Campbell v. Florian

Decision Date20 August 2020
Docket NumberNo. 19-6417,19-6417
Citation972 F.3d 385
Parties Marion Katrell CAMPBELL, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff – Appellee, v. Chris FLORIAN; David Tatarsky, Defendants – Appellants, and South Carolina Department of Corrections; Brian P. Stirling, Director of South Carolina Department of Corrections, Defendants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Charles Clifford Rollins, RICHARDSON PLOWDEN & ROBINSON, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants. Christopher P. Kenney, RICHARD A. HARPOOTLIAN P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Eugene H. Matthews, RICHARDSON PLOWDEN & ROBINSON, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants. Richard A. Harpootlian, RICHARD A. HARPOOTLIAN P.A., Columbia, South Carolina; Charles W. Whetstone, Jr., Cheryl F. Perkins, WHETSTONE, PERKINS & FULDA, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina; Philip A. Berlinsky, BERLINSKY AND LING, LLC, North Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before NIEMEYER, AGEE, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

Reversed by published opinion. Judge Richardson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge Agee joined.

RICHARDSON, Circuit Judge:

This suit raises interesting questions about the liability of government attorneys when an agency adopts their legal interpretation, but a court later disagrees. According to lawyers for the South Carolina Department of Corrections ("SCDC"), state law required Marion Campbell to serve at least eighty-five percent of his drug-distribution sentence before he could be released. The South Carolina Administrative Law Court agreed; the South Carolina Court of Appeals did not. Based on the appeals court's ruling, the SCDC should have freed Campbell earlier than he was actually released based on the application of work and good-conduct credits.

After his release, Campbell filed this § 1983 suit. He asserts that the SCDC lawyers' analysis of South Carolina law was erroneous and violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments" by prolonging his detention. But we find that qualified immunity shields the government attorneys. Assuming Campbell's continued detention falls within the ambit of the Eighth Amendment, the SCDC lawyers were not deliberately indifferent to his plight. So Campbell has failed to make out a constitutional violation, and his suit must be dismissed.

I. Facts

On April 22, 2010, Marion Campbell was indicted in Colleton County, South Carolina for "manufacturing or distribution of cocaine base" (third offense). J.A. 26. And in December 2011, Campbell pleaded guilty to distribution of crack cocaine (second offense) in violation of S.C. Code. § 44-53-375(B)(2). A South Carolina circuit court judge sentenced him to seven years' imprisonment.1

Yet, in South Carolina (as in the federal system), the imposition of a seven-year sentence does not necessarily mean the convicted will remain behind bars for seven years. As relevant here, South Carolina inmates may be entitled to apply work credits and good-time credits to the balance of their sentence. For every two days that an inmate works on a "productive duty assignment," he may receive a day's credit. § 24-13-230(A). And prisoners who "faithfully observed all the rules of the institution where [they are confined]," are granted good-time credits "at the rate of twenty days for each month served." § 24-13-210(A); cf. 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b) (governing federal good-time credits).

Although these credits may cut the time a prisoner spends behind bars, they do not apply to all South Carolina inmates without restriction. The South Carolina legislature has classified certain offenses as "no parole offenses." S.C. Code § 24-13-100. Prisoners convicted of these offenses must serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentence as imposed. § 24-13-150(A) ("Notwithstanding any other provision of law ... an inmate convicted of a ‘no parole offense’ ... is not eligible for early release, discharge, or community supervision ... until the inmate has served at least eighty-five percent of the actual term of imprisonment imposed."); see also §§ 24-13-210(B), -230(B). As a result, an inmate's work and good-conduct credits do not kick in for "no parole offenders" until they have served eighty-five percent of their sentence. In South Carolina, this is known as the "eighty-five-percent rule."

This case arises from the SCDC's application of the "no parole offense" label to Campbell's conviction. When Campbell was indicted, his offense, § 44-53-375(B)(2), was classified as a "no parole offense." See § 24-13-100. But while Campbell's case proceeded, the South Carolina legislature enacted significant revisions to its criminal sentencing laws. On June 2, 2010, the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010 ("Omnibus Act") took effect, and Sections 37 and 38 of the Omnibus Act appended the following paragraph to § 44-53-375(B) :

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person convicted and sentenced pursuant to this subsection for a first offense or second offense may have the sentence suspended and probation granted, and is eligible for parole, supervised furlough, community supervision, work release, work credits, education credits, and good conduct credits.

While the Omnibus Act amended § 44-53-375(B), it did not amend § 24-13-100, which controlled "no parole offense" classifications. Nor did the Omnibus Act amend § 24-13-150(A), which enumerates the consequences of the no-parole-offense designation. This created an arguable contradiction in South Carolina law: The Omnibus Act suggests that Campbell "is eligible for parole ... work credits, education credits, and good conduct credits." § 44-53-375(B). But § 44-53-375(B) still fell within § 24-13-100's classification of "no parole offenses," and so the eighty-five-percent rule still precluded him from gaining early release based on those credits.

Compounding the confusion, both § 24-13-150(A) and § 44-53-375(B) claimed to apply "notwithstanding any other provision of law."2

To fulfill its responsibilities—including determining parole eligibility and calculating release dates based on earned credits—the SCDC needed to sort through the new law in all its contradictions. The task fell to Chris Florian, the SCDC's deputy general counsel. Florian pored over the South Carolina caselaw on statutory interpretation and legislative intent. And based on his review, he concluded that South Carolina law required the SCDC to adopt a legal interpretation that harmonized potentially contradictory provisions of a statute, if possible. See, e.g. , Justice v. Pantry , 330 S.C. 37, 496 S.E.2d 871, 874 (Ct. App. 1998) (citing State v. Hood , 181 S.C. 488, 188 S.E. 134, 136 (1936) ). Applying this principle, Florian drafted a memorandum describing how he believed the Omnibus Act should be interpreted.3

In his memo, Florian proceeded through the Omnibus Act section by section, and he summarized the changes that each section made. As for Sections 37 and 38 (amending S.C. Code § 44-53-375(B) ), Florian concluded that an inmate convicted under § 44-53-375(B) was now eligible for parole. But if the inmate was not granted parole, the no-parole-offense restrictions—including the eighty-five-percent rule—would then apply:

Section 37 makes several changes to the structure of certain drug offenses. Affected offenses are now eligible for parole, supervised furlough, community supervision, and work release, despite the fact the some of the offenses affected are [classified as serious] felonies. As with many other sections of the Act, because nothing in the language of this section indicates the change applies retroactively, this change should only be applied to offenses occurring after June 2, 2010.
... [N]othing in the text of these sections directly addresses the issue of whether inmates convicted of these offenses are still required to serve 85% of their sentences before early release, discharge, or community supervision. Consequently, reading Sections 37 and 38 in conjunction with S.C. Code Ann.§ 24-13-150(A), [the "no parole offenses" section,] inmates convicted of these offenses are apparently still required to serve 85% of their sentences before release, unless they are granted parole. ...

J.A. 222.

This interpretation, Florian believed, resolved the Omnibus Act's contradictions: By statutorily designating § 44-53-375(B) a "no parole offense," yet otherwise permitting "eligibility" for parole, the Omnibus Act gave the SCDC the discretion to parole certain inmates. But the Act did not remove the otherwise applicable general restrictions placed on a "no parole offense."

David Tatarsky, the SCDC's general counsel and Florian's boss, read the Florian Memo, familiarized himself with its contents, and approved it. The Florian Memo was then passed around the department and used to evaluate prisoners' eligibility for parole, credits, and release.

After the SCDC adopted the Florian Memo, an inmate named Michael Bolin challenged the department's interpretation of the Omnibus Act. Like Campbell, Bolin had been sentenced under § 44-53-375(B)(2). This offense, he claimed, was no longer subject to the eighty-five-percent rule and its consequences following the Omnibus Act amendments. Once he exhausted his options within the SCDC, Bolin marshalled his arguments before the South Carolina Administrative Law Court. The Administrative Law Court endorsed Florian's interpretation of the Omnibus Act and dismissed Bolin's case. Bolin v. South Carolina Dep't of Corrections , No. 13-ALJ-04-0534-AP (S.C. Admin. Law Ct. Feb. 24, 2014).

Bolin then challenged the Administrative Law Court's decision in the South Carolina Court of Appeals. Siding with Bolin, the appeals court held that an offense under § 44-53-375(B) is no longer a "no-parole offense." Bolin v. South Carolina Dep't of Corrections , 415 S.C. 276, 781 S.E.2d 914, 916–17 (Ct. App. 2016). The court...

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