Pierce v. Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Corr.

Decision Date28 August 2003
Docket NumberNo. 4:01CV1982.,4:01CV1982.
Citation284 F.Supp.2d 811
PartiesEddie PIERCE, Jr., et al., Plaintiffs, v. OHIO DEPARTMENT OF REHABILITATION AND CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio

Daniel S. Smith, Columbus, OH, Carrie M. Varner, Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, Westerville, OH, for Plaintiffs.

Anne E. Thomson, Jack W. Decker, Office of the Attorney General, Columbus, OH, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DOWD, District Judge.

The above-captioned matter represents another chapter in what has become a continuing dispute between the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and its correctional officers. The officers complain that the department subjected them to strip searches in violation of the Constitution and a settlement agreement from a prior lawsuit. The parties' dispute sub judice began on November 19, 2000, when the individual plaintiffs were subjected to strip searches upon arriving to work, but arguably has its genesis in events that transpired much earlier. That is, a prior lawsuit brought by the department's correctional officers against the department resulted in a settlement agreement and a revamping of the prison's policies for strip searching its employees. The plaintiffs' claims in the current dispute consist of, inter alia, § 1983 claims for violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and a pair of state law claims, including one for breach of contract (the settlement agreement of the prior litigation).

Currently before the Court is Defendants' "Motion to Dismiss and/or for Qualified Immunity and/or for Summary Judgment" (Doc. No. 55).1 Plaintiffs have filed their response in opposition (Doc. No. 56), and Defendants have filed a reply (Doc. No. 57). In their motion, Defendants raise, inter alia, issues of jurisdiction and qualified immunity.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The events during two time periods are important to understanding the issues of this case. The first period consists of the events from the prior litigation, which gave rise to an overhaul of the department's policies for strip searching its employees. The second period consists of the events leading up to, and including, the searches conducted at the Trumbull Correctional Institution ("TCI") on November 19, 2000. The facts presented here are undisputed, and, if not, set forth in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs pursuant to the qualified immunity standard, infra Part II.B.

A. The Prior Litigation

As mentioned, the subject matter of this dispute is not new. The department and its employees previously fought over the constitutional propriety of strip searching correctional officers. Plaintiff Ohio Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME Local 11 AFL-CIO ("OCSEA" or "Union") and several members/employees sued the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections ("ODRC" or "Department") and its various officials after several correctional officers were strip searched allegedly without probable cause or search warrants. The case resulted in a published opinion, which examined the same, primary defense pled here: qualified immunity.

On February 22, 1985, the OCSEA and nine prison guards brought suit against the Department and several of its officials under 42 U.S.C.1983 (1996) and 42 U.S.C. § 1985 (1871). The plaintiffs alleged that, from 1979 to 1985, the Department subjected them to strip searches and body cavity searches without probable cause or search warrants in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The guards also alleged that some of the searches were motivated by race, retaliation, and the intent to discipline.

The procedural posture of the prior case includes two appeals to the Sixth Circuit. Leading to the first appeal, the defendants moved the district court for judgment on the pleadings, invoking the defense of qualified immunity on the basis that the rights asserted by the plaintiffs were not clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. The district court rejected the defense. The Sixth Circuit remanded, noting that the district court failed to make explicit findings in rejecting qualified immunity. Ohio Civil Service Employees Ass'n v. Seiter, No. 85-3836, 1986 WL 16458, at *1, 785 F.2d 309 (6th Cir. Jan 24, 1986) (unpublished table decision). On remand, the district court again rejected the Department's qualified immunity defense, providing specific findings in its analysis as instructed by the circuit. The defendants again appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the district court. Ohio Civil Service Employees Ass'n v. Seiter, 858 F.2d 1171, 1178 (6th Cir.1988) ("Seiter").

To understand fully the significance of Seiter, an examination of the district court's rationale is necessary. The district court rejected the defendants' qualified immunity defense based on the Supreme Court's decision in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967), and the Second Circuit's decision in Security & Law Enforcement Employees, District Council 82 v. Carey, 737 F.2d 187 (2d Cir.1984). From these opinions, the district court derived the following three principles: a per se rule for the unlawfulness of any warrantless search not falling within an articulated exception; a basic constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches, unless the alleged conduct fell within an exception to the above per se rule; and a prohibition of strip searches and body cavity searches without at least a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Seiter, 858 F.2d at 1172-73. Applying these principles to the facts of the case, the district court rejected the defendants' qualified immunity defense. Id. at 1172.

In reviewing this decision, the Sixth Circuit examined the then-current Supreme Court cases that shaped the face of qualified immunity, namely Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 104 S.Ct. 3012, 82 L.Ed.2d 139 (1984), and Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985). Against the background of these cases, the circuit framed the issues as: "[W]hether the Fourth Amendment encompasses the right to be free from warrantless strip and body cavity searches and, if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time the searches took place." Seiter, 858 F.2d at 1173-74. Finding error in the lower court's decision, the circuit held that "the district court was required to find both a subjective expression of privacy and an approval of that expectation by society, in order to avoid a finding of qualified immunity." Id. at 1175. In the end, the court determined from its review of other circuits' cases and instructive Supreme Court decisions that the right of prison guards to be free from strip searches and body cavity searches was not clearly established at the time the searches occurred. Id. at 1177-78. The circuit again remanded, but this time for a trial on the plaintiffs' other claims. The litigation ended, however, in a settlement, which culminated into a renovation of the Department's policy towards strip searches.

The details of the settlement in Seiter bear considerable relevance to the instant dispute. The text2 of that agreement provided:

1. This Settlement Agreement is made between Plaintiffs, Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, Cris Beesler, Douglas A. Gerhart, Michael A. Hill, Randy M. Martin, Edward L. Brooks, Phillip Reed and Jeffrey Craft, and Defendants George Wilson, Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections ("ODRC") and certain other ODRC employees.

2. This Settlement Agreement is made as a compromise between the parties for the complete and final settlement of all claims, differences, and causes of action with respect to the within action.

3. The parties understand that this settlement is a compromise of a disputed claim and is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the defendants.

4. It is understood by the parties that the facts upon which this Settlement Agreement is made may hereafter prove to be other than or different from the facts now known by either of them or believed by either of them to be true. All of the parties hereto expressly accept and assume the risk of the facts proving to be so different, and all of the parties hereto agree that all the terms of this Settlement Agreement shall be in all respects effective and not subject to termination or recision [sic] by any such difference in facts.

5. The parties agree that the terms of this Settlement Agreement bind them, and their heirs, agents, employees, assigns, and successors in interest.

6. Employees of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction ("ODRC") [sic] entering or who have entered a correctional institution may be searched by use of a magnetometer or similar device, by a pat-down search and by an examination of the contents of pockets, bags, purses, packages and other containers which the employees desire to bring into the institution. Such searches may be conducted without cause at any time while the employees are inside of the institution.

7.(a) Any strip search or any other body search, including a body cavity search, that is more intrusive than the type of search allowed by paragraph 6 above, may be made only on the basis of reasonable suspicion, based on specific objective facts and reasonable inferences drawn from those facts in light of experience, that the person to be searched is then in possession of a weapon, drugs or other contraband.

(b) Prior to conducting such a search, the employee to be searched shall be provided and may keep a written statement setting forth the specific objective facts upon which the search is based. The written statement shall contain at a minimum: the date and time the information was received; the names of the individuals to whom the information was provided,...

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