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Brooks v. Dunlap

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

March 13, 2019

Robert D. Brooks, Plaintiff,
v.
David Dunlap, Warden of Kershaw Correctional Institution, Edward Bittinger, Hearing Officer at Kershaw Correctional Institution, FNU Faulkenberry, Ms Offender Management System Analyst, and Dottie Stonebreaker, Associate Warden, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Margaret B. Seymour, Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Robert D. Brooks, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, brought the underlying action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process, arising from events that took place while Plaintiff was in the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) and housed at Kershaw Correctional Institution (“KCI”). Plaintiff also asserts claims for false imprisonment and conspiracy arising from the same events. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald for pretrial handling.

         BACKGROUND

         On March 3, 2016, while in SCDC custody, Plaintiff was transferred from Manning Correctional Institution to KCI. As part of the transfer, prison staff at Manning Correctional Institution inventoried certain personal property belonging to Plaintiff, including his box of legal papers. ECF No. 1 at 4. Plaintiff alleges that Officer Osborn, while taking inventory of the legal box, noticed and commented that someone had tampered with the contents of the box. Plaintiff alleges he asked Officer Osborn “to make a notation of it and Officer Osborn said ‘he would.'” Id. Following Plaintiff's arrival at KCI, prison staff inventoried Plaintiff's property and accused him of having a cell phone and charger in his belongings in violation of SCDC policy. Plaintiff was thereafter notified of a disciplinary hearing to be held before disciplinary hearing officer Defendant Edward Bittinger. Plaintiff alleges he requested that Officer Osborn be called to testify on his behalf and that Defendant Bittinger improperly denied the request. Plaintiff asserts that under SCDC policy, if an employee has been called as a witness and has information that is relevant to the case, the employee is obligated to provide the relevant information. ECF No. 1 at 5. Plaintiff was convicted of Possession of Any Communication Device (898), SCDC Policy OP-22.14, and Defendant Bittinger imposed as a sanction 60 days of disciplinary detention and the loss of 480 days of good time credits. The sanction was memorialized in SCDC Form 19-69, also known as a disciplinary report and hearing record. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bittinger withheld the disciplinary report and hearing record in an attempt to interfere with Plaintiff's ability to appeal the conviction. Id. at 5. Plaintiff asserts that at the time Defendant Bittinger imposed the sanctions, Plaintiff had acquired 522 days of good time credit and was 110 days from his projected max-out date.

         In addition, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant David Dunlap, the warden at KCI, did not sign the disciplinary report and hearing record, and that Defendants Donnie Stonebreaker, the associate warden, [1] and Amy Faulkenberry, an offender management system analyst, relied on the unsigned report and record to enforce the disciplinary sanctions, in contravention of SCDC policy. ECF No. 1 at 6. Plaintiff asserts that under SCDC policy, upon receipt of a disciplinary report and hearing record, “when the inmate is found guilty, the warden or his/her designee at the institution where the inmate is housed may approve hearing results, overturn a guilty finding, or reduce the sanction of the hearing officer.” Id. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Stonebreaker noticed that the disciplinary report and hearing record were not signed, but placed Plaintiff in the restrictive housing unit anyway. Id. Plaintiff asserts that by this act Defendant Stonebreaker “conspired with the ‘illegal placement' of [Plaintiff] in [KCI] restricted housing unit which constitutes ‘false imprisonment.'” Id. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Faulkenberry entered the sanction into the SCDC offender management system despite the fact that the disciplinary report and hearing record were not signed and that, in doing so, Defendant Faulkenberry violated his right to due process and is liable for false imprisonment and civil conspiracy. Id. at 7. Plaintiff filed step one and step two grievances regarding the disciplinary hearing and resulting sanctions, which Defendant Dunlap denied. In denying the grievances, Defendant Dunlap stated that the issues Plaintiff complained of “do not warrant a reversal of the charge; no technicalities, procedural errors, or misinterpretation of evidence was noted.” Id. at 8. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Dunlap thereby conspired “to deprive the Plaintiff of his constitutional rights . . . .” Id.

         Plaintiff ultimately appealed the conviction to the Administrative Law Court. On September 28, 2016, SCDC moved to remand the matter on the basis that Plaintiff's conviction had been overturned due to errors in the disciplinary hearing process, and the appeal was dismissed. SCDC restored the good time credits, and Plaintiff was released from prison on September 28, 2016.

         Plaintiff alleges that the denial of a fair disciplinary hearing and the resulting loss of good time credits impacted his release date and caused him to remain in SCDC custody 89 extra days. Plaintiff sues Defendants Dunlap, Bittinger, Faulkenberry, and Stonebreaker (collectively, “Defendants”) in their individual capacity.[2] ECF No. 1 at 3. He seeks relief in the form of monetary compensation for the extra 89 days he alleges he was improperly held in SCDC custody. ECF No. 1 at 15.

         Defendants filed an answer on May 18, 2018. ECF No. 22. Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 39. On August 16, 2018, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and supporting memorandum, to which they attached the following evidence: the transcript of the disciplinary hearing; copies of Plaintiff's step one and step two grievances; documents associated with Plaintiff's appeal to the Administrative Law Court; Defendants' discovery requests; and the affidavit of SCDC Branch Chief of Records Management and Release Section, Michael Stobbe. ECF Nos. 46, 46-1 through 46-9. On September 26, 2018, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, to which he attached several exhibits duplicative of the documents attached to Defendants' motion. ECF Nos. 52, 52-1 through 52-7. On October 11, 2018, Plaintiff filed a supplemental response to Defendants' motion. ECF No. 54. Following his review of the briefing, the Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) recommending that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied, ECF No. 42; he also filed a Report recommending that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted as to Defendants Faulkenberry and Stonebreaker and denied as to Defendants Dunlap and Bittinger, ECF No. 55. Plaintiff filed an objection to the Report pertaining to his motion, ECF No. 44, and all parties filed objections to the Report pertaining to Defendants' motion, ECF Nos. 62, 63.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         I. Magistrate Judge's Findings

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The court reviews de novo only those portions of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation to which specific objections are filed and reviews those portions to which there are no objections-including those portions to which only “general and conclusory” objections have been made-for clear error. Diamond v. Colonial Life and Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983); Opriano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 77 (4th Cir. 1982). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         II. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56

         Summary judgment should be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Defendants as the moving parties initially have the burden to demonstrate an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). If they do so, the burden shifts to Plaintiff to come forward with evidentiary material demonstrating a genuine issue of fact for trial. Id. A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A genuine question of material fact exists where, after reviewing the record as a whole, the court finds that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Newport News Holding Corp. v. Virtual City Vision, 650 F.3d 423, 434 (4th Cir. 2011).

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990). The nonmoving party may not oppose a motion for summary judgment with mere allegations or denials of the movant's pleading, but instead must “set forth specific facts” demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324; Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1012 (4th Cir. 1991). All that is required is that “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         III. Pleadings filed by Pro se Litigants

         Plaintiff is appearing pro se, and thus is entitled to a liberal construction of his complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Accord Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976) (instructing courts to hold the pleadings and other papers of pro se litigants to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.”). However, a district court may not rewrite a complaint to “conjure up questions never squarely presented, ” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir.1985), nor may the court ignore a clear failure in the pleadings to allege facts which set forth a cognizable claim. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 397 (4th Cir. 1990).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Magistrate Judge's Report and the Parties' Objections

         A. Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment

         The Magistrate Judge recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied because the motion appears to be less a substantive request for relief on the claims Plaintiff asserts, and more a “pre-emptive effort to deny the defendants summary judgment.” ECF No. 42 at 3. The Magistrate Judge noted that, at the time Plaintiff filed his motion, Defendants had not yet moved for summary judgment. The Magistrate Judge further noted that Plaintiff does not contend there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact so as to merit summary judgment in his favor. The Magistrate Judge concluded that, “[a]s there remains genuine issues of material fact, the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment should be denied, ” and advised that “[s]hould the defendants file a motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff will have the opportunity to file a response.” Id.

         Plaintiff does not raise a specific objection to the Report; rather, he reiterates the allegations set forth in his complaint and reasserts a request that the court enter summary judgment in his favor. Because Plaintiff fails to assert a specific objection, the court reviews the Report for clear error. Diamond, 416 F.3d at 315; Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b).

         Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment consists of one page, ECF No. 39, and appears to concede that genuine issues of material fact exist: “[t]his legitimate opposition is being constructed in a diligent effort to illuminate genuine/material facts, in an evidentiary hearing if need be, that would obstruct this court from granting the Defendants a summary judgment in the captioned case.” Id. The motion does not reference or introduce evidence; and, rather than set forth a basis for the entry of judgment, the motion appears to merely contest Defendants' answer denying the allegations. The court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's finding that Plaintiff has not carried his burden under Rule 56(a). Accordingly, the court overrules Plaintiff's objection and adopts the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied.

         B. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

         In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants note that Plaintiff bears the burden of proving his claims, and contend that Plaintiff cannot prevail on those claims because he has not produced any evidence in support of his allegations. ECF No. 46-1 at 7. Defendants additionally argue that Plaintiff asserts only general allegations of wrongdoing and fails to specify how the individual Defendants were personally involved in the alleged constitutional violation, false imprisonment, and civil conspiracy. Id. at 10. As to the specific claims, Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot prove violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights because “SCDC's dismissal of Plaintiff's disciplinary conviction and subsequent reinstatement of his good credits is demonstrative of his receipt of due process, ” id.; and, in any event, prison officials enjoy discretion to deny requests for witness testimony “where legitimate penological interests justif[y] excluding a witness, ” id. at 13. Defendants assert that “Defendant Bittinger considered Plaintiff's request [to have Officer Osborn testify] but found that it was redundant evidence already in the record that did not justify transporting an SCDC officer away from his work, ” and, “t[h]us, in essence, legitimate penological interests warranted Defendant Bittinger's denying the request.” Id. With respect to the claim for false imprisonment, Defendants assert that Plaintiff must demonstrate his liberty was restrained without legal process, and argue that Plaintiff cannot make such a showing because he “was an inmate at SCDC when disciplinary charges were brought against him.” Moreover, they assert, “it is clear that Plaintiff received due process as required under [law].” Id. at 14. Defendants further contend that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, Defendants argue that because they “have shown that all federal claims alleged are without merit, ” the court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over any claims it construes as arising under state law. Id. at 16.

         The Magistrate Judge recommends that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted as to Defendants Stonebreaker and Faulkenberry and denied as to Defendants Bittinger and Dunlap. ECF No. 55. With respect to ...


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