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Schlichten v. Mooney

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 3, 2018

VINCENT MOONEY, et al., Defendants


          Carlson Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction and Statement of the Case

         On August 10, 2015, Dwight Dros, the Records Supervisor at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, expedited the release of Eric Von Schlichten, an inmate held at this facility, after receiving a state court order which for the first time clearly stated that prior state court records relied upon by prison officials to calculate Von Schlichten's sentence credit were in error. Alerted to this error, Dros acted with dispatch, securing Von Schlichten's release within 24 hours, but it is undisputed that this error resulted in Von Schlichten's detention beyond what should have been his release date.

         This prolonged detention was a collective failure of the criminal justice system. Many factors combined to cause this collective failure. Thus, this detention was a product of a confluence of events, most notably: Von Schlichten's complex criminal history and limited communications skills; the submission of erroneous court records by the sentencing court, records that prison officials were mandated by law to rely upon in determining Von Schlichten's release date; ineffective communication by counsel to prison officials; and fatally ambiguous court orders which did not plainly identify any sentencing credit calculation errors for prison officials until August 10, 2015.

         None of these collective failures can fairly be attributed to Defendant Dros, but Defendant Dros remains the sole individual presently charged with civil culpability in this matter. Dros's liability in this case rests on the premise that he displayed what amounted to deliberate indifference to Von Schlichten's clearly established constitutional rights in April of 2015, when he reviewed the court records which by law constituted the court's sentencing order in response to an ambiguous court order which directed that Von Schlichten receive proper sentencing credit, and confirmed on the basis of those court records that Von Schlichten's sentencing credit had been properly calculated. Thus, Von Schlichten invites us to place upon Dros a clearly established constitutional responsibility in response to an ambiguous court directive to go beyond the court records that as a matter of law constituted Von Schlichten's sentencing order, and conduct an independent investigation or audit to ferret out whether further sentence credits that had not been identified by the court were somehow embedded within multiple state court dockets.

         Because we conclude, consistent with settled case law, that this collective failure by multiple actors cannot now be laid exclusively at the feet of Defendant Dros, and find that Dros's actions, which ultimately led to Von Schlichten's release, did not transgress the plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights, we will decline this invitation and enter judgment in favor of Defendant Dros on this Eighth Amendment excessive confinement claim.

         The plaintiff in this action is Eric Von Schlichten, a former inmate of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections who has autism and limited ability to advocate on his own behalf. In September 2013, Judge Emil Giordano of the Court of Common Pleas for Northampton County sentenced Von Schlichten to an aggregate sentence of one to five years in prison upon finding him guilty of one count of engaging in public lewdness and one count of indecent exposure. At the time he was sentenced Von Schlichten had spent a number of months in the custody of the Northampton County Prison, both in 2010 and in 2013. Pursuant to the terms and conditions of the sentence, Von Schlichten was to receive credit against his sentence for all time served in Northampton County. However, Northampton County failed to indicate in the documents transmitted with the sentencing Order that Von Schlichten had been in custody as early as January 2010, and thus calculated his release date based upon the date he was received into DOC custody in September 2013, with credit for time served in county prison from February 11, 2013, until September 6, 2013.

         In this civil action, Von Schlichten has a single claim remaining against Dwight Dros, the Records Supervisor at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township, alleging that Dros violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution by failing to accurately calculate Von Schlichten's release date, and failing to undertake a reasonable inquiry to correctly determine Von Schlichten's sentence and his proper release date, even after receiving information that the plaintiff contends put Dros on notice that Von Schlichten was being held past his maximum sentence date. The plaintiff alleges that Dros was deliberately indifferent to his obligation to correctly compute the plaintiff's sentence, and to the danger that Von Schlichten would be held past his release date.

         Although there is no real dispute that Von Schlichten was held more than 150 days beyond what was ultimately determined by the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County to be his correct release date, there is a substantial dispute between the parties over whether Dros bears responsibility for a computational error, or whether he reasonably and properly based his calculation on the records that Northampton County provided to the Department of Corrections at the time of sentencing, and whether he acted reasonably in response to Orders from the sentencing court.

         When Von Schlichten was sentenced on September 6, 2013, the sentencing court's Order directed that he was to receive credit for all time served while previously in the custody of Northampton County. That Order, however, did not specify when Von Schlichten was in the County's custody. Instead, that information was submitted in a document that the County provided to the Department of Corrections that was used to calculate Von Schlichten's sentence. That document, in turn, omitted any mention that Von Schlichten had been in the County's prison for several months in 2010, instead indicating only that Von Schlichten had been in the County's custody for several months in 2013.

         The Department of Corrections then calculated Von Schlichten's release date based upon the information provided by the sentencing court without crediting the plaintiff for the time spent in local custody in 2010. There seems to be no dispute that this calculation accurately reflected the information initially provided by the state court, and it is undisputed that Dros played no role in this initial sentence credit calculation. Nevertheless, the plaintiff claims that Dross was put on notice that further inquiry into Von Schlichten's sentence computation was necessary when, in April 2015, the sentencing judge issued another Order that did nothing more than echo the court's original sentencing order, which provided that Von Schlichten was to receive credit for all time previously served in the County. This April 2015 had an enigmatic quality. This Order did not, in fact, indicate that Von Schlichten's sentence had been improperly calculated; it did not reveal that Von Schlichten had been in custody in 2010; and it did not give any specific guidance regarding the dates that should be used for sentence calculation. Instead, it simply repeated the directive that Von Schlichten's sentence be credited against the time that he was previously in Northampton County Prison.

         For his part, Dros has testified that he found Judge Giordano's second Order to be “vague, ” but it did not inspire him to contact the Judge's chambers or to undertake further inquiry into sentence calculation beyond that which he had previously done, which was to check the documents from the Northampton County courts that accompanied the original sentencing Order, which also omitted any reference to Von Schlichten having been in custody in 2010. The plaintiff alleges that this response to the Order was so inadequate that it exhibited deliberate indifference to the possibility that Von Schlichten was then being held past his actual release date, and argues that Dros would have realized the problem with the calculation had he looked through Von Schlichten's entire file and not relied upon those Northampton County court records that the DOC is required by law to consider when it first calculated the plaintiff's sentence. However, Von Schlichten has offered little by way of persuasive legal authority for this assertion that the arguably “vague” Order from the sentencing court compelled Dros to take the particular action that Von Schlichten now contends was necessary.

         Moreover, the facts of this case, viewed objectively and construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, substantially undermine Von Schlichten's contention that Dros was deliberately indifferent to holding him past his maximum sentence date. Although Von Schlichten's defense lawyer and the prosecutor jointly approached the sentencing judge with defense counsel's concern about the DOC's calculation of Von Schlichten's sentence, it appears that they did not press for the court to issue an Order that made this point clear, or that otherwise explained in any detail the reason the sentencing court was issuing an Order that did nothing more than echo the court's original sentencing Order. That April 2015 Order did not alert Dros to any concerns over the potential miscalculation of Von Schlichten's sentence, nor did it direct him to take any specific action in response to the Order other than to ensure that the sentence was being calculated as originally directed - something Dros apparently believed he had done.

         Moreover, when the sentencing court issued a third Order on July 31, 2015, which was received by prison officials on August 10, 2015, the Order expressly provided that Von Schlichten was to be credited for a period of time in 2010 when he was in custody in Northampton County. This third Order, now manifestly clearer and more detailed in both its purpose and command, caused Dros to realize that the additional credited period would place Von Schlichten over his maximum sentence date. The evidence, discussed further below, indicates that after verifying the validity of the Order, Dros requested that a new sentence be calculated, and this was completed the same day. Von Schlichten was then immediately processed for release, and was in fact released from SCI Coal Township the very next day, August 11, 2015.

         On this set of facts, largely agreed upon by the parties, Defendant Dros has moved for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence is insufficient to show that he acted with deliberate indifference to Von Schlichten's liberty interests. Upon careful consideration of the evidence in this case, we agree.

         Although it is absolutely and entirely regrettable when an inmate is held over his or her maximum sentence date, the fact that an inmate was subjected to overlong incarceration will not, in and of itself, suffice to impose Eighth Amendment liability against prison officials. Instead, liability for such a violation will only attach where a plaintiff shows that an individual defendant exhibited deliberate indifference to whether the plaintiff suffered an unjustified deprivation of his liberty. The evidence in this case is inadequate to demonstrate such indifference on Dros's part. Furthermore, the evidence actually indicates that Dros adhered to DOC policy in calculating Von Schlichten's release date based on information supplied from Northampton County, and subsequently acted immediately to process Von Schlichten's release after the sentencing court for the first time made clear on August 10, 2015, that Von Schlichten should have received credit for time spent in custody in 2010 - something that had never previously been made clear in either the sentencing Order, or the document from the County that was attached to the Order. Accordingly, for the reasons discussed below, we find that the plaintiff's remaining Eighth Amendment claim against Dros fails as a matter of law, and find further that Dros would be entitled to qualified immunity from liability based on the undisputed facts of this case and the state of the law at the time relevant to this action.

         II. Factual Background

         On September 6, 2013, the Judge Giordano of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County sentenced Eric Von Schlichten to serve one to five years in a state correctional facility following his conviction for public lewdness and indecency. (Def. SMF ¶ 1.) The court's sentencing Order provided that the Order and “the attached Northampton County Court of Common Pleas Sentencing Sheet are to be considered the Sentencing Order by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The sentencing sheet accurately reflects the sentence of this Court at the above-referenced case number. . . . The Defendant's sentence is . . . concurrent . . . to other sentences . . . . The Defendant is to be given credit for time served, with no periods of duplicate credit.” (Doc. 28, Ex. A, at DEF000677.)

         The form attached to the Court's Order, a DC-300B “Court Commitment” statement expressly provided that Von Schlichten's credit for time served included time spent in Northampton County Prison from February 11, 2013, through September 6, 2013. (Id. at DEF000672, DEF000678-000679, DEF000684.) The time-served part of the DC-300B was handwritten by someone at Northampton County, a practice that is not uncommon. (Def. SMF ¶ 13.) The DC-300B contained no information about any periods of time when Von Schlichten was in Northampton County custody other than the dates in 2013.

         The DC-300B is the court commitment form provided by the sentencing county to relay an offender's sentence to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9764, and the DOC accordingly considers the DC-300B to be part of the Sentencing Order from the county - just as Judge Giordano directed. (Def. SMF ¶¶ 10-11.) The evidence reflects that the DOC's Central Sentence Computation Unit (“CSCU”) is responsible for calculating the sentences for all new offenders entering state correctional institutions. (Def. SMF ¶ 8.) These sentencing calculations are reflected on a form titled DC16-E - Sentence Status Summary, a form referred to simply as the “16E”. (Def. SMF ¶ 9; Pl. Resp. ¶ 9.)

         There is no dispute that the CSCU initially calculated the plaintiff's sentence based on a review of the September 6, 2013 Order and the DC-300B forms that Northampton County completed and which were included with Judge Giordano's Order. In following this course CSCU did precisely what Judge Giordano expressly ordered when he directed that his Order and the sentencing sheet be read together and that the sentencing sheet “accurately reflects the sentence of this Court . . . .” (Doc. 28, Ex. A, DEF000677; Def. SMF ¶ 12.) There is also no dispute that when a court grants credit for time served and the DC-300B provides dates for the credit, the dates on the DC-300B are to be followed. It is only where there is a discrepancy between the credit awarded in the Order and the dates listed on the DC-300B that the sentencing court is contacted for clarification. (Def. SMF ¶ 14.)

         Corrections officials are not entitled to unilaterally deviate from the court's instructions when construing the court's sentence. Therefore, if an inmate, or his family member, believes that he is being held past his maximum date or believes that the inmate is entitled to additional credit not awarded by the sentencing judge, they are referred to the inmate's attorney or the court to have the matter corrected. (Def. SMF ¶16; Dros Dep. at 185:13-21, 187:17-188:13.) In addition, when contacted by defense attorneys regarding court orders awarding credit, the Records Administrator in the CSCU explains that the DOC needs specific dates, a date range, or an amount of time to apply credit to an inmate's sentence. (Def. SMF ¶ 17.) Credit adjustments which would result in a change to the inmate's sentence structure are calculated by the CSCU. (Id. ¶18.)

         After Von Schlichten was sentenced on September 6, 2013, he was received at SCI Coal Township to begin serving his sentence. The DOC subsequently received 94 pages of documents from Northampton County regarding time that he had been imprisoned in the county prior to his sentence. (Doc. 35, Ex. A at DEF000424-28, DEF000513-41, DEF000555-67, DEF000568-88, DEF000619-45.) These documents were placed in Von Schlichten's DC-15, a one-inch thick folder maintained by Defendant Dros and his team in the Records Department at SCI Coal Township. (Doc. 35, Ex. F, Deposition of Dwight Dros at 94:7-95:24.) Some of these documents indicated that Von Schlichten had been in Northampton County custody for a period of time in 2010. (Pl. SMF ¶ 11.) However, the DC-300B did not contain this information and did not provide credit against Von Schlichten's sentence for this 2010 incarceration.

         On April 17, 2015, Von Schlichten's defense lawyer appeared before Judge Giordano to express concern that his client had not been given credit for all time served in Northampton County. (Doc. 35, Ex. C, Affidavit of Brian Lawser at ¶¶8-11.) While counsel voiced this concern, according to Attorney Lawser, during this meeting with Judge Giordano, he did not ask the Court to change or modify Von Schlichten's sentence. (Id. ¶11.) As a result of this conference Judge Giordano issued another Order that simply stated: “AND NOW, this 17th day of April, 2015, Eric Von Schlichten is to receive credit for all time served in Northampton County towards his sentence.” (Doc. 35, Ex. D.) The Assistant District Attorney and Von Schlichten's probation officer were also in attendance at this meeting, and did not object to the Order. (Lawser Aff. at ¶13.)

         This April 15, 2017 Order, by its terms, did not provide any indication as to why it was being issued, nor did it provide any indication that DOC officials were not giving Von Schlichten credit for time served in Northampton County. Nor did the order express any concern that Von Schlichten's sentence credit calculation was in error. The order also neglected to make any reference to Von Schlichten's 2010 incarceration. Instead, the Order simply reiterated what was previously reflected in the Court's September 6, 2013 Order, which again directed that Von Schlichten receive credit for time served, and ...

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