Harmon v. Cradduck

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Citation286 P.3d 643,2012 OK 80
Docket NumberNo. 106,269.,106,269.
PartiesSonny Lauren HARMON, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Paul CRADDUCK, Glynn Booher, and Alice Turner, Defendants–Appellees.
Decision Date18 September 2012


Certiorari to the Court of Civil Appeals, Division 1, on Appeal from the District Court of Oklahoma County; State of Oklahoma, Honorable Daniel L. Owens.

¶ 0 Oklahoma Department of Corrections inmate Sonny Lauren Harmon brought an action against three employees of the John Lilley Correctional Center, Paul Cradduck, Warden Glynn Booher, and Alice Turner, following the seizure and alleged conversion of a gold wedding ring. The District Court of Oklahoma County entered summary judgment on behalf of each defendant. Harmon timely appealed the decision. The Court of Civil Appeals, Division I, affirmed the trial court's ruling, and we granted certiorari to review whether summary disposition was supported by the record. After reviewing the record, we find that the settled-law-of-the-case-doctrine precludes reconsideration of Harmon's compliance with administrative exhaustion requirements, and it was error to hold otherwise. In addition, the existence of a factual dispute mandates our reversal of summary judgment in favor of defendant Paul Cradduck on plaintiff's conversion claim. However, we conclude the district court properly awarded summary judgment to each of the defendants for any claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Further, any claims based on the purported tortious conduct of Booher and Turner were properly disposed of by the trial judge and COCA.


Sonny Lauren Harmon, Pro Se.1Ronald Anderson, Assistant General Counsel, Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.


Facts and Procedural History
Harmon I

¶ 1 Sonny Lauren Harmon is an inmate incarcerated with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Between October 3, 2003, and December 6, 2004, Harmon was housed at the John Lilley Correctional Center. In November of 2004, Harmon was moved to the segregation housing unit at JLCC prior to his scheduled transfer to another facility. JLCC staff conducted a routine inventory of Harmon's property in connection with this status change. Some of his personal effects, including a gold ring with stones, a gold watch, and miscellaneous personal items,2 were deemed contraband under DOC policy and were confiscated by JLCC officers. Defendant Paul Cradduck stored the items in the JLCC property room, placing the ring in his desk where it was left unsecured. Sometime later Harmon's gold ring was either lost or stolen.3 The remaining personal property was either returned to Harmon, disposed of under DOC contraband policy, or is not at issue in this case.

¶ 2 On December 8, 2004, Harmon began efforts filed a grievance “Request to Staff” with Warden Booher, seeking a return of the seized property through the required administrative channels. When Harmon's attempts to resolve his dispute through the informal resolution process failed, he presented a grievance to Warden Booher on January 5, 2005. However, on January 28, 2005, the Warden rejected Harmon's grievance his claim on procedural grounds. Warden Booher's response provided Harmon with inconsistent directions, informing him (a) that the grievance was being returned unanswered for failure to comply with DOC procedure; and (b) that he had fifteen (15) days to present an appeal of the decision to the DOC director.4 Following his appeal, the DOC director informed Harmon that his review proceeding was premature based on the Warden's decision to return the grievance unanswered. Harmon attempted to seek clarification of DOC's determination and was advised to resubmit his grievance with Warden Booher. Harmon once again presented the grievance to Warden Booher; however, it was rejected for failure to correct the original submission within ten days of the January 28th response.

¶ 3 On August 10, 2005, Harmon filed suit against DOC, the JLCC facility, and Warden Booher for the loss of his ring, watch, and other miscellaneous property items. His petition alleged certain personal effects had been wrongfully detained by prison officials. Although Harmon alleged the seizure of his property was a violation of the Oklahoma and United States Constitutions, his petition merely requested a return of the items or compensation for their value.

¶ 4 The defendants sought a stay of the lawsuit to conduct an internal investigation of the accusations and to prepare a report addressing the substance of Harmon's claims.5 The trial judge sustained the motion, and DOC filed its special report on April 18, 2006. According to the report and attached materials, Officer R. Shepard confiscated several items from Harmon in November 2004. The report included an affidavit from Cradduck in which he conceded that the gold ring had been deposited in an unsecured desk and stolen from the JLCC property room by an “unknown person or persons.” A DOC disciplinary letter dated January 27, 2005, was also attached to the report. It indicated that DOC had reprimanded Cradduck for violating agency policy in mishandling Harmon's ring. Booher's written admonishment also referenced prior disciplinary actions against Cradduck, including two incidents involving lost inmate property.

¶ 5 DOC and Booher filed a motion simultaneously with the report, requesting an order dismissing Harmon's suit for failure to state a claim, or in the alternative, an order awarding summary judgment. DOC maintained that Harmon had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and had neglected to provide notice under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act.6 The trial judge sustained the motion and entered a judgment in favor of the defendants on May 24, 2006.

¶ 6 Harmon appealed the judgment and the matter was assigned to COCA, Division IV. In an unpublished opinion, Harmon I,7 COCA reversed the district court in part and remanded the matter to allow Harmon an opportunity to amend his original petition. COCA reasoned that a trier of fact, based on documentation uncovered during DOC's internal investigation, could “conclude that a JLCC property room officer intentionally diverted [Harmon's] property ... in light of the officer's prior disciplinary record” and/or “appropriated [Harmon's] ring for himself.” Harmon I, at 19–20. COCA held that Harmon had exhausted his administrative remedies because he “substantially complied with the procedure set forth in OP–090124,” and dismissal based on this affirmative defense was error. Harmon I, at 12, 15. Finally, COCA held that dismissal of the tort claims was appropriate because the record did not reflect Harmon's compliance with the notice provisions of the GTCA.8 Harmon I, at 15. COCA remanded the case, giving Harmon an opportunity to amend his petition to cure any pleading deficiencies, establish compliance with the GTCA notice provisions, and to articulate the viability of any claims predicated on § 1983. Harmon I, at 20. Neither party sought certiorari, and mandate was issued on July 19, 2007.

Harmon II

¶ 7 On remand,9 Harmon filed an amended petition on December 17, 2007, naming Cradduck, Booher, and Turner as defendants, “in their individual capacity to impose personal liability.” 10 DOC was not renamed as a defendant. The second petition alleged that Cradduck converted Harmon's wedding ring for his own personal use under state tort law. It also claimed that Cradduck's wrongful act had deprived him of personal property and violated his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The petition included a new contention, suggesting Booher and Turner engaged in fraud to coverup Cradduck's theft of the ring. This concealment, according to Harmon, required application of equitable tolling for purposes of the limitations periods under the GTCA. Following service on each defendant, DOC counsel sought another stay of proceedings to obtain a supplemental investigative report.

¶ 8 On July 11, 2008, counsel for DOC filed a motion seeking dismissal or summary judgment, with a second special report attached on behalf of all three employees. DOC's supplemental report was very similar to the first. The report acknowledged the loss of Harmon's ring; however, it included a new affidavit wherein Cradduck specifically denied misappropriating the ring. The supplemental report also contained a recent letter of reprimand, detailing additional disciplinary action taken against Cradduck on July 7, 2008, for the disappearance of Harmon's watch.11 Harmon filed an objection to the motion to dismiss; however, on August 15, 2008, the trial court once again entered judgment in favor of the defendants on all counts. 12

¶ 9 Harmon appealed, and the case was assigned to COCA, Division I. COCA affirmed the trial court, with one judge dissenting.13 Harmon timely petitioned this Court for certiorari, arguing that the decision from COCA directly conflicted with findings made in the first appeal and that summary judgment was improperly based on disputed material facts in the record. No responsive pleading was filed on behalf of the defendants. This Court granted certiorari and allowed each party to submit supplemental briefs. Harmon filed a Supplemental Brief and Request for Oral Argument; however, no brief was tendered by Appellees.14

Standard of Review

¶ 10 An order sustaining summary judgment in favor of a litigant presents solely a legal matter. Feightner v. Bank of Oklahoma, N.A., 2003 OK 20, ¶ 2, 65 P.3d 624, 626 (quoting Carmichael v. Beller, 1996 OK 48, ¶ 2, 914 P.2d 1051, 1053);see also Trask v. Franco, 446 F.3d 1036, 1043 (10th Cir.2006) (applying de novo standard to review summary...

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