788 F.2d 954 (3rd Cir. 1986), 85-3073, Ali v. Sims

Docket Nº:Ishmael Muslim ALI, Appellee in 85-3073, Cross-Appellant in 85-3143,
Citation:788 F.2d 954
Case Date:April 21, 1986
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Page 954

788 F.2d 954 (3rd Cir. 1986)

Ishmael Muslim ALI, Appellee in 85-3073, Cross-Appellant in 85-3143,

v.

Rudolph SIMS, Edwin Potter, Richard Schraeder, James Daniel

and Brenda Blyden.

Appeal of Rudolph SIMS, Director, Bureau of Corrections,

Edwin Potter, Warden, Richard Schraeder, Committer Chairman,

James Daniel, Committee Member and Brenda Blyden, Committee

Member, Appellants in 85-3073, Cross-Appellees in 85- 3143.

Nos. 85-3073, 85-3143.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 21, 1986

Argued Dec. 3, 1985.

Benjamin A. Currence (argued), Pallme & Mitchell, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, for appellee/cross-appellant.

Cornelius Evans (argued), Dept. of Law, Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, for appellants/cross-appellees.

Page 955

Before HUNTER, GARTH and BECKER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

These are cross-appeals from the judgment of the district court of the Virgin Islands awarding damages to the plaintiff, a prison inmate, for the violation of his due process rights; the defendants appeal the finding of liability, while plaintiff's appeal concerns the amount of the damages. Defendants' appeal presents the question of the propriety of the district court's imposition of sanctions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 that led to a grant of partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff on liability; the partial summary judgment was an important basis for the jury's award of damages.

We hold that the district court's sanctions order was an abuse of discretion. Because the sanctions order led to a finding of liability, we vacate the judgment against defendants. In the ordinary course we would remand the case to the district court for a new trial. However, this case presents a special problem in that regard because plaintiff, Ishmael Muslim Ali, is a fugitive from justice. 1 We therefore must decide whether Ali is entitled to proceed with a new trial in view of his fugitive status. For the reasons that follow we conclude that he is not.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On November 2, 1979, Ali, then a prisoner in the custody of the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections, was placed in solitary confinement ("lockdown") on the grounds that he had disrupted institutional security. He was not given a hearing prior to his confinement, and remained in solitary confinement for nineteen days before he received a hearing. On November 20, a disciplinary hearing was held, at which Ali was found guilty of disrupting the institution and was sentenced to ninety more days in solitary confinement.

On October 29, 1980, acting pro se, Ali filed a complaint in the District Court of the Virgin Islands alleging that five prison officials had infringed his due process rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. The complaint alleged due process violations both in the initial lockdown without a hearing and in the sentence of ninety days' lockdown following the hearing. Ali sought monetary damages against three of the defendants, a declaratory judgment that all five defendants had violated his constitutional rights, and an injunction prohibiting future discrimination against him. Some defendants answered on December 16, the others on December 24.

The docket sheet suggests that there was no activity in this case from January, 1981 to June, 1983, and the record offers no explanation for this long period of inactivity. In June, 1983, trial was scheduled for February, 1984. The trial date was continued, however, and on January 26, 1984, Ali, still acting pro se, filed and served upon defendants a demand for production of documents, and on February 21, filed and served several interrogatories. Defendants did not respond to these discovery requests. On May 31, 1984, a United States Magistrate, to whom the matter had apparently been referred, ordered a response to plaintiff's discovery requests within 15 days; however, the order was not complied with.

While the record is unclear as to the precise events during this time period, it appears that defendants, all public officials, who for some reason had been represented

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by private counsel, were in the process of shifting to representation by the attorney general's office. On January 30, 1984, Albert Sheen, who then represented the three appellants, moved for a continuance (the trial was then scheduled for February 6) stating that at the time he undertook representation of defendants, "it was anticipated that the Office of the Attorney General would have been substituted in [my] stead, prior to trial.... [W]ithin 15 days of today's date, counsel will either secure substitution through the office of the Attorney General, or file whatever motions may be appropriate." On August 7, the district court approved the replacement of Sheen by the attorney general's office.

On October 9, 1984, the district court, sua sponte, and pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b), entered an order that "the factual allegations of plaintiff's complaint shall be deemed admitted." The entire articulated grounds of the sanctions order was defendants having "brazenly ignored" the magistrate's May 31 order to respond promptly to plaintiff's discovery requests. Based on the fact that the material allegations of plaintiff's complaint were deemed admitted, the district court granted summary judgment in Ali's favor with respect to the charge that the initial lockdown violated Ali's due process rights. The court did not grant summary judgment with respect to the claim that the lengthy lockdown following the hearing violated due process.

The trial finally commenced on December 27, 1984, and was completed on December 28. By this time, Ali was represented by counsel. The jury was given separate verdict forms with respect to the three defendants against whom monetary damages were sought. 2 The forms informed the jury that the court had already determined that defendants had violated Ali's due process rights in placing him in lockdown without a hearing for the initial twenty days, and asked the jury to determine whether defendants violated Ali's due process rights by keeping him in lockdown for ninety days following the November 10 hearing. The jury found each of the three defendants liable on that count as well. The verdict forms required the jury to determine damages with respect to each of the three defendants. The jury listed on each defendant's form liability of $2,250 for compensatory damages and $1,750 for punitive damages. It was not entirely clear from the jury forms, however, whether the verdict was intended to award $4,000 total, or $4,000 against each defendant.

On January 18, 1985 the district court entered a judgment that interpreted the jury forms as stating that the total liability for the three defendants was $4,000 (rather than $4,000 liability for each defendant). Defendants appealed from this judgment on January 21. On February 19, the district court entered an amended judgment which assessed damages in the same amount. See supra note 2. On February 22, Ali appealed from this judgment, maintaining that the district court improperly interpreted the jury verdict and asserting that the jury awarded $4,000 against each defendant. 3

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II. PROPRIETY OF THE GRANT OF PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Defendants request a new trial primarily on the grounds that the judge improperly ordered Rule 37(b) sanctions that resulted in the grant of partial summary judgment in Ali's favor. 4 It is well-settled that a court has discretion to issue sanctions for failure to comply with discovery orders. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2). See National Hockey League v. Metropolitan Hockey Club, 427 U.S. 639, 96 S.Ct. 2778, 49 L.Ed.2d 747 (1976). The Rule 37(b)(2) sanctions include:

  1. An order that the matters regarding which the order was made or any other designated facts shall be taken to be established for the purposes of the action in accordance with the claim of the party obtaining the order.

  2. An order refusing to allow the disobedient party to support or oppose designated claims or defenses, or prohibiting him from introducing designated matters in evidence;

  3. An order striking out pleadings or parts thereof, or staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed, or dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof, or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party.

The district court's discretion is not unlimited, however. Two recent cases in this circuit set forth the factors to be considered in evaluating the propriety of Rule 37 sanctions. Poulis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir.1984); Scarborough v....

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