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Ebli v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

November 1, 2019

KEILAN EBLI, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska No. 3PA-16-01708 CI, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Kari Kristiansen, Judge.

          Keilan Ebli, pro se, Wasilla, Appellant.

          Mary B. Pinkel, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

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

          Winfree, Justice, not participating.

          OPINION

          MAASSEN, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         When the Department of Corrections (DOC) discovered that one of its contract employees, a substance abuse counselor, was in an "intimate relationship" with a prisoner in violation of prison policy, DOC barred the counselor and her parents from visiting the prisoner or putting money in his prison bank account. The prisoner sued DOC, alleging that these restrictions violated his constitutional and statutory rights to rehabilitation.

         When the prisoner moved for summary judgment, DOC moved to amend its answer to deny the statutory claim it had failed to deny in its original answer. The prisoner then moved to amend his complaint to add a claim asserting the constitutional rights of the counselor and her parents. The superior court granted DOC's motion to amend, denied the prisoner's motion to amend as futile, and granted summary judgment in DOC's favor. The prisoner appeals.

         We conclude that DOC's visitation restrictions are reasonable exercises of its authority to address legitimate penological interests and therefore do not violate the prisoner's constitutional or statutory rights to rehabilitation. We also conclude that the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it granted DOC's motion to amend its answer and denied the prisoner's motion to amend his complaint. For these reasons we affirm the judgment of the superior court.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         A. Facts

         Keilan Ebli is a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center (Goose Creek). There he met Kerri Pittman, a substance abuse counselor employed by a private company but working as a DOC contract employee. Ebli and Pittman developed what DOC later concluded was an "intimate relationship." Ebli characterizes the relationship as a "non-sexual" "friendship," but DOC submitted affidavits on summary judgment that painted a different picture. A DOC employee attested to finding photo albums in Ebli's cell that included photos of Ebli and Pittman kissing and "displaying wedding rings within a secure area of the facility." Through phone-call monitoring, DOC determined that there were over two thousand calls between Pittman and Ebli between September 2015 and May 2017, that Pittman regularly called using an alias, and that some of the calls involved phone sex. In one call Ebli and Pittman discussed being "married now," though Ebli had never sought the permission of Goose Creek administrators to get married, as required by prison rules.

         Pittman transferred to Palmer Correctional Center, but her relationship with Ebli continued. Pittman and her parents, Vallie and Darold Arthur, continued to visit Ebli regularly at Goose Creek, and the Arthurs deposited money in his prison bank account. Ebli began to view Darold Arthur as a "father figure" and "role model."

         DOC learned about Pittman's relationship with Ebli in late February or early March 2016. At some point-unclear from our record - Pittman's employment was terminated on grounds of "staff misconduct." On March 15, 2016, the Goose Creek superintendent notified her in writing that she was indefinitely barred from visiting any prisoner incarcerated in any DOC facility. Similar notices were sent to the Arthurs, informing them that they were indefinitely barred from visiting or putting money in the account of any prisoner incarcerated at Goose Creek. Copies of the notices were sent to Ebli; the notice to Pittman stated that "[t]he affected prisoner may grieve this matter to the Director of Intuitions [sic] through the grievance process." Ebli accordingly followed the grievance process through appeal, but without success. DOC denied his request in October 2016 to temporarily lift the restrictions for a final visit with Darold Arthur, who died of cancer a few months later.

         One DOC witness, identifying herself as a probation officer with professional training in the ethical considerations of counseling professionals, attested that all DOC "employees and private contractors are told during orientation at Goose Creek that they are not allowed to develop friendships with prison inmates." They are also "required to sign a Code of Ethical [Professional] Conduct," which states, among other things, "that they are prohibited from engaging in undue familiarities with inmates." One explicit DOC ethics rule provides: "I will not act in my official capacity in any matter in which I have a personal interest that could in the least degree impair my objectivity. I will not engage in undue familiarity with inmates, probationers, or parolees." DOC's witness attested that these rules are especially important for counseling professionals, whose friendships or intimate relationships can easily affect objectivity and lead a counselor to "act in ways that are not in the client's best interests." The witness opined that Pittman's relationship with Ebli, including the involvement of Pittman's parents, violated the ethics code.

         B. Proceedings

         Ebli sued DOC in July 2016, claiming that its restrictions on visitation violated his constitutional right to rehabilitation under article I, section 12 of the Alaska Constitution and breached a statutory duty under AS 33.30.011(a)(3)(F), thereby constituting negligence per se.[1] Ebli moved for summary judgment, relying in part on DOC's failure to include in its answer a denial of his negligence per se claim. DOC moved to amend its answer to add the missing denial, and the court allowed the amendment.

         DOC also cross-moved for summary judgment. Ebli moved to amend his complaint to add a claim that DOC's actions had violated Pittman's and the Arthurs' constitutional rights as well as his own, but the court denied his motion, seeing no "cognizable claim" in the proposed amendment. The court then denied Ebli's motion for summary judgment and granted DOC's cross-motion. The court concluded that DOC's visitation restrictions did not violate Ebli's constitutional rights, relying on the deferential test of Turner v. Safley.[2] The court also found that there was no evidence to support Ebli's negligence per se claim. Ebli appeals.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "We review a grant of summary judgment 'de novo, affirming if the record presents no genuine issue of material fact and if the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.' "[3] We review de novo questions of law, including constitutional questions and the interpretation of procedural rules.[4] In de novo review we apply our independent judgment and "adopt the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy."[5]

         We review decisions on motions to amend pleadings for abuse of discretion, "and we will interfere only when that discretion has been abused."[6] "We will reverse a ruling for abuse of discretion only when left with a definite and firm conviction, after reviewing the whole record, that the trial court erred in its ruling."[7] "It is within a trial court's 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.' "[8] "We use our independent judgment to review a conclusion that an amendment meets that description."[9]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The Visitation Restrictions Do Not Violate Ebli's Constitutional Right To Rehabilitation.[10]

         Article I, section 12 of the Alaska Constitution provides in part: "Criminal administration shall be based upon the following: the need for protecting the public, community condemnation of the offender, the rights of victims of crimes, restitution from the offender, and the principle of reformation." In Brandon v. State, Department of Corrections, we cited this provision as the source of "a fundamental right to rehabilitation," and we recognized visitation privileges as one component of that right.[11] The superior court in this case expressly acknowledged the extent of the constitutional right, but it decided that DOC's restrictions on visitation by Pittman and the Arthurs withstood Ebli's constitutional challenge. The court looked to the "deferential standard" established by the United States Supreme Court in Turner v. Sqfley, [12] which we applied to visitation privileges in Larson v. Cooper[13]

         The Turner standard "allows prison administration to establish rules [that] are 'reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.' "[14] The Supreme Court in Turner identified "four factors that are relevant to determining whether a [prison] regulation is reasonable": (1) whether there is "a 'valid, rational connection' between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it"; (2)" 'whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates' "; (3)" 'the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally' "; and (4) "whether there are any 'ready alternatives' to the policy in dispute."[15]

         While recognizing the importance of visitation privileges in Brandon, we left the definition of "their required scope or the permissible limits on their exercise" to "future adjudications."[16] One such case was Larson, in which an inmate challenged DOC restrictions on contact between prisoners and visitors.[17] The prison had changed "the rules governing contact visitations to prohibit all physical contact between prisoners and visitors other than 'a short embrace upon initial contact and again upon departure.' "[18] When Larson broke this rule by holding his wife's hand during prayer, DOC suspended his contact visitation privileges and restricted him to "secure visitation" only.[19] Our opinion focused primarily on Larson's claim under the Alaska Constitution's free exercise of religion clause;[20] we applied the Turner test and our own Frank test for free exercise claims[21] to conclude that the prison officials' decision was entitled to deference.[22] But Larson also argued that he had a rehabilitation-related right to "religious visits" under article I, section 12, "because such visits promote rehabilitation 'as nothing else can.' "[23] We held that nothing in this constitutional provision requires such visits or "preclude[s] prisons from putting reasonable limits on contact visitation of maximum security prisoners."[24] We concluded that "[t]he security risks posed by contact visits and the high costs of mitigating such risks convince us that the degree of contact permitted betweeen visitors and maximum security prisoners lies within the sound discretion of prison administrators."[25]

         Ebli argues that the justifications DOC offers for the visitation restrictions in his case - security and rehabilitation concerns - are "frivolous." DOC provided considerable support for its position that there are legitimate concerns for prison "safety, security, inmate rehabilitation, and institutional morale" that justified its decision. It is undeniable that prison security is a legitimate penological interest.[26] Several DOC employees attested there was a security risk to continued visitation between Ebli and Pittman because of the knowledge of confidential internal prison matters she had acquired during her employment. Pittman's relationship with Ebli and resulting loss of objectivity increased the possibility that she would share this information with Ebli. Her willingness to violate DOC ethics policy and to use an alias when calling showed "that she cannot be trusted" and further exacerbated the risk. A DOC witness also attested to a concern that the rehabilitation of Ebli and other inmates, as well as staff morale, would suffer if Ebli and Pittman ...


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