hearing, and found that there were “no allegations that even remotely hint at a violation of his procedural due process rights as set forth in Wolff.” According to the Court, while Plaintiff was unhappy with the finding of guilt and what he perceived as a false disciplinary write-up, “Plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were not violated” and, therefore, his claim was “not cognizable as a § 1983 claim under the holding of Wolff.” Accordingly, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Complaint as legally frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and § 1915A(b).
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