Booker v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 15-7679

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation855 F.3d 533
Docket NumberNo. 15-7679,15-7679
Parties Patrick L. BOOKER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS ; Sylvia Jones; Ann Sheppard; Thierry Nettles, Defendants-Appellees.
Decision Date28 April 2017

855 F.3d 533

Patrick L. BOOKER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS ; Sylvia Jones; Ann Sheppard; Thierry Nettles, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 15-7679

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

Argued: December 6, 2016
Decided: April 28, 2017


ARGUED: David Meir Zionts, COVINGTON & BURLING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Michael D. Freeman, Sr., GRIFFITH, SHARP & LIIPFERT, LLC, Beaufort, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Robert A. Long, Jr., COVINGTON & BURLING LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Hillary G. Meyer, GRIFFITH, SHARP & LIIPFERT, LLC, Beaufort, South Carolina, for Appellees.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and TRAXLER and DIAZ, Circuit Judges.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Chief Judge Gregory wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Diaz joined. Judge Traxler wrote a dissenting opinion.

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

Patrick Booker, an inmate of the South Carolina Department of Corrections

855 F.3d 536

("SCDC"), brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that he received a disciplinary charge in retaliation for filing a prison grievance. The district court found that Booker's First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for filing a grievance was not clearly established, and it accordingly held that Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity and granted summary judgment in their favor. Because we find that Booker's right was clearly established, we vacate the judgment and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

I.

Booker mailed a legal document to the Dorchester County Sherriff's Office on November 8, 2010, but it was returned to him at Lieber Correctional Institution because he had not affixed the mailing address. Booker inspected the letter and noticed a slit along the length of the envelope. According to Booker, the sergeant who returned the mail to him indicated that the "confidentiality of its contents had been compromised." J.A. 18.

After learning this information, Booker initiated the prison grievance process by submitting a form known as a Request to Staff Member ("RSM"). The SCDC grievance process consists of several steps. Inmates must first try to "informally resolve a complaint" by either discussing their complaint with the appropriate supervisor or, as Booker did, by submitting an RSM form. J.A. 52. If informal resolution proves unsuccessful, inmates may submit a formal grievance to the Inmate Grievance Coordinator within fifteen days of the incident (known as a Step 1 grievance), with appeals to the SCDC's central Grievance Branch (a Step 2 grievance) and eventually to the South Carolina Administrative Law Court. The SCDC has a policy document titled "Inmate Grievance System," which provides that "[n]o inmate will be subjected to reprisal, retaliation, harassment, or disciplinary action for filing a grievance or participating in the resolution of a grievance." J.A. 57–58.

Booker's RSM, which he addressed to the "Mailroom," made its way to Appellee Sylvia Jones, the mailroom supervisor at Lieber. J.A. 83–84. In his RSM, Booker objected to the prison's opening of and tampering with his legal mail and added that he intended to pursue civil and criminal remedies if he found his mail meddled with again.

Jones contends that in addition to filing the RSM, Booker verbally threatened her regarding the mail incident—a fact that Booker disputes. What is undisputed is that shortly after receiving the RSM, Jones submitted an "Incident Report" recommending that Booker be charged with an "809" disciplinary offense of "Threatening to Inflict Harm on/Assaulting an Employee and/or Members of the Public." J.A. 71, 84. An 809 offense is a Level 2 Disciplinary Offense, which carries penalties of disciplinary detention, loss of accrued good behavior time, and loss of visitation, employment, television, and other privileges. J.A. 67–68, 71. A hearing was later held on the disciplinary charge, at which Booker was found not guilty because he had made "legal threats" against Jones, not physical threats. J.A. 77.

In June 2012, Booker, proceeding pro se, filed suit in state court against Jones, SCDC, and two other SCDC employees, Ann Sheppard and Thierry Nettles. Booker alleged, along with other state and federal claims, that Jones filed a false disciplinary charge against him in retaliation for his submission of the RSM form. J.A. 18–19, 32. Booker identified the First Amendment as the source of this claim: "Sylvia Jones, Ann Sheppard and Thierry Nettles are liable unto Plaintiff in their

855 F.3d 537

individual/personal capacity for violating Plaintiff's First Amendment right to free speech and expression, and to be free from wrongful interference and unlawful retaliation for the exercise of such right." J.A. 32. Appellees removed the case to federal court and later moved for summary judgment.

In its order granting the motion, the district court explained that a First Amendment retaliation claim under § 1983 consists of three elements: (1) the plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected First Amendment activity, (2) the defendant took an action that adversely affected that protected activity, and (3) there was a causal relationship between the plaintiff's protected activity and the defendant's conduct. J.A. 115 (citing Suarez Corp. Indus. v. McGraw , 202 F.3d 676, 686 (4th Cir. 2000) ). The court assumed, without deciding, that Booker had engaged in constitutionally protected activity when he filed the RSM form. J.A. 113. The district court still granted Appellees' motion, however, finding Booker had failed to produce sufficient evidence that he had suffered "adverse action as a result of the 809 [disciplinary] charge." J.A. 114.

In the first appeal, this Court vacated the district court's summary judgment order as to Booker's claim that Jones violated his First Amendment rights by submitting a disciplinary charge in retaliation for the grievance Booker submitted. Booker v. S. Carolina Dep't of Corr. , 583 Fed.Appx. 43, 45 (4th Cir. 2014). Limiting our review to the second element, as the district court did, we concluded that Booker had "produced sufficient evidence that Jones' conduct would likely deter prisoners of ordinary firmness from exercising their First Amendment rights." Id. at 44. We added that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Booker, supported a finding that the disciplinary charge filed against Booker was false. Id. We did not decide whether Booker had engaged in constitutionally protected conduct when he filed the RSM form. Id. at 44–45.

On remand, Appellees again moved for summary judgment. The district court did not reach the merits of Booker's retaliation claim this time, instead determining that Appellees were protected by qualified immunity. The district court specifically found that a "prison inmate's free speech right to submit internal grievances" was not clearly established. J.A. 136. The court acknowledged that the right was "perhaps sufficiently recognized in other federal circuits." J.A. 136. But because "there has been no published case law from the Supreme Court of the United States, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, or the Supreme Court of South Carolina that squarely establishes" the right at issue, it concluded the right was not clearly established. J.A. 136–37. Accordingly, the court held that Appellees deserved qualified immunity on the retaliation claim and therefore granted their motion for summary judgment.

Booker timely noticed this appeal.

II.

We review de novo a grant of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Durham v. Horner , 690 F.3d 183, 188 (4th Cir. 2012). Summary judgment is proper "only if taking the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party," there are no genuine disputes of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Henry v. Purnell , 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

Qualified immunity protects officials "who commit constitutional violations

855 F.3d 538

but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful." Id. The doctrine weighs two important values—"the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). In conducting the qualified immunity analysis, "our first task is to identify the specific right that the plaintiff asserts was infringed by the challenged conduct." Winfield v. Bass , 106 F.3d 525, 530 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc). We then engage in a two-step inquiry, asking "whether a constitutional violation occurred" and "whether the right violated was clearly established" at the time of the official's conduct. Melgar ex rel. Melgar v. Greene , 593 F.3d 348, 353 (4th Cir. 2010). Courts have discretion to take these steps in either order. Pearson , 555 U.S. at 236, 129 S.Ct. 808.

The "clearly established" prong lies at the heart of this case—we do not evaluate the merits of Booker's claim. A "right is...

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