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7th Circuit allows inmate’s due process claim to continue

May 11, 2017

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed summary judgment against a federal inmate on his constitutional due process claims, finding that the reviews of his prolonged stay in solitary confinement may not pass constitutional muster.

In Aaron E. Isby v. Richard Brown, et al., 15-3334, Aaron Isby was convicted in 1989 of robbery resulting in serious bodily injury and incarcerated in the Pendleton Correctional Facility. After an altercation with a correctional facility counselor who was allegedly verbally abuse, officers gassed Isby and entered his cell with dogs, a fire hose and an armed cell-extraction team.

One of the dogs was killed in the ensuing altercation, and Isby stabbed two correctional officers, one in the neck and one in the head through a helmet. He was subsequently conviction of two counts of attempted murder and battery, was sentenced to an additional 40 years in prison and began receiving multiple major-conduct reports at the various correctional facilities he was moved to throughout the state.

Eventually Isby was transferred to the Wabash Valley Correction Facility in October 2006, where he was initially housed in the general population. However, a few weeks after his arrival, Isby was transferred to solitary confinement, where he has remained ever since. He is allowed one hour of exercise time outside of his cell each day and can also be outside of his cell for social, attorney or medical visits, but he does not have access to the vocational, work or educational programs offered to other inmates.

Prison officers testified that Isby’s continued segregation is due to the previous incident with the police dogs, his “extremely argumentative and disrespectful” attitude and his failure to sign up for inmate reconditioning programs. When Jerry Snyder, team manager of the solitary confinement unit, advised Isby in 2014 he was considering transferring him to a New Castle transition unit, Isby refused to go to New Castle and instead demanded to be immediately released to the general population at Wabash.

Isby filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in May 2012, after being granted permission to proceed in forma pauperis, alleging that his assignment to solitary confinement violated his Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment and that the alleged inadequate review of his continued assignment to solitary confinement was in violation of his due process rights under the 14th Amendment. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the due process claim, arguing, among other things, they were entitled to qualified immunity.

Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson granted summary judgment on the due process claim, then also entered judgment in the defendants’ favor on his Eighth Amendment claims in September 2015. Specifically, the district court found Isby’s continued placement in administrative segregation was “a result of his own refusal to cooperate in any way with prison officials in efforts to transition him into the general housing population.”

Isby was again granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal, and in February 2017, just five days before oral argument before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, another panel of the court dismissed another appeal brought by Isby in a different case, Isby-Israel v. Lemmon, 16-2697, 2017 WL 465670 (7th Cir. Feb. 3, 2017). In that case, the panel wrote Isby “knew (from the dismissal of one of his earlier actions) that he had already accumulated three ‘strikes’ for filing frivolous suits of appeals,” so he had to pay the full filing fee upfront.

The defendants in the instant case then moved for dismissal, arguing “the facts and circumstance in this appeal are nearly identical (to those of Isby-Israel).” But in a Wednesday opinion, 7th Circuit Judge Joel Flaum wrote the requirements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s three-strikes provision are procedural, not jurisdictional. Thus, because the length of Isby’s stay in solitary confinement “implicates serious constitutional concerns,” the court denied the motion to dismiss and instead chose to consider Isby’s case on its merits and accept his counsel’s payment of his fees.

The 7th Circuit then affirmed the district court’s decision on Isby’s Eighth Amendment claim, finding “no evidence of serious, physical, mental, or psychological harm to Isby… .” However, the appellate court noted it found Isby’s prolonged confinement “greatly disturbing.”

But the court also found that “given the long stretches of time during which Isby had no serious disciplinary problems, as well as the conflicting evidence as to the reasons for his ongoing segregation, Isby has raised triable issues of material fact regarding whether his reviews were meaningful or pretextual.” Further, there is also a dispute as to whether the 30- and 90-day reviews of his confinement meet the constitutional due process standards. Thus, Isby’s due process claims should have survived summary judgment.

Finally, the 7th Circuit ruled that summary judgment was also precluded on the basis of qualified immunity given the facts of the case. Thus, the case was remanded to further address Isby’s 14th Amendment claims, and Isby was ordered to pay all remaining fees to the district and appellate court.
 

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