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Williamson v. Stirling

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

December 21, 2018

DUSTIN ROBERT WILLIAMSON, Plaintiff - Appellant,

          Argued: September 25, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Rock Hill. Mary G. Lewis, District Judge. (0:15-cv-04755-MGL)


          Jeff Philip Johnson, WINSTON & STRAWN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Andrew Lindemann, LINDEMANN, DAVIS & HUGHES, PA, Columbia, South Carolina; Daniel C. Plyler, DAVIDSON, WREN & PLYLER, PA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Daniel M. Greenfield, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Chicago, Illinois; Charles Klein, WINSTON & STRAWN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          David A. DeMasters, DAVIDSON & LINDEMANN, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees Ed Carroll and Deloris Charlton. Andrew P. Valentine, East Palo Alto, California, Kenneth L. Schmetterer, DLA PIPER LLP (US), Chicago, Illinois, for Amici Curiae.

          Before KING and KEENAN, Circuit Judges, and John A. GIBNEY, Jr., United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

          KING, Circuit Judge.

         Dustin Robert Williamson appeals from summary judgment awards made by the district court in South Carolina to several officials of Barnwell County and the State's Department of Corrections (the "SCDC"), with respect to Williamson's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit for due process violations. Put succinctly, Williamson maintains that, as a result of actions of the defendant officials, he suffered in solitary confinement for three-and-a-half years while in pretrial detention, in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Williamson contends that the district court erred in ruling that his period of solitary confinement was not unconstitutionally punitive and that, if he was deprived of any due process protections, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. See Williamson v. Sterling, No. 0:15-cv-4755 (D.S.C. Apr. 10, 2017), ECF No. 143. As explained below, we affirm the summary judgment awards made by the district court to two officials who were not sufficiently involved in any constitutional deprivations. We vacate the summary judgment awards in favor of two other officials, however, because the court erred in granting them. We therefore affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings.



         In November 2015, Williamson - then a twenty-year-old pretrial detainee in one of SCDC's restrictive detention facilities - filed a verified pro se complaint in the District of South Carolina, initiating the lawsuit underlying this appeal. Williamson's initial complaint challenged his conditions of confinement - including their duration - and named as defendants SCDC Director Bryan Stirling, Barnwell County Sheriff Ed Carroll, Deloris Charlton, the Barnwell County jail administrator, and other unidentified officials.[1] In May 2016, Williamson filed his verified pro se first amended complaint, which added as defendants two Deputy Circuit Solicitors, David Miller and Jack Hammack. See Williamson v. Sterling, No. 0:15-cv-4755 (D.S.C. May 2, 2016), ECF No. 41 (the "Complaint"). That Complaint constitutes the operative complaint in these proceedings.

         The Complaint alleges, inter alia, that the defendants contravened various constitutional rights and is pursued under § 1983 of Title 42. Williamson's Fourteenth Amendment claims underlie this appeal and, construed in the proper light, allege substantive and procedural due process claims. On April 10, 2017, the district court awarded summary judgment to the defendant officials.

         In assessing summary judgment awards, we view the facts "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Bauer v. Lynch, 812 F.3d 340, 347 (4th Cir. 2016). The facts recited below are viewed in that light and drawn from the record on appeal, which includes the Complaint and various submissions of the parties. See Williams v. Griffin, 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991) (explaining that a verified complaint is "the equivalent of an opposing affidavit for summary judgment purposes, when the allegations contained therein are based on personal knowledge"). Notably, the factual allegations of the Complaint are substantially unchallenged.



         In August 2013, at the age of seventeen, Williamson was arrested in Barnwell County for murder, armed robbery, and related offenses. Following his arrest, he was denied bail and held in custody at the Barnwell County Detention Center to await trial. Because of the serious nature of the charges, Williamson was assigned to the Detention Center's maximum security unit. While there, Williamson had only an hour a day of recreation - instead of the three hours accorded those in the general population - but otherwise had the same privileges as other pretrial detainees. During the three months he spent at the Detention Center, Williamson was charged with three infractions of the rules of confinement. More specifically, Williamson fought once with an inmate, and he was twice disciplined for placing his spare mattress on the cell floor.

         On November 22, 2013, Williamson gave Barnwell County correctional officers a letter addressed to Sheriff Carroll. Carroll was then out of town, but asked Chief Deputy David Deering to open the letter. Williamson's letter ranted against several individuals, confessed to murder, and proclaimed the innocence of another man. It also threatened violence against ten law enforcement officers and Judge Early of the State's Second Judicial Circuit, which includes Barnwell County. See J.A. 324, 326-27.[2] The letter named three persons that Williamson would talk to regarding his threats, including Agent Croft of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division ("SLED"). Chief Deputy Deering thus contacted Agent Croft, who - with others - interviewed Williamson later that very day. During the interview, Williamson became "combative" with the officers, repeated his threats, and struck a correctional officer. See id. at 324.

         Shortly thereafter, a series of phone calls took place involving various officials, including Judge Early and personnel of SLED, the Sheriff's Office, and the Solicitor's Office.[3] According to Deputy Solicitor Miller, it was then decided "that Mr. Williamson needed to be placed in 'safekeeper' status" in SCDC custody. See J.A. 201.


         South Carolina maintains a "safekeeper" program that derives from a statutory provision that has been implemented by various state regulations. The relevant statutory provision states that:

The director of the prison system shall admit and detain in [SCDC] for safekeeping any prisoner tendered by any law enforcement officer in this State by commitment duly authorized by the Governor, provided, a warrant in due form for the arrest of the person so committed shall be issued within forty-eight hours after such commitment and detention.

See S.C. Code § 24-3-80. The primary state regulation that implements the safekeeper statutory provision is South Carolina Executive Order 2000-11 (the "Executive Order"). It was promulgated in 2000 by then-Governor Hodges and spells out the "criteria and procedures" for a pretrial detainee's transfer to "safekeeper status" and for his subsequent detention in SCDC custody. Pursuant to the Executive Order, a pretrial detainee may be designated as a safekeeper if he: "(1) is a high escape risk; (2) exhibits extremely violent and uncontrollable behavior; and/or (3) must be removed from the county facility" for his own protection.

         To transfer a pretrial detainee to safekeeper status in SCDC custody, the county holding the detainee must prepare and pursue an application that includes the following: (1) an arrest warrant for the detainee; (2) an affidavit of the chief county law enforcement officer explaining the basis for the requested transfer; (3) a certification from the circuit solicitor concurring in the transfer; (4) and a certification that notice of the safekeeping application was given to the detainee's attorney. See Executive Order § 2. The county submits its safekeeping application to the SCDC Director, who reviews it and makes a recommendation to the Governor. If the Director recommends approval of the application, he provides the Governor with a proposed order. Upon receiving the Director's recommendation, the Governor determines whether to grant the safekeeping application and issue an appropriate order. Id. § 3. If the Governor approves, the county delivers the pretrial detainee into SCDC custody. The county must provide SCDC with "all appropriate documentation and relevant records," including information about any "special medical" needs of the transferred detainee. Id. § 4. Pursuant to the Executive Order, the initial safekeeper order is valid for up to 120 days. Id. § 5. The safekeeper order may thereafter be renewed "for up to ninety (90) days upon a showing of good cause and/or no material change in circumstances." Id.

         SCDC has promulgated additional procedures that govern the handling of pretrial detainees who have been designated as safekeepers (the "SK Policy"). According to the SK Policy, male safekeepers are to "be received and processed at Lee Correctional Institution." See J.A. 319. The SK Policy confirms that a safekeeper order "may be renewed for up to 90 days at a time" and provides that safekeeper pretrial detainees will be housed in a Special Management Unit ("SMU") and segregated from other SCDC inmates in the SMU. See id. at 319-21. Safekeeper pretrial detainees are assigned to confinement classification "SD Level II," the second-most restrictive of five confinement classifications. See id. at 321, 421.[4]


         Following Williamson's problematic behavior on November 22, 2013, Barnwell County officials promptly prepared a safekeeper application for him. Chief Deputy Deering - acting for Sheriff Carroll - executed an affidavit recounting the threats made in Williamson's letter and in his interview with Agent Croft. Deputy Solicitor Miller certified that he had served notice of the safekeeper application on Williamson's defense attorney. The safekeeper application included copies of the warrants for Williamson's arrest, plus medical and mental health screening forms for Williamson recently completed by Barnwell County officials. Finally, Judge Early signed a "safekeeping order," prepared by Miller, finding that Williamson had exhibited "extremely violent and uncontrollable behavior" and qualified for safekeeper status. See J.A. 211. In fact, however, such a court order was not a required component of the safekeeper application. See Executive Order § 2. As a result, the court's "safekeeping order" was "never acted upon or served on anyone." See J.A. 201.

         On November 22, 2013, SCDC Director Stirling received Barnwell County's safekeeper application for Williamson. Stirling recommended approval thereof to then-Governor Haley, who approved the safekeeper order. On November 25, 2013, Williamson was delivered into SCDC custody. Although SCDC normally housed male safekeepers at the Lee Correctional Institution under the SK Policy, SCDC instead placed Williamson in another facility, that is, the Maximum Security Unit ("MSU") at Kirkland Correctional Institution. Director Stirling attested that the Kirkland MSU has "more security staff," which was appropriate in light of Williamson's threats. See J.A. 312.

         According to the Complaint, pretrial detainee Williamson was, as a safekeeper, subjected to solitary confinement, with no outdoor exercise and limited access to books and other materials. Other than leaving his cell about twice a week to shower, Williamson was "on lockdown 24 hours a day." See J.A. 68. Williamson's defense counsel had difficulty communicating with Williamson under those conditions and sought his transfer to less restrictive custody.

         In August 2015 - nearly two years after Williamson's transfer to the Kirkland MSU - SCDC transferred him to the Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU") at Lee Correctional Institution. Williamson's conditions of confinement at the Lee RHU, however, largely replicated the conditions imposed on him at the Kirkland MSU.

         At a bond hearing conducted in the Second Circuit on November 3, 2015 - more than 700 days after Williamson's transfer to safekeeper status - Williamson's counsel advised the court that Williamson had been "on lock down, 24 hours a day" at the Kirkland MSU, that he remained "locked down 24 hours a day" at the Lee RHU, and that he had limited access to the law library and phones. See J.A. 530-31.[5] Clarence Rogers, the Unit Manager at the Lee RHU, attested that safekeepers only leave their cells to shower three times a week, for recreation twice a week, and for an occasional haircut. The SCDC policies reflect that safekeepers receive recreation time in "outdoor cages," separate from other inmates. See id. at 307, 321, 423. Safekeepers can only access an automated law library upon request. Additional restrictions at the Lee RHU included the following: no canteen privileges; limited reading materials; no visiting privileges with family and friends; no personal phone calls; and no interactions with other inmates.

         In sum, while in safekeeper status, Williamson was solitarily confined in his cell approximately twenty-three hours a day five days a week, and twenty-four hours a day two days a week. He spent those hours in isolation, with almost no human contact other than interactions with prison staff and communications with his lawyer. According to Williamson, he was so confined until June 2017, when he was transferred from the Lee RHU to the Barnwell County Detention Center for trial - approximately 1300 days after his placement in solitary confinement as a safekeeper. See Br. of Appellant 12.[6]


         To maintain Williamson in solitary confinement as a safekeeper, Barnwell County officials and SCDC Director Stirling were obliged to obtain renewal safekeeping orders every ninety days. See Executive Order § 5. The record, however, does not include all the renewal orders necessary to sustain Williamson's safekeeper status for the prolonged period he was so held. It contains certain memoranda from Director Stirling to Governor Haley recommending renewals and several of the Governor's final approval orders. See J.A. 547-63. The record does not, however, contain any requests from Barnwell County for renewal of Williamson's safekeeper status. Director Stirling's memoranda to Governor Haley recite - in boilerplate language - that he "received appropriate documentation from Barnwell County" in support of renewals. See, e.g., id. at 550. And Stirling has attested that he regularly received such renewal requests from Barnwell County and found each to be "in order." See id. at 312-13. No such documentations, however, are in the record.

         In sum, despite the Executive Order's requirement that safekeeper renewal requests be based upon "good cause and/or" a showing of "no material change in circumstances," the record does not fully disclose the bases for Williamson's continuing safekeeper designation. The evidence regarding Williamson's conduct while he remained in safekeeper status as a pretrial detainee consists solely of correspondence from the Kirkland MSU staff affirming that, as of May 28, 2015, Williamson had committed no disciplinary infractions while in SCDC custody.


         At some point during his solitary confinement as a safekeeper, Williamson began experiencing significant mental health symptoms. His medical records show that SCDC began treating him in May 2015 for "unspecified psychosis, grief, nightmares, [and] depression." See J.A. 166. The record also shows that Williamson advised SCDC medical personnel that he previously "had ADHD and bipolar," but that he stopped taking medications in high school. Id. at 165. By April 14, 2016 - after about two-and-a-half years of solitary confinement - Williamson was taking anti-psychotic medications, which he had never before used. He continued to receive mental health services - including various prescriptions - from SCDC through at least November 2016.

         The record does not reveal the state of Williamson's mental health at the time of his transfer to safekeeper status in November 2013. Section 6 of the Executive Order provides, however, that mentally-ill detainees "are not eligible for safekeeping." The Mental Health Screening Form for Williamson that Barnwell County submitted with his initial safekeeper application does not flag any existing mental health issues. That Form, however, consists only of twelve yes or no questions aimed at evaluating a detainee's risk of suicide. And Director Stirling's memorandum recommending the Governor's approval of Williamson's initial safekeeper application confirms the Executive Order's exclusion of mentally-ill detainees from the safekeeping program, and may indicate its potential applicability to Williamson. Stirling wrote:

This is to advise you that the documentation [from Barnwell County] is sufficient to grant the [safekeeper] transfer for Detainee Williamson. However, as you are aware, Executive Order 2000-11 specifically states that 'Mentally ill or retarded individuals are not eligible for safekeeping at the Department of Corrections.' Therefore, SCDC reserves the right to return Detainee Williams [sic] to Barnwell County Detention Center.

See J.A. 204. Director Stirling did not, however, comment on Williamson's mental health condition at that time. Despite Williamson's emerging mental health symptoms and problems while he remained in safekeeper status, there is no indication in the record that they were considered when that status was repeatedly renewed every ninety days - approximately thirteen times - for three-and-a-half years.[7]

         As noted, on June 15, 2017, a jury acquitted Williamson of the murder charge. See State v. Williamson, No. 2013A0610400187 (S.C. 2d Cir. Ct. Gen. Sess.). In February 2018, Williamson pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to time served plus five years of probation. See State v. Williamson, No. 2013A0620100094 (S.C. 2d Cir. Ct. Gen. Sess.).[8] The remaining charges against him were dismissed.



         The pro se verified Complaint alleged, inter alia, that the defendants had erroneously designated Williamson as a safekeeper, imposed punitive conditions on him without notice and hearing, and thereby denied his due process rights. Supporting the due process claims, the Complaint included the following allegations:

• Williamson was not granted "a hearing or a notice" before his "punitive" removal from the Barnwell County Detention Center, see Complaint ¶ 10;
• Williamson did not receive notice or a hearing before his transfer to SCDC custody and the SCDC MSU "for punitive reasons," id. ¶ 11;
• While in SCDC custody, Williamson wrote various corrections officials seeking information regarding the basis for his designation as a safekeeper, see id. ¶¶ 13-21;
• Williamson's conditions at both the Lee and Kirkland Correctional Institutions were "punitive," id. ¶¶ 22-23, 25-30; and
• Williamson was a pretrial detainee protected from "any punishment" but he nevertheless remained "on lockdown 24 hours a day," id. ¶ 26.

         The Complaint included additional allegations setting forth Williamson's "Legal Claims," though it did not identify separate causes of action. Williamson invoked the "14th Amendment Due Process Clause" in discussing the lack of notice or hearing prior to his transfer to SCDC as a safekeeper. See id. ¶ 38. He identified two "liberty interest[s]" that had been infringed. Id. Williamson characterized the first liberty interest as arising from his "substantive due process" right to be free from "any type of punishment" as a pretrial detainee, as established in 1979 by the Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979). See id. He asserted a separate liberty interest arising from South Carolina's safekeeper regulations. See id. ¶¶ 39-41. Thus, Williamson raised, inter alia, two distinct theories of liability: one theory - the substantive due process claim - derived from the punitive conditions imposed on him as a safekeeper; and the second theory - the procedural due process claim - arose from lack of notice and hearing regarding his safekeeper status. Based upon those due process claims and supporting allegations, his pro se Complaint sought declaratory and injunctive relief, punitive damages, and such "additional relief" as the court deemed "just, proper, equitable." See id. ¶¶ 46-57.

         In September 2016, the defendants each moved for summary judgment, asserting, among other defenses, that they were not personally responsible for the challenged conduct and the conditions of Williamson's solitary confinement, that Williamson's safekeeper status was not punitive, and that - in any event - they were entitled to qualified immunity. Deputy Solicitor Miller also contended that he was entitled to prosecutorial immunity. The district court referred the defendants' summary judgment motions to a magistrate judge for proposed findings and recommendations.

         In March 2017, the magistrate judge recommended that each of the defendants' motions be granted. See Williamson, No. 0:15-cv-4755 (D.S.C. Mar. 21, 2017), ECF No. 138 (the "Magistrate Report"). The Magistrate Report determined that, as to Williamson's First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendment claims, he failed to show personal responsibility by any of the defendants for any violations of those rights, as required for a § 1983 claim.

         With respect to his Fourteenth Amendment due process allegations - the only claims Williamson pursues in this appeal - the Magistrate Report recommended awarding summary judgment to each of the defendants, for two reasons. First, the Report concluded that Williamson had not been unconstitutionally punished. Although it recognized that the Due Process Clause protects pretrial detainees from restrictions that amount to punishment, the Report determined that Williamson's prolonged conditions of solitary confinement did not constitute punishment. The Report concluded that Williamson's confinement was not punishment, explaining as follows:

Williamson has provided no evidence of an "express intent to punish" by the defendants, and the defendants' assertion that Williamson's transfer was necessary for security purposes provides an unrefuted nonpunitive government objective that precludes a reasonable inference of punitive intent.

See Magistrate Report 6. According to the Report, the defendants' assertion of necessity predicated on security purposes sufficed to prove that, despite his prolonged period of solitary confinement, Williamson had not been unconstitutionally punished as a pretrial detainee.

         Second, the Magistrate Report determined that the controlling law was unsettled on whether pretrial detainees transferred into "more restrictive housing for administrative purposes" are "owed any level of process under the Fourteenth Amendment." See Magistrate Report 7. The Report thus recommended that each defendant be granted qualified immunity. Because the Report concluded that its analysis disposed of Williamson's claims, it did not address any issues concerning the defendants' personal involvement in due process violations or Deputy Solicitor Miller's assertion of prosecutorial immunity.

         In April 2017, the district court adopted the Magistrate Report - over Williamson's objections - and awarded summary judgment to each of the defendants. See Williamson, No. 0:15-cv-4755 (D.S.C. Apr. 10, 2017), ECF No. 143 (the "Summary Judgment Order"). In response to one of Williamson's objections, however, that Order authorized Williamson to amend the Complaint and name additional defendants. Nevertheless, the court ...

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