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Hicks v. Feeney

filed: June 22, 1988.


On Appeal from the United States District Court For the District of Delaware, D.C. Civil Action No. 83-185.

Seitz, Hutchinson and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hutchinson


HUTCHINSON, Circuit Judge.

This case involves the dismissal of a plaintiff's action for failure to comply with a district court's discovery order. The sanction is harsh. Nevertheless, considering appellant's willful refusal to afford appellee discovery relevant, at the least, to the undecided issue of appropriate relief, the district court did not abuse its discretion. We will therefore affirm.

On November 18, 1982 the Family Court of the State of Delaware found plaintiff Roy Hicks (Hicks) guilty of criminal contempt. The court sentenced Hicks to thirty days in jail, but suspended the sentence in favor of a one year probation. As a condition of the probation, Hicks was sent to the Delaware State Hospital (DSH) for a seventy-two-hour evaluation, and for continued hospitalization, if recommended by DSH, "as may be permitted by law, unless sooner discharged according to law." Hicks was not released until January 12, 1983, fifty-four days after his admission.*fn1

Hicks brought a 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (West 1981) civil rights action in district court against Robert Feeney (Feeney), director of DSH. Hicks sought declaratory and injunctive relief against Feeney in his official capacity and compensatory damages against him as an individual. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court held that although Hicks's liberty interest was violated by his confinement at DSH, adequate post-deprivation remedies existed to remedy it. Therefore, his right to procedural due process was not violated. Hicks v. Feeney, 596 F. Supp. 1504, 1512 (D. Del. 1984) (Hicks I),vacated, 770 F.2d 375 (3d Cir. 1985). The district court also found that Hicks's substantive due process rights were not violated. Id. at 1513. Finally, the district court found that because Hicks's rights were not "clearly established" at the time of the violation, Feeney was entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 1515.

On appeal, this Court held that the district court erred in applying the post-deprivation remedy exception to Section 1983 violations of Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 68 L. Ed. 2d 420, 101 S. Ct. 1908 (1981). Hicks II, 770 F.2d at 379. We held DSH's commitment procedures were an established state procedure rather than the random and unauthorized act of a state officer. Id. at 378-79. Under Parratt, an established state procedure requires a pre-deprivation hearing. We also considered Feeney's claim of qualified immunity and found that the district court misapplied the factual correspondence standard of People of Three Mile Island v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'rs, 747 F.2d 139, 144 (3d Cir. 1984). Hicks II, 770 F.2d at 379-80. We therefore vacated the district court's order granting qualified immunity to Feeney and instructed the court to "focus on whether it was clearly established that Hicks could be involuntarily confined at DSH after the initial 72-hour period ordered by the family court judge." Hicks II, 770 F.2d at 380. If it were clearly established that this confinement violated Hicks's constitutional rights, then Feeney does not have qualified immunity. Id. We also instructed the district court to consider whether Delaware's Involuntary Commitment Act*fn2 creates a liberty interest that could form the basis of a Section 1983 action. Hicks II, 770 F.2d at 380 n.4.

On remand, Hicks moved for summary judgment. The district court entered an order setting a briefing schedule and allowing Feeney to take further discovery.

Hicks was deposed on January 28, 1986. After approximately forty minutes, he refused to answer any more questions.*fn3 After a one-hour recess, he did not return to the deposition. The deposition was rescheduled for February 14, 1986. Hicks failed to appear. Feeney filed a Motion to Compel Deposition of Plaintiff. While that motion was pending, Feeney rescheduled the deposition to April 8, 1986. Hicks did not appear. On July 9, 1986 Joseph Bernstein, Esq., counsel for Hicks, sent the district judge a letter explaining his client's position. He stated that he had been in contact with Hicks at least five times, both before and after the various deposition dates. Hicks told Bernstein that "he did not want to discuss what he believed to be extremely private matters concerning what happened to him while he was confined at the Delaware State Hospital." App. at A-54. Bernstein informed Hicks of the possibility of the imposition of sanctions for failing to appear at the deposition. Hicks replied that "he valued his privacy concerning these matters more than any compensatory damages that the court might award" and that he would not appear at any future depositions. Id.

The district court ordered Hicks to appear at a deposition on July 29, 1986 and to pay costs for the previous depositions. The court warned that additional sanctions, including an outright dismissal, would be imposed if Hicks failed to appear. Hicks did not appear. In his Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Sanctions, Hicks recognized that his refusal to be deposed resulted in substantial prejudice to Feeney and was willing to waive his "actual" injury claims. App. at A-80. However, Hicks continued to press for presumed and punitive damages. App. at A-80-81 & n.7. Hicks suggested that even a $1.00 award of nominal damages would be an alternative sanction to an outright dismissal. App. at A-80 n.6. Nevertheless, the district court dismissed the case. Hicks appeals from the district court's final order. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1291 (West Supp. 1987).

Hicks first argues that the district court exceeded its power under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2) in dismissing the case for failing to comply with discovery orders. The court clearly has the power to dismiss the case as a sanction against a party who fails to obey an order regarding discovery. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37 (b)(2)(C). The sanction must be specifically related to the particular claim at issue in the discovery order. Insurance Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 707-08, 72 L. Ed. 2d 492, 102 S. Ct. 2099 (1982). The trial court has discretion over which sanctions to impose and "may make such orders in regard to the failure as are just." Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2).

Hicks argues, however, that the district court was limited in the sanctions it could apply because of our opinion in Hicks II. He claims Hicks II established Feeney's liability, leaving only the issue of monetary damages to be determined through discovery and trial. Reviewing Hicks II, we do not find such a holding. In Hicks II we held that the district court erred in applying the post-deprivation remedy exception to Section 1983 violations of Parratt v. Taylor, supra. This holding was based on a finding that DSH's court commitment procedure was not a "random and unauthorized act" but "an established state procedure that required a pre-deprivation hearing." Hicks II, 770 F.2d at 378-79. We made no findings as to whether a hearing took place and if not, why not. Certainly Hicks might have been able to shed light on why he did not have a hearing and why he was placed in a maximum security building. Feeney asked Hicks for this type of information during his deposition. App. at A-15-16, 32-34. Feeney contends that, without deposing Hicks, he cannot fully prepare a defense as to the issues of (1) whether his failure to follow constitutionally required procedure caused Hicks alleged damages; (2) whether Hicks would have remained at DSH even if the procedures had been followed; and (3) Hicks's actual damages. App. at A-72. We cannot summarily deny Feeney the opportunity to establish a defense.*fn4

Hicks's second argument on appeal is that the district court abused its discretion in dismissing the case contrary to our guidelines in Poulis v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., 747 F.2d 863 (3d Cir. 1984). "In determining whether a District Court has abused its discretion in dismissing a complaint . . . we will be guided by the manner in which the court balanced the Poulis ...

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