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Leahy v. Conant

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 8, 2019


          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3 AN-16-07272 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Catherine M. Easter, Judge.

          Raymond Leahy, pro se,

          Wasilla, Appellant. Mary B. Pinkel, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

          Before Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.[Winfree, Justice, not participating.]




         A prisoner sued two prison superintendents, claiming that a mail policy instituted by the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his religious rights because it prohibited him from writing letters to fellow Muslims in two other prisons. He asked for damages and a declaratory judgment that the mail policy violated the Alaska Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

         DOC rescinded the policy while the case was pending. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the superintendents, finding that the prisoner was not entitled to damages because the superintendents had not been personally involved in creating the policy and that his claims for non-monetary relief were mooted by the policy's rescission. The prisoner appeals.

         We affirm the superior court's decision that the prisoner is not entitled to damages, though on different grounds. We conclude that the superintendents were entitled to qualified immunity because the prisoner's right to a religious exception from the mail policy was not "clearly established" under existing law. We also affirm the superior court's decision that the prisoner's claim for declaratory relief is moot. Finally, we see no abuse of discretion in the superior court's handling of the prisoner's pro se status or its failure to designate the prisoner as the prevailing party.


         Raymond Leahy is a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center (Goose Creek). He is a practicing Muslim and identifies himself as the Imam of the "Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims." John Conant and Clare Sullivan, the appellees, have served as superintendents of Goose Creek and Spring Creek Correctional Facilities, respectively.

         Leahy's complaint arose from a February 2014 DOC directive that prohibited mail between prisoners residing at three correctional facilities: Goose Creek, Spring Creek, and the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Though not in the record, the directive is described in several affidavits[1] and an implementing memorandum, and its substance is not in dispute. Sullivan attests that the directive was issued by former DOC Commissioner Bryan Brandenburg and stemmed from a concern that prisoners returning from private prisons outside Alaska were involved in gang and drug-trafficking activity and could "use the prison mail system to pass information for planning and carrying out assaults, conducting illegal business and drug activities, as well as recruiting and communicating [gang] activities." The directive contained exceptions for mail to "immediate family members" and co-litigants in criminal cases.

         According to Leahy, in June 2015 he attempted to send a letter to a prisoner at Spring Creek who was the Imam in the Spring Creek community. Leahy sent his letter during Ramadan; he explains that the teachings of the prophet Muhammad require that he engage in dialogue with Muslims in "communities outside [his] own" and that he "holds a sincere religious belief that it is obligatory for him to reach out and support fellow Muslims within the Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims." DOC returned Leahy's letter to him as undeliverable.

         Leahy sought unsuccessfully to meet with Superintendent Sullivan to explain why his letter to the Imam was important to his religious practice. He then filed a grievance, which was denied, and appealed it without success. In June 2016 he filed a complaint in superior court, asserting that DOC s refusal to allow him "to reach out and support fellow Muslims within the Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims" placed "a substantial burden on his religious exercise," violating his rights under RLUIPA and the Alaska Constitution and supporting claims for damages and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The suit named Conant and Sullivan as defendants in both their official and individual capacities. It sought a declaration "that the acts and ommissions described herein violate Leahy's rights"; an order that each of the superintendents "pay nominal and punitive damages, in the amount of $20, 000.00"; an award of "costs, fees, and postage"; and "any other just and equitable relief [the superior court] deems appropriate."[2]

         While the suit was pending-in November 2016-the 2014 directive was rescinded by new DOC Commissioner Bruce Busby. According to Sullivan, who had become Deputy Commissioner, the directive was rescinded because while "the restriction was appropriate at the time it was issued, it [was] no longer necessary.... [since DOC was] now in a better position to monitor inmate mail than [it had been] two years ago, and the threat posed by inmate to inmate mail at present [was] not as great as it [had been] previously." The new policy restricted mail "only on a case-by-case basis"; the restriction was to "be no broader than necessary to address . . . safety or security concerns."

         Leahy filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the 2014 directive had violated his religious rights, that the rescission of the directive meant that he was now "entitled to judgment as a matter of law," and that he was entitled to damages for the past violation. The superintendents filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing that Leahy's claims were now moot, that the superintendents were otherwise entitled to qualified immunity, and that the 2014 directive did not violate Leahy's rights.

         The superior court denied Leahy's motion and granted the superintendents' cross-motion. The court reasoned that the superintendents could not be liable for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because they "did not personally participate in the decision to institute the mail restriction" and that Leahy's claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were moot because of the directive's rescission.

         Leahy appeals.


         "We review grants of summary judgment de novo, drawing all factual inferences in favor of, and viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-prevailing party (generally the non-movant)."[3] We will "affirm grants of summary judgment when there are no genuine issues of material fact, and the prevailing party (generally the movant) was entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[4] "We may affirm the superior court on any basis supported by the record, even if that basis was not considered by the court below or advanced by any party."[5]

         "We review for abuse of discretion 'decisions about guidance to a pro se litigant. . . .' "[6] Finally, "[w]e review for abuse of discretion a trial court's prevailing party determination," which will be overturned only if it is "manifestly unreasonable."[7]


         A. The Superintendents Were Entitled To Qualified Immunity From Leahy's Damages Claims.

         Leahy did not sue the State or DOC; he sued only the two prison superintendents, in both their official and their individual capacities, alleging that they violated his rights under the Alaska Constitution and RLUIPA by "denying [his] correspondence with fellow Muslims in other [DOC] facilities, without justification." The superintendents raised qualified immunity as a defense and argued for it as one ground for summary judgment. The superior court did not rely on that defense when it decided the case, however, holding instead that under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 the superintendents could not be liable for violations of Leahy's religious rights except "upon a showing of personal participation," and Leahy failed to show that the superintendents "personally participate[d] in the decision to institute the mail restriction."

         We note first that the superintendents' lack of involvement in the directive's implementation or say in its enforcement is not a defense to a § 1983 claim. "[S]ince World War II, the 'just following orders' defense has not occupied a respected position in our jurisprudence, and officers in such cases may be held liable under § 1983 if there is a reason why any of them should question the validity of that order."[8] "[U]nder the Supremacy Clause, [government] officials have an obligation to follow the [U.S.] Constitution even in the midst of a contrary directive from a superior or in a policy."[9]Government officials may thus be liable for damages under § 1983 upon a showing that they acted unreasonably in following a superior's lead, or that they knew or should have known that their conduct might result in a violation of the plaintiffs constitutional rights.[10]

         That said, the superintendents were nonetheless entitled to summary judgment on Leahy's damages claims because there was no showing that they acted unreasonably in following the directive; they are therefore protected by qualified immunity. We "follow federal precedent for determining whether qualified immunity should be conferred for [official] acts alleged to contravene a statutory or constitutional mandate."[11] "Specifically, [in Breck v. Ulmer] we adopted a test established by the United States Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald" under which "qualified immunity shields public officials from civil liability 'insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.' "[12] The inquiry is an objective one.[13] "The burden of establishing that a right is clearly established falls upon the plaintiff."[14]

         1. Federal precedent favors the constitutionality of similar mail restrictions.

         We conclude that Leahy did not demonstrate the existence of a "clearly established right" of which a reasonable prison official would have known. Alaska case law has not definitively addressed the issue of restrictions on prisoner-to-prisoner mail. And federal law favors the constitutionality of the directive at issue; the United States Supreme Court deferred to a prison system's similar mail restrictions in Turner v. Safley, a case with close parallels to this one.[15]

         In Turner, Missouri prisoners brought a constitutional challenge against a mail policy that only allowed "correspondence between inmates [at different state prisons] ... if 'the classification/treatment team of each inmate deem[ed] it in the best interest of the parties involved.' "[16] The policy exempted mail sent between family members and mail concerning legal matters.[17] A federal district court held the policy unconstitutional, finding that it was "unnecessarily broad . . . because prison officials could effectively cope with the security problems raised by inmate-to-inmate correspondence through less restrictive means, such as scanning the mail of potentially troublesome inmates."[18] The Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit affirmed.[19]

         The Supreme Court reversed. While acknowledging that "[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution," the Court observed that "[r]unning a prison is an inordinately difficult undertaking that requires expertise, planning, and the commitment of resources, all of which are peculiarly within the province of the legislative and executive branches of government."[20] The Court concluded that "when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests."[21] Such a deferential standard is necessary, the Court reasoned, to ensure that "the difficult judgments concerning institutional operations" are left primarily to prison administrators rather than judges.[22] Factors relevant to determining whether a regulation is reasonable include (1) whether there is "a 'valid, rational connection' between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it";[23] (2) "whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates"[24]; (3) "the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally;"[25] and (4) "the absence of ready alternatives."[26]

         The Supreme Court found the Missouri mail restriction constitutional under this test. The Court first cited trial testimony that the restriction "was promulgated primarily for security reasons" - much like those that prompted the directive at issue here[27] - and was "logically connected to these legitimate security concerns."[28] The Court noted that the policy did not "deprive prisoners of all means of expression" because it barred "communication only with a limited class of other people with whom prison officials [had] particular cause to be concerned."[29] It observed that allowing unrestricted mail between prisoners could affect the safety of guards and other prisoners, and "[w]here exercise of a right requires this kind of tradeoff, we think that the choice made by corrections officials-which is, after all, a judgment 'peculiarly within [their] province and professional expertise,' - should not be lightly set aside by the courts."[30]Finally, the Court noted that there were "no obvious, easy ...

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