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Smith v. State, Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Alaska

August 30, 2019

STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, NANCY DAHLSTROM, Commissioner, Alaska Department of Corrections, in her official capacity, and UNKNOWN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS EMPLOYEES, in their official capacities, Appellees.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 1JU-15-00657 CI of the State of Alaska, First Judicial District, Juneau, Philip M. Pallenberg, Judge.

          Billy Dean Smith, pro se, Seward, and Jacob Lee Anagick, pro se, Kenai, Appellants.

          Matthias Cicotte, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellees.

          Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Stowers, Maassen, and Carney, Justices.

          Winfree, Justice, not participating.


          CARNEY, Justice.


         Two prisoners in Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) custody were placed in administrative segregation pending an investigation and disciplinary proceedings related to an alleged escape attempt. The disciplinary decisions were later overturned on appeal to the superior court based on procedural defects. However, the prisoners had lost their Prison Industries jobs because of the administrative segregation placements. They filed a civil suit against two DOC officers in superior court, alleging due process violations and seeking damages for lost wages and property. The case was removed to federal court; the federal judge ruled that the inmates lacked a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs and that the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

         Meanwhile, the prisoners filed another complaint in the superior court, this time naming the officers in both their official and individual capacities and raising due process claims under both the United States and Alaska Constitutions. After both parties cross-moved for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment for the DOC officers. The court found that, although the federal judgment did not bar the prisoners' complaint under the doctrine of res judicata, their constitutional claims lacked merit and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

         The prisoners appeal, arguing that they have a constitutionally protected interest in their jobs; that this interest was clearly established and therefore precludes a qualified immunity defense; that the superior court made various procedural errors; and that it did not adequately instruct the unrepresented prisoners on how to pursue their claims. Because we find that the administrative segregation hearings conducted by DOC satisfied any due process requirements to which the prisoners may have been entitled, and because the superior court did not abuse its discretion in any of its procedural rulings, we affirm the superior court's grant of summary judgment.


         A. Facts

         Billy Dean Smith and Jacob Lee Anagick are prisoners in DOC custody. In 2011 they were housed at Lemon Creek Correctional Center and worked in a Prison Industries program providing laundry services to the Alaska Marine Highway System.

         On September 12, 2011, Lemon Creek officers conducted a "shakedown," or unannounced search, of the prison employment building based on information they had received "concerning a plan of an escape." According to the incident reports on the "shakedown," DOC officers found potential escape implements - lengths of rope, a tarp, clothing that had not been issued by Lemon Creek, and a trash bag holding pieces of dry wood and empty condiment bottles - at Smith's and Anagick's work stations. The reports do not specify the source of the tip, although Smith and Anagick apparently believed the informant to be an officer. Smith and Anagick claimed that the informant did not specifically name any of the prisoners allegedly planning to escape. Smith and Anagick have consistently denied any intent or plan to escape.

         The next day Lemon Creek officers placed Smith and Anagick in administrative segregation pursuant to 22 Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) 05.485.[1]An administrative segregation hearing was held six days later.[2] The classification committee recommended that the prisoners remain in segregation "[p]ending the outcome of an ongoing investigation," finding that they posed "a substantial risk to the security of the facility" and "a substantial and immediate threat to the public."[3] Lemon Creek's superintendent approved the committee's recommendation a day later.[4] As a result of the administrative segregation placement, Smith and Anagick were terminated from their Prison Industries laundry jobs. Smith and Anagick were transferred from Lemon Creek to Spring Creek Correctional Center in January 2012. Officials at Spring Creek reviewed their administrative segregation placements following the transfer and maintained the placements until May 2012.

         In related disciplinary proceedings Smith and Anagick were found to have possessed escape implements. They successfully appealed to the superior court, which overturned the disciplinary decisions because of procedural defects.[5] In his appeal to the superior court Smith also attempted to raise claims for lost wages, but the court concluded that such claims "would have to be brought in a separate civil action."

         In September 2013, with their disciplinary appeals pending, Smith and Anagick filed a civil rights action in superior court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Lemon Creek superintendent and a correctional officer in their individual capacities.[6]They alleged various procedural defects in the administrative segregation classification process. The defendants removed the case to federal court in December 2013.

         B. Proceedings

         1. Complaint

         Smith and Anagick filed another complaint in state superior court in April 2015 while the federal case was still pending. They named as defendants the DOC commissioner and "unknown" DOC employees - whom they believed might include the Lemon Creek correctional officer and superintendent previously sued - in their individual and official capacities.[7] They alleged that they had a liberty interest in continued participation in their laundry jobs under the Alaska Constitution. They also alleged that by failing to hold specific job termination hearings separate from the administrative segregation classification hearings, DOC had violated Smith's and Anagick's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, [8] their right to petition the court for a redress of their grievances under the First Amendment, [9] and their confrontation rights under the Sixth Amendment.[10] Smith and Anagick sought back wages and punitive damages.[11]

         2. Relevant motions

         Two of the issues raised in the motions before the superior court are relevant to Smith and Anagick's appeal. First, in February 2016 Smith and Anagick moved to sanction DOC and its employees for spoliation of video evidence. They asserted that DOC improperly failed to preserve videos of the September 2011 search of the Lemon Creek prison employment program building, as well as tapes from the subsequent administrative segregation hearings. They claimed the videos of the search would have shown that the escape implements were "not found where an 'unknown' officer allegedly 'found'" them, which was at Smith's and Anagick's workstations.[12]Smith and Anagick argued that DOC officers had allowed the videos to be destroyed knowing that the prisoners planned to challenge their administrative segregation placements and would need the videos as evidence. They requested that "spoliation jury instructions" be given at trial. In September 2016 the superior court granted the motion in part: interpreting "spoliation jury instructions" as "an instruction directing the jury to presume that lost evidence would have been favorable to the plaintiffs," the court stated that it would give such an instruction if the case proceeded to trial.[13]

         Second, in March 2016 Smith and Anagick notified the superior court that they had filed another civil suit against DOC officers, Smith v. Busby.[14] In July they moved to consolidate that case with this one. The court denied their motion, finding that consolidation would be premature because the filing fee in Busby had not been paid and because not all the Busby defendants had been served with pleadings from this case. Smith responded with an affidavit stating that the filing fee was "paid in full" prior to the denial of the motion to consolidate. However, it does not appear that he and Anagick renewed their motion or sought reconsideration.

         3. Summary judgment

         In late March 2016 the federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of the DOC officers being sued in their individual capacities.[15] The federal court concluded that: Smith and Anagick did not have a protected liberty interest in avoiding administrative segregation under the United States Constitution;[16] they did not have a state-created liberty interest that would entitle them to due process protection;[17] and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity because any relevant liberty interest the prisoners might have claimed was not clearly established.[18]

         About three weeks after the federal district court's decision, Smith and Anagick moved for summary judgment in their state superior court case. They asserted that their laundry jobs were rehabilitative and that under Ferguson v. State, Department of Corrections they were entitled to due process before they could be terminated.[19] They argued that due process violations at their administrative segregation hearings had deprived them not only of their jobs but of property and wages. They also seemed to assert, apparently for the first time, that DOC failed to properly train officers, although the factual basis for this claim is unclear.[20] Finally, they raised a new spoliation of evidence claim, asserting that DOC employees had destroyed employment contracts Smith and Anagick had signed in 2010 and 2011 for their laundry jobs.

         In June 2016 DOC and the officer defendants cross-moved for summary judgment. They argued that: any claims related to job termination and property loss were barred by res judicata because of the federal court decision;[21] the laundry jobs were not rehabilitative and thus not subject to federal or state due process protections; the First and Sixth Amendments did not apply to Smith and Anagick's claims; the inmates had failed to properly plead a "negligent training" claim; and the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

         Smith and Anagick opposed DOC's cross-motion, raising for the first time a claim that DOC had breached the employment contracts it had executed with them by terminating them from their jobs without notice and a hearing. DOC filed a reply; Smith and Anagick then filed a responsive pleading, which the court treated as a sur-reply. In response to DOC's argument in its reply that they lacked a viable contract claim, they argued that to the extent their complaint was "procedurally defective," the court should treat their sur-reply as a motion for leave to amend. They contended that res judicata did not bar their contract claims because those claims "were not ripe for litigation" until their disciplinary appeals were resolved, which did not occur until after the federal case was filed. They also asserted that DOC had violated its own policy, which requires notice and a hearing, if requested, prior to termination from rehabilitative programs.[22] They argued that the "administrative segregation exception" to this policy should not apply because the segregation hearings had not provided "all the [d]ue [p]rocess requisites" that a job termination hearing under DOC policy should provide.

         Following oral argument on the summary judgment cross-motions, the superior court granted summary judgment to DOC and its officers in April 2017. The court determined that res judicata did not bar Smith and Anagick's claims, but concluded that they did not have a protected liberty interest in their jobs because they had not established that the jobs were "rehabilitative" under Ferguson.[23], As a result, the court concluded that the administrative segregation placements and job terminations had not violated due process. The court also determined that Smith and Anagick's First and Sixth Amendment claims lacked merit and that the prisoners had failed to state a cognizable claim for loss of property. Finally, the court found that the DOC officers were entitled to qualified immunity for both the federal and state law claims.

         Smith and Anagick appeal, arguing that they do have a clearly established liberty interest in their jobs under Ferguson and that the superior court made various procedural errors.


         "We review a grant of summary judgment de novo[, ] . . . reviewing] the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw[ing] all factual inferences in the non-moving party's favor."[24] We will uphold a grant of summary judgment "if there are 'no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.' "[25] While "[t]he evidentiary threshold necessary to preclude the entry of summary judgment is low, "[26] the evidence cannot be "based entirely on 'unsupported assumptions and speculation' and must not be 'too incredible to be believed by reasonable minds.' "[27]

         "We review issues concerning constitutional rights of inmates de novo."[28]"Whether an inmate has received procedural due process is an issue of constitutional law that we review de novo."[29] We also review de novo "[t]he applicability of both state and federal immunity."[30]

         We "review the denial of a motion to amend a pleading for abuse of discretion."[31] An abuse of discretion occurs "when the decision on review is manifestly unreasonable," but the trial court has discretion to "deny such a motion where amendment would be futile because it advances a claim or defense that is legally insufficient on its face."[32] "We use our independent judgment to determine whether such an amendment would be legally insufficient."[33]

         "We review the denial of amotion to consolidate for abuse of discretion."[34]The abuse of discretion standard also applies to the superior court's "decisions about guidance to a pro se litigant."[35] "An abuse of discretion exists when a party has been deprived of a substantial right or seriously prejudiced" as a result of the court's ruling.[36]


         A. Smith And Anagick Were Not Denied Due Process.

         Smith and Anagick rely on Ferguson v. State, Department of Corrections to argue that their laundry jobs were rehabilitative and that, as a result, they had a state constitutional interest in retaining those jobs.[37] They contend that they were entitled to notice and separate job termination hearings prior to their removal from the Alaska Marine Highway System laundry program and that DOC denied them due process by not holding such hearings. In Ferguson we held that prisoners' right to rehabilitation, guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution, includes the right not to be terminated from rehabilitative programs without due process.[38] We recognize that Smith's and Anagick's laundry jobs appear to share some of the characteristics we have previously found relevant in determining a program to be rehabilitative.[39] But we do not reach the question whether Smith and Anagick had a protected property or liberty interest in their jobs because, even assuming they did, we conclude they received due process.

         We have previously considered prisoners' due process claims under the Mathews v. Eldridge[40] balancing test.[41] This test requires us to consider three factors:

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and [third], the [State]'s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.[42]

         Smith and Anagick assert a private interest in their continued participation in jobs that they characterize as rehabilitative. But even assuming that their jobs were rehabilitative and thus subject to constitutional due process protections, the proceedings for their placement in administrative segregation satisfied any due process requirements that might have attached to their interest in retaining their jobs. The applicable regulation provides that a prisoner placed in administrative segregation must be given a classification hearing "no later than three working days after placement" unless the prisoner requests a continuance or DOC establishes good cause to postpone the hearing by up to 24 hours.[43] Smith and Anagick were given such a hearing; within days of their placement in administrative segregation, a classification committee determined ...

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