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Wilson v. Mossbarger

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Galveston Division

April 20, 2017

VICTOR KEITH WILSON, TDCJ #00796590, Plaintiff,
J.W. MOSSBARGER, et al, Defendants.


          George c. Hanks, Jr. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Victor Keith Wilson (TDCJ #00796590), an inmate in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division ("TDCJ"), has filed a pro se civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and is proceeding in forma pauperis (Dkt. 1, Dkt. 5, and Dkt. 11). He asserts that the defendants violated his right to procedural due process during the course of a prison disciplinary proceeding that resulted in, among other sanctions, his being confined in administrative segregation (Dkt. 1 at p. 6; Dkt. 13 at pp. 1-2). In his supplemental briefing, Wilson also alleges that the disciplinary proceeding about which he complains was a retaliatory measure by one of the defendants and that he contracted a fungal infection while in administrative segregation (Dkt. 13 at pp. 2-3).

         The Court has considered Wilson's factual allegations and analyzed the applicable law. The Court will dismiss Wilson's claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) as frivolous and for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         According to the TDCJ website, Wilson is currently serving a 3 5-year sentence for murder in the Hughes Unit in Gatesville. On October 24, 2013, while he was incarcerated in the Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, Wilson was found guilty in prison disciplinary proceeding #20140049970 of assaulting another inmate (Dkt. 11 at p. 2; Dkt. 11-2 at p. 2). He lost 255 days of good-conduct time; was demoted to the L3 custodial classification; was placed on recreational and commissary restriction for 45 days; and was transferred to administrative segregation (Dkt. 11 at p. 2). Wilson filed timely Step One and Step Two grievances, and his disciplinary conviction was overturned at the Step Two stage (Dkt. 11-2 at p. 2). Before his disciplinary conviction was vacated, Wilson spent three and a half months in administrative segregation, during which he contracted a fungal infection (Dkt. 11 at p. 4). He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the time he spent in administrative segregation, as well as an injunction mandating that TDCJ make available educational opportunities that Wilson lost as a result of the disciplinary conviction (Dkt. 13 at pp. 4-5).

         II. THE PLRA

         The complaint in this case is governed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (the "PLRA"). Upon initial screening of a prisoner civil rights complaint, the PLRA requires a district court to scrutinize the claims and dismiss the complaint, in whole or in part, if it determines that the complaint "is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted;" or "seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). A reviewing court may dismiss a complaint for these same reasons "at any time" where a party, like Wilson, proceeds in forma pauperis. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) (mandating dismissal where the complaint is "frivolous or malicious, " "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, " or "seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief). The PLRA also provides that the court "shall on its own motion or on the motion of a party dismiss an action" if it is satisfied that the complaint is "frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c).

         Wilson proceeds pro se in this case. Courts construe pleadings filed by pro se litigants under a less stringent standard of review. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972) (per curiam). Under this standard, "[a] document filed pro se is 'to be liberally construed, ' Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)], and 'a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Nevertheless, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (observing that courts "are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation"). The Supreme Court has clarified that "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.


         Under the applicable legal standard, Wilson has not stated a viable claim for denial of his right to procedural due process. An inmate's rights in the prison disciplinary setting are governed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974). A prisoner charged with institutional rules violations is only entitled to relief under the Due Process Clause when the disciplinary action resulted in a sanction that infringed upon a constitutionally protected liberty interest. Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 483-87 (1995) ("[N]either the Hawaii prison regulation in question, nor the Due Process Clause itself, afforded Conner a protected liberty interest that would entitle him to the procedural protections set forth in Wolff"). These protected liberty interests can emanate from either the Due Process Clause itself or from state law-Kentucky Dept. of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989)-but the range of protected interests "has been dramatically narrowed" by the Supreme Court, particularly in its Sandin opinion. Orellana v. Kyle, 65 F.3d 29, 31-32 (5th Cir. 1995). The cases indicate that, in order to trigger protection under the Due Process Clause directly (i.e. without implicating a state-created liberty interest), state action must subject the prisoner to consequences that are "qualitatively different from the punishment characteristically suffered by a person convicted of crime." Toney v. Owens, 119 F.3d 330, 337 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 493 (1980)); see also Thompson, 490 U.S. at 460. Such consequences can include, for instance, an involuntary transfer from a state prison to a mental hospital for psychiatric treatment; the forcible administration of psychotropic drugs; and the imposition of sex-offender classification and conditions on a prisoner who has not been convicted of a sex offense. See Vitek, 445 U.S. at 493-94; Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210, 221-22 (1990); Toney, 779 F.3d at 336-37. Similarly, state-created liberty interests protected by the Due Process Clause "will be generally limited to freedom from restraint which, while not exceeding the sentence in such an unexpected manner as to give rise to protection by the Due Process Clause of its own force, nonetheless imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin, 515 U.S. at 484 (citations omitted). A state's action can also implicate procedural due process protection when that action "will inevitably affect the duration of [the prisoner's] sentence." Id. at 487.

         Wilson's claims do not come within the range of protected liberty interests. As mentioned above, Wilson suffered the following sanctions as a result of the disciplinary proceeding: (1) he was moved to administrative segregation; (2) he was demoted to the L3 custodial classification; (3) he was placed on recreational and commissary restriction for 45 days; and (4) he lost 255 days of good-conduct time (Dkt. 11 at p. 2). To begin with, Wilson's successful Step Two appeal cured any error in the disciplinary proceeding. Ard v. Leblanc, 404 Fed.App'x 928, 929 (5th Cir. 2010); see also McCrae v. Hankins, 720 F.2d 863, 868 (5th Cir. 1983) ("The constitution demands due process, not error-free decisionmaking[.]"); Terrell v. Bassett, 353 F.Supp.2d 658, 661 (E.D. Va. 2005); Hyson v. Neubert, 820 F.Supp. 184, 190-91 (D.N.J. 1993). Regardless, none of the sanctions imposed on Wilson either constituted an "atypical and significant hardship" or inevitably affected the duration of Wilson's sentence. The sanctions, as a result, were simply not Constitutionally actionable.

         a. Administrative segregation

         The placement in administrative segregation appears to be Wilson's biggest complaint, but he cannot base a Constitutional claim on it. The Fifth Circuit has firmly stated that, "absent extraordinary circumstances, administrative segregation as such, being an incident to the ordinary life as a prisoner, will never be a ground for a constitutional claim[.]" Pichardo v. Kinker, 73 F.3d 612, 612 (5th Cir. 1996) (emphasis added); see also Allums v. Phillips, 444 Fed.App'x 840, 841 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing several cases) ("Placement in administrative segregation or a change in custodial classification as a result of a disciplinary infraction, without more, does not constitute a deprivation of a constitutionally cognizable liberty interest, and, therefore, there is no right to due process."). Wilson does not point to any extraordinary circumstances. He was found guilty in a prison disciplinary proceeding of assaulting another inmate; was placed in administrative segregation; and got the guilty finding overturned in his Step Two grievance, at which point he was moved out of administrative segregation. The fact that Wilson's disciplinary case was overturned on appeal indicates that he was provided with due process, not deprived of it, notwithstanding his having to sit in administrative segregation pending the appeal. As the Eastern District of Virginia has succinctly stated, "[confinement [in isolation] while awaiting administrative review which leads to the reversal of the inmate's conviction does not, in itself, violate due process." Terrell, 353 F.Supp.2d at 661. And, notably, the three-and-a-half-month period that Wilson spent in administrative segregation falls far short of the time periods held by federal courts to have been "atypical" enough to bring the Due Process Clause into play. See Wilkerson v. Goodwin, 774 F.3d 845, 855 (5th Cir. 2014) ("[T]he duration in segregated confinement that courts have found does not give rise to a liberty interest ranges up to two and one-half years[.]") (emphasis added); see also, e.g., Hernandez v. Velasquez, 522 F.3d 556, 562-63 & n.10 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing several cases as examples and holding that "confinement [without a hearing] to a shared cell for twelve months with permission to leave only for showers, medical appointments, and family visits" because of erroneously suspected gang affiliation did not deprive the prisoner of a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause).

         b. Custodial demotion and recreational and ...

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