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Ackerman v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

February 10, 2016

Francis Ackerman, et al., Appellants,
v.
South Carolina Department of Corrections, Respondent

Heard October 20, 2015

Appeal From The Administrative Law Court. Ralph King Anderson, III, Administrative Law Judge. Appellate Case No. 2012-210588.

Douglas H. Westbrook, of Charleston, for Appellants.

Lake Eric Summers, of Malone Thompson Summers & Ott, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent.

GEATHERS, J. SHORT and MCDONALD, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 758

 GEATHERS, J.

Appellants (Inmates), 196 current or former inmates participating in a Prison Industries service project operated by Respondent South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), challenge an order of the South Carolina Administrative Law Court (ALC) upholding SCDC's denial of Inmates' grievances. Inmates argue their grievances invoking the Prevailing Wage Statute[1] were not subject to SCDC's fifteen-day filing deadline because these grievances concerned SCDC policy rather than an " incident." We reverse and remand for consideration of Inmates' grievances on the merits.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 1995, our legislature enacted section 24-3-430 of the South Carolina Code (2007) to authorize the expansion of the Prison Industries program into the private sector. This expansion allowed qualified private entities to use inmate labor but required the wages for participating inmates to be no less than " the prevailing wage for work of [a] similar nature in the private sector." Act No. 7, 1995 S.C. Acts 78. Section 24-3-430 became effective on July 1, 1995. Id. at 102. Subsequently, on September 30, 1998, SCDC entered into a contract with Williams Technologies, Inc. (WTI) for the employment of SCDC inmates on the premises of Lieber Correctional Institution (Lieber) in WTI's business of " disassembly and/or remanufacturing of its product lines at [Lieber]." The cover page for the contract document is entitled " Williams Technology Transmissions Service Contract."

The contract's " Scope of Work" provision states, in pertinent part, " Prison Industry inmates under the general oversight of SCDC will disassemble and/or remanufacture [WTI's] product lines according to engineering design and manufacturing specifications developed and provided by [WTI] . . . ." The contract also provides, " For all purposes, inmates shall be considered to be employees of SCDC."

With regard to payment for services, the contract requires WTI to pay SCDC " $4.00 per hour per inmate for work performed[,] including training hours and hours in excess of the inmate's normal shift." The contract's cover page highlights the contract's " Requirements/Specifications," which include " Wage Rate: $4.00 per hour/per inmate; $.35/[hour] base for inmates."

On January 11, 2001, Inmate Darrell Williams filed a " Step 1" Inmate Grievance Form requesting SCDC to pay him the prevailing wage for his labor. SCDC's Inmate Grievance System Policy, designated as Policy GA-01.12, provides for formal review of inmate complaints in two steps. A Step 1 grievance is evaluated by the prison's Warden, and any appeal from the Warden's decision to the " responsible official," is designated as " Step 2." The responsible official must render a decision on the appeal within sixty days, and this decision constitutes SCDC's final response in the matter.

Lieber's Warden denied Williams' Step 1 grievance without addressing the Prevailing Wage Statute, stating, in pertinent part: " Prison Industries does not fall under the minimum wage federal guidelines. Your inmate wages are determined by the Division of Budget & Finance[.] Therefore[,] your requested action cannot be honored at this time." Williams then filed a Step 2 Grievance Form on June 26, 2001, complaining about unsafe working conditions and seeking the prevailing wage for his labor as well as a correction of SCDC's deductions from his wages.

While Williams' Step 2 grievance was pending, the legislature enacted the first of a series of yearly budget provisos, effective for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2001, permitting SCDC to pay participating inmates less than the prevailing wage for " service work" :[2]

The Director of [SCDC] may enter into contracts with private sector entities that would allow for inmate labor to be provided for prison industry service work. The use of such inmate labor may not result in the displacement of employed workers within the local ...

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