Moore v. Cockrell ( 2005 )


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  •                                                          United States Court of Appeals
                                                                      Fifth Circuit
                                                                   F I L E D
                     IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
                             FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT                  August 9, 2005
    
                                                                Charles R. Fulbruge III
                                                                        Clerk
                                 No. 04-40474
    
    
    
    
    GREGORY MOORE,
    
                                           Plaintiff-Appellee
    
    versus
    
    
    JANIE COCKRELL, Etc., ET AL,
    
                                           Defendants
    
    JANIE COCKRELL, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
    INSTITUTIONAL DIVISION; CHARLES D. LIGHTFOOT, Major of
    Correctional Officers - Beto One Unit Classification; CORNELIUS
    E. SMITH, Captain of Correctional Officers; SHELY S. BALDWIN,
    Correctional Officer
    
                                           Defendants-Appellants
    
                           --------------------
              Appeal from the United States District Court
                    for the Eastern District of Texas
                              6:03-CV-82-LED
                           --------------------
    
    Before KING, Chief Judge, BENAVIDES and STEWART, Circuit Judges.
    
    PER CURIAM:*
    
         This interlocutory appeal requires us to determine whether
    
    the district court erred by ruling that Defendants-Appellants’
    
    
         *
              Pursuant to 5TH CIR. R. 47.5, the Court has determined
    that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent
    except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5TH CIR. R.
    47.5.4.
    
                                       1
    motion for summary judgment was untimely.    Determining that it
    
    did so err and because of the peculiar circumstances under which
    
    the alternative merits determination was made, we vacate and
    
    remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
    
                               BACKGROUND1
    
         Plaintiff-Appellee Gregory Moore (“Moore”), an inmate of the
    
    Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division
    
    (“TDCJ-ID”), filed this civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §
    
    1983 against various prison officials asserting that they were
    
    deliberately indifferent to threats of physical violence towards
    
    Moore made by fellow prisoners.   The threats stemmed from the
    
    discovery by his fellow inmates that Moore was serving a sentence
    
    for child molestation.
    
         Apparently, in May 2002, an individual using the name
    
    Rudolph Hess posted information on an internet bulletin board
    
    urging reprisals against sex offenders.2    It appears that inmates
    
    
         1
          Because the district court opinion does not include a
    summary of the facts, the factual background presented here
    represents our best understanding of the facts of the case based
    on the parties’ submissions to this Court. We do not in any way
    intend to resolve any disputed factual matters that may exist.
    As we note below, because Defendants-Appellants immediately
    appealed the district court’s denial of their motion for summary
    judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, Plaintiff-Appellee
    has never had a chance to respond to their motion for summary
    judgment. When Plaintiff-Appellee does have his chance to
    respond, he may present evidence supporting facts that are
    different than the facts as we present them here.
         2
          Moore alleges that Hess was a pseudonym for a prison guard,
    but he does not specifically allege that one of the named
    
                                      2
    in the Beto Unit, where Moore was housed, became aware of this
    
    posting.   Some inmates also discovered which of their fellow
    
    inmates had been convicted of sex offenses.   Moore alleges that
    
    Defendant-Appellant Officer Shely Baldwin told prison gang
    
    members that Moore had been convicted of child molestation.
    
         Soon after the Hess posting, an Attorney named Bill Habern
    
    wrote a letter to Janie Cockrell, Director of the TDCJ-ID,
    
    reminding her that the TDCJ has a duty to protect its prisoners.
    
    In response, Larry Todd, spokesperson for the TDCJ, told a
    
    reporter for the Dallas Morning News that if a sex offender
    
    inmate is harassed or threatened, the TDCJ would transfer the
    
    inmate to another unit or place the inmate in protective custody.
    
         On October 2, 2002, several gang members physically
    
    assaulted inmates on the Beto Unit who had been labeled as
    
    informants, including at least one sex offender.   As a result of
    
    these attacks, the Beto Unit was placed in lockdown.
    
         Between the October 2, 2002 lockdown and January 8, 2003,
    
    when Moore was ultimately involved in a violent altercation with
    
    an inmate named Clifton Holiday, Moore made four life
    
    endangerment claims.   In each claim, he informed prison officials
    
    that gang members housed within the Beto Unit were threatening
    
    with physical violence inmates who were imprisoned for sexual
    
    offenses, including Moore.   Moore specifically named Holiday as
    
    
    
    Defendants-Appellants posted the message.
    
                                     3
    one of the gang members making such threats in two of his life
    
    endangerment claims.
    
         As described by Defendants-Appellants, the TDCJ-ID procedure
    
    for investigating and evaluating a life endangerment claim is as
    
    follows.    The claim is logged into the unit classification office
    
    in the offender protection log and it is assigned to a ranking
    
    officer to conduct an investigation.    After the investigation is
    
    completed, it is returned to the unit classification office,
    
    which sets the claim for a hearing before the next available Unit
    
    Classification Committee (“UCC”).
    
         A UCC is made up of three voting members: a chairperson, a
    
    unit security representative, and a person from the unit’s
    
    treatment team.    The UCC reviews and makes recommendations
    
    regarding an inmate’s custodial classification while at the unit.
    
    No single individual at the unit, including the senior warden,
    
    has the authority to change the custodial classification of an
    
    inmate.    The UCC can change an inmate’s classification by
    
    majority vote.    The UCC may recommend a housing change, placement
    
    in safekeeping, placement in protective custody, or a unit
    
    transfer.    However, the State Classification Committee (“SCC”) in
    
    Huntsville has to approve the UCC’s recommendations.3   It also
    
    
         3
          While Moore acknowledges the UCC and SCC and their role in
    unit transfers, he also appears to contend that a UCC panel has
    the ability to override/disregard the SCC and/or that an
    individual member of a UCC panel has the ability to dictate the
    conclusions of the panel.
    
                                      4
    appears that an individual prison officer at least sometimes has
    
    the ability to place an inmate who is in danger in transient
    
    housing, pending a formal life endangerment investigation.
    
         Moore’s first life endangerment claim, filed on October 12,
    
    2002, alleged that inmate Richard Tidwell was the instigator of a
    
    plan to rid the Beto Unit of sex offenders.   Moore said that he
    
    overheard inmate Benton Morgan mention Moore’s name to Holiday,
    
    stating that Moore was next on the list to leave the unit.
    
    Defendant-Appellant Captain Cornelius Smith investigated Moore’s
    
    October 12, 2002 claim, and on October 16, 2002, Moore came
    
    before the Beto Unit Classification Committee for a life
    
    endangerment review.   The members of that UCC were Defendant-
    
    Appellant Major Charles Lightfoot and two non-defendants.
    
         The UCC voted unanimously to place Moore in transient status
    
    when the lockdown was lifted, and recommended a unit transfer.
    
    However, the unit transfer was denied by the SCC on October 24,
    
    2002 because of a lack of corroborating evidence.   A different
    
    UCC, consisting of Major Lightfoot and two other non-defendants,
    
    informed Moore on October 28, 2002 that the SCC had denied his
    
    request for a unit transfer.   On that same date, Moore was
    
    assigned to N-Wing, which is the Beto Unit’s transient status
    
    housing.   Moore remained there from October 28, 2002 to November
    
    5, 2002.
    
         When prison officials attempted to move Moore from transient
    
    housing to his new housing assignment, he refused to move.    As a
    
                                     5
    result, he was placed in Pre-Hearing Detention on November 5,
    
    2002.
    
         On November 6, 2002, Moore brought his second life
    
    endangerment claim.   In that claim, Moore alleged new
    
    developments since his October 16, 2002 UCC hearing, including
    
    that inmate Morgan had come to his cell and threatened him.
    
    Moore again requested a unit transfer because he believed his
    
    life was in danger.   Defendant-Appellant Captain Cornelius Smith
    
    investigated Moore’s second claim and a UCC was convened on
    
    November 8, 2002.   The UCC was composed of three non-defendants.
    
    The UCC voted unanimously to table Moore’s life endangerment
    
    review until a prison official, Lt. J.S. Clark, could provide
    
    additional information.
    
         On November 8, 2002, prison officials moved Moore from Pre-
    
    Hearing Detention to overflow transient status housing in X-Wing.
    
    He remained there until December 23, 2002.
    
         On November 13, 2002, the UCC reconvened the November 8,
    
    2002 hearing because it had received the additional information
    
    from Lt. Clark.   This UCC was also composed of three non-
    
    defendants.   They voted unanimously to deny Moore’s request for a
    
    transfer because of a lack of corroborating evidence.
    
         Undeterred, Moore then brought a grievance, which prison
    
    officials treated as another life endangerment claim.    It appears
    
    that Moore never had a UCC hearing for this claim.   Instead, Beto
    
    Unit Classification Chief Sun Berg included Moore in a
    
                                     6
    recommendation that she sent to the SCC after a November 18, 2002
    
    UCC hearing for three other convicted sex offenders.   In this
    
    recommendation to the SCC, Berg recommended transfers for Moore
    
    and the other three sex offenders.
    
         However, the SCC did not follow Berg’s recommendation.
    
    Instead, it ordered transfers for five inmates who were
    
    threatening the convicted sex offenders rather than transferring
    
    the sex offenders themselves to safekeeping.   The five inmates
    
    transferred were Richard Tidwell, Dustin Dixon, Robert Leifester,
    
    Benton Morgan, and John Wheeler.
    
         After these five inmates had been transferred, an SCC
    
    member, V. Sineguare, sent a memo to Beto Unit Classification
    
    Chief Berg on December 17, 2002 directing her to transfer Moore
    
    and the three other sex offender inmates from transient housing
    
    back to General Population.
    
         In the meantime, on December 12, 2002, Moore’s attorney,
    
    John Bennett, notified TDCJ-ID officials including Director
    
    Cockrell and the Beto Unit Warden that Moore was still in danger
    
    from inmate gang members even though he was in transient housing.
    
    Bennett requested, to no avail, that the officials do something
    
    more to protect Moore, such as transferring him to a safekeeping
    
    unit.
    
         Additionally, Moore alleges that on December 17, 2002, a
    
    Beto Unit classification officer sent Director Cockrell a memo
    
    outlining the history of threats to Moore’s safety between
    
                                       7
    October 12, 2002, and December 17, 2002.    The memo specifically
    
    identified Holiday as a threat.    Moore further alleges that an
    
    individual in Director Cockrell’s office requested a second copy
    
    of this memo on December 18, 2002.
    
         On December 23, 2002, a UCC composed of Defendant Major
    
    Lightfoot and two non-defendants informed Moore of the SCC’s
    
    decision to release him back to General Population.
    
         From December 23, 2002 to January 8, 2003, Moore was housed
    
    in M Wing, in the general population.    Moore alleges that once he
    
    returned to the general population he immediately started to
    
    receive death threats and that he relayed them to prison
    
    officials.    Moore further alleges that Holiday directly
    
    threatened him on December 25, 2002, and that he again reported
    
    the threat.
    
         On January 5, 2003, Moore filed his fourth life endangerment
    
    claim.   In this claim, Moore alleged that Holiday and another
    
    inmate, Frank Williams, had threatened him and that his life was
    
    in danger.    Moore requested a transfer out of the Beto Unit
    
    because the other inmates had become aware of his conviction for
    
    a sex offense.    Prison official Lt. Williams completed the
    
    investigation of Moore’s fourth claim on January 8, 2003.      On
    
    that same day, Moore signed a waiver of his claim and of his
    
    request for a unit transfer.    Moore now asserts that a prison
    
    official named Timmons coerced him into rescinding his claim.
    
         Later that day, at approximately 6 p.m., Holiday and Moore
    
                                      8
    had a violent encounter in the north-side Dining Hall.   Moore
    
    alleges that he was attacked and that he suffered a “brutal
    
    stabbing.”   Prison officials describe the encounter as a
    
    fistfight and his injuries as minor.   Holiday contended that
    
    Moore struck him first, but he also admitted that he did not like
    
    Moore because of his status as a sex offender.
    
         After the encounter with Holiday, Moore was again moved to
    
    transient status where he remained until February 13, 2003.
    
    Because of the fight, prison officials initiated another life
    
    endangerment investigation, which was completed on January 10,
    
    2003.   On January 13, 2003, a UCC composed of three non-
    
    defendants voted unanimously to recommend a unit transfer and
    
    they asked the SCC to review Moore for possible placement in
    
    safekeeping status.
    
         On February 13, 2003, Moore was transferred from the Beto
    
    Unit to the Michael Unit.
    
                                 PROCEEDINGS
    
         Moore brought this action alleging that the officials named
    
    were all deliberately indifferent to the threats of violence that
    
    he faced.    Pursuant to an amended scheduling order, the trial was
    
    scheduled to commence on April 13, 2004.   The prison officials
    
    involved in this appeal filed a motion to dismiss, which was
    
    
    
    
                                      9
    denied in relevant part on March 5, 2004.4          The prison officials
    
    then filed a motion for summary judgment on April 5, 2004.             The
    
    district court, in an order dated April 8, 2004, determined that
    
    this motion was untimely.       The district court also found that
    
    even assuming arguendo that the motion had been timely filed, the
    
    prison officials had not overcome their summary judgment burden
    
    given that genuine issues of material fact existed as to preclude
    
    the granting of the motion.
    
         The district court ruled on the summary judgment motion
    
    within three days of its filing and long before the expiration of
    
    the time allotted under the Local Rules and the Federal Rules of
    
    Civil Procedure for Moore to file a response.5
    
         The very next day, April 9, 2004, the prison officials filed
    
    this interlocutory appeal.       By doing so, the prison officials
    
    invoked the jurisdiction of this Court before Moore’s time to
    
    respond to the summary judgment motion had expired.            As a result,
    
    Moore did not file a response to Defendant’s motion for summary
    
    judgment before the district court lost jurisdiction by virtue of
    
    Appellants’ notice of appeal.
    
                                   JURISDICTION
    
    
    
          4
            On March 19, 2004, the district court ruled upon the last of the
    motions to dismiss, which related to defendants who are not part of this
    appeal.
         5
          The Local and Federal Rules provided Moore with at least
    15 days to respond after he had been served with Defendants’
    motion for summary judgment. See n.8 and n.9, infra.
    
                                         10
         This Court has jurisdiction to review the denial of summary
    
    judgments seeking qualified immunity in an interlocutory appeal
    
    under the “collateral order” doctrine, as explained by the
    
    Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Forsyth.    
    472 U.S. 511
    , 530 (1985).
    
    Because qualified immunity implicates the right not to stand
    
    trial, denial of a qualified immunity claim is final in that the
    
    right to avoid trial cannot be vindicated by later appeal.      Id.
    
    at 526-27.   Our jurisdiction in such cases is not unlimited,
    
    however.   As the qualified immunity analysis is “significantly
    
    different from the questions underlying [a] claim on the merits,”
    
    and questions of “evidence sufficiency” are not appealable,
    
    Johnson v. Jones, 
    515 U.S. 304
    , 314 (1995), we may only review a
    
    denial of qualified immunity “to the extent that it turns on an
    
    issue of law.”   Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 530.6
    
                                DISCUSSION
    
                                    I.
    
         We must first determine whether the district court erred by
    
    
         6
          Moore’s contention that this Court does not have
    jurisdiction to hear this appeal is without merit. He contends
    that this case is like Edwards v. Cass County, Texas, in which we
    held that we normally do not have jurisdiction to hear an
    interlocutory appeal when the district court declines to consider
    a motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity
    because it is untimely. 
    919 F.2d 273
    , 275 (5th Cir. 1990). In
    the instant case, however, the district court ruled both that
    Defendants-Appellants’ motion for summary judgment was untimely
    and held in the alternative that it was without merit. Because
    the district court in the instant case has ruled on the merits of
    Defendants-Appellants’ assertion of qualified immunity,
    Edwards does not apply.
    
                                    11
    holding that the prison officials failed to timely submit their
    
    motion for summary judgment.   Because district courts are vested
    
    with broad discretion to determine their own dockets as
    
    warranted, the abuse of discretion standard governs.     Edwards v.
    
    Cass County, Texas, 
    919 F.2d 273
    , 275 (5th Cir. 1990).
    
         The district court cited Edwards for the proposition that
    
    “the refusal to allow filing of a substantive motion on the eve
    
    of trial is normally within the district court’s discretion.”    It
    
    then held that the prison officials’ motion was untimely because
    
    “the moving Defendants waited until one week before the scheduled
    
    trial to file a lengthy motion for summary judgment, together
    
    with over 150 pages of exhibits.”
    
         However, the facts of the instant case are distinguishable
    
    from Edwards.   In Edwards, the district court had issued a
    
    scheduling order setting a deadline of March 5, 1990 for the
    
    filing of all pre-trial motions, including motions for summary
    
    judgment.   Id. at 274.   With a jury trial set to begin on June 5,
    
    1990, the defendants filed a motion for leave to file an out-of-
    
    time motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity on
    
    June 4, 1990.   Id.   The district court denied the motion, and we
    
    affirmed, stating that
    
         a court's refusal to allow the filing of a substantive
         motion on the eve of trial three months after the
         expiration of a deadline (especially where no extension
         has been sought) should normally be deemed well within
         the court's discretion. In other words, a district court
         seldom would be obliged to interrupt the orderly
    
                                     12
         proceedings of its docket to rule on so critical an issue
         where the same easily could have been presented at an
         earlier date.
    
    Id. at 275-76 (emphasis added).
    
         In contrast to Edwards, the district court never issued a
    
    scheduling order in the instant case.   Without such an order, the
    
    prison officials were not sufficiently put on notice that a
    
    motion filed on April 5, 2004 would be considered untimely.      The
    
    motion was filed within three weeks of the district court’s
    
    ruling on the last motion to dismiss, and the district court had
    
    previously moved the trial date back to accommodate pre-trial
    
    proceedings.7
    
         These facts distinguish the instant case from Edwards.
    
    Unlike the defendants in Edwards, Defendants-Appellants did not
    
    file their motion one day before trial and three months after the
    
    deadline for filing pre-trial motions set in a scheduling order.
    
         Moore also contends that the district court’s ruling that
    
    the prison officials’ motion was untimely can be supported by the
    
    Eastern District of Texas’s Local Rules of Civil Procedure.      The
    
    Local Rules provide that a party opposing a dispositive motion is
    
    
    
         7
          Between March 2, 2004 and March 9, 2004, with the trial
    then scheduled to commence on March 16, 2004, the defendants then
    in the case filed various motions to dismiss. The defendants
    contemporaneously filed a motion to stay pretrial hearing and
    trial setting, which the court granted, resetting the trial date
    for April 13, 2004. Defendants-Appellants filed a similar motion
    on April 5, 2004, along with their motion for summary judgment,
    to no avail.
    
                                      13
    provided a period of twelve days from the date the motion was
    
    served in which to serve and file a response, with an additional
    
    three days added pursuant to Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules.8
    
    See United States District Court for the Eastern District of
    
    Texas, Local Rule CV-7(e), available at www.txed.uscourts.gov/
    
    (as of July 31, 2005).9    The prison officials filed their motion
    
    on April 5, 2004, and the trial was scheduled to commence on
    
    April 13, 2004, so Moore’s response to the prison officials’
    
    motion would have been due well after the trial had begun.
    
         Nevertheless, neither the Local Rules nor any order from the
    
    district court provided the prison officials with a fixed
    
    deadline for filing their motion for summary judgment.    Local
    
    Rule CV-7(e) sets forth the amount of time that a party opposing
    
    
         8
             Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(e) provides:
    
         Whenever a party has the right or is required to do some
         act or take some proceedings within a prescribed period
         after the service of a notice or other paper upon the
         party and the notice or paper is served upon the party
         under Rule 5(b)(2)(B), (C), or (D), 3 days shall be added
         to the prescribed period.
         9
             Local Rule CV-7(e) provides:
    
         A party opposing a motion has 12 days from the date the
         motion was served in which to serve and file a response
         and any supporting documents, after which the court will
         consider the submitted motion for decision. Except for
         motions served under Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(b)(2)(A), three days
         shall be added to the prescribed time period pursuant to
         Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(e). Any party may separately move for an
         order of this court lengthening or shortening the period
         within which a response may be filed.
    
    
                                      14
    a motion has in which to respond, but it does not definitively
    
    set a deadline for filing a motion for summary judgment asserting
    
    qualified immunity.10   To the contrary, the rule itself contains
    
    flexibility in the form of a clause allowing for the response
    
    time period to be lengthened or shortened.   As a result, it does
    
    not provide parties with a definitive deadline for filing
    
    motions.   Without a definitive deadline, the prison officials
    
    were not given sufficient warning that their motion for summary
    
    judgment would be considered untimely if filed on April 5, 2004.
    
         Because the district court did not give sufficient notice to
    
    the parties regarding the deadline for filing motions, in the
    
    form of a scheduling order, a local rule, or otherwise, we find
    
    that under the unique circumstances presented here, the district
    
    court abused its discretion by ruling that the prison officials’
    
    motion for summary judgment was untimely.
    
                                    II.
    
         Ordinarily we would next consider whether the district court
    
    erred in its alternative holding that the prison officials failed
    
    to show that they were entitled to summary judgment on the basis
    
    
         10
           In contrast, the Western District of Texas’s Local Rules
    of Civil Procedure provide a fixed date by which defendants must
    assert qualified immunity. See United States District Court for
    the Western District of Texas, Local Rule CV-12, available at
    http://www.txwd.uscourts.gov/rules/online/default.asp (as of July
    31, 2005) (requiring defendants to assert qualified immunity
    within 30 calendar days of their initial pleading or, if asserted
    in response to allegations made in an amended complaint, within
    20 days of the date the amended complaint was filed).
    
                                     15
    of qualified immunity.   Indeed, Appellants insist that they are
    
    entitled to summary judgment on their qualified immunity claims.
    
    The panel is loathe, however, to make a final determination on
    
    the qualified immunity claims at this time.    This is because, as
    
    explained previously, Moore did not have the opportunity to
    
    respond to Defendants-Appellants’ motion for summary judgment and
    
    was deprived the time to respond as provided in the rules.      This
    
    case thus presents an unusual procedural posture.    Given this, we
    
    will refrain from squarely addressing the merits of the prison
    
    officials’ assertions of qualified immunity at this juncture.
    
    However, some brief additional commentary is necessary.    On
    
    remand, the district court should heed particular attention to
    
    our en banc decision in Kinney v. Weaver, 
    367 F.3d 337
     (5th Cir.
    
    2004), of which all three members of this panel belonged to the
    
    majority.   In Kinney, we commented that “before engaging in the
    
    inquiry into whether the [prison] official unreasonably violated
    
    clearly established law, we should first determine whether the
    
    challenged conduct, viewed in the light most favorable to the
    
    plaintiff, would actually amount to a violation of federal law in
    
    the first place.”   367 F.3d at 550.   While the referenced
    
    language actually was stated in the context of addressing our
    
    standard of review, on remand, the district court must be mindful
    
    of the specific allegations that have been brought against each
    
    prison official, and must ask whether Moore - in light of our
    
    
                                    16
    precedent - has alleged conduct that expressly runs afoul of the
    
    Constitution.   If he has not, then the qualified immunity inquiry
    
    need go no further.   The record as presented is not pellucid as
    
    to whether Moore has alleged conduct that is considered
    
    constitutionally infirm; however, we need go no further, as we
    
    believe the district court should be afforded the opportunity to
    
    make this determination in the first instance after Moore has an
    
    opportunity to respond to the motion for summary judgment with
    
    whatever summary judgment arguments and summary judgment evidence
    
    he might properly present to the District Court.   Accordingly,
    
    the panel is of the view that this case should be remanded and
    
    considered under proper procedures.
    
    
    
         VACATED AND REMANDED.
    
    
    
    
                                    17