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Hill v. Fisher

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 25, 2019

TYRONE HILL, Plaintiff,
JON D. FISHER, et al., Defendants.


          ROBERT D. MARIANI, United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Tyrone Hill, a Pennsylvania state prisoner, filed this civil rights complaint in 2011 alleging that numerous individuals violated his constitutional rights. (Docs. 1, 6). After Hill filed this complaint, the matter proceeded in due course and, in January 2017, was referred to Mediator Joseph A. Barrett for mediation. (Doc. 111). Shortly thereafter, the parties reached a settlement agreement ("Agreement") and the case was closed. (Docs. 116, 117).

         Nevertheless, the parties disagreed on the implementation of the Agreement and, in August 2017, Hill filed a motion to enforce the Agreement. (Doc. 120). The matter was therefore referred back to Barrett to determine whether the parties could reach an amicable resolution to the dispute.[1] (Doc. 125). To protect the confidentiality of the negotiations, the Court entered an order on December 2, 2018, directing prison officials at State Correctional Institution Huntingdon ("SCI Huntingdon") "to refrain from photocopying or otherwise recording direct communications between Plaintiff and the court appointed mediator" ("Order").[2] (Doc. 130).

         Despite this Order, on December 15, 2018, a letter from Barrett to Hill was opened and photocopied by two prison guards-identified by Defendants as Donald Lowe and Jason Kyler. (Docs. 132, 133, 137). As a consequence of this violation of the Order, Hill requested that the Court impose monetary sanctions against Lowe, Kyler, [3] and SCI Huntingdon Superintendent Kevin Kauffman (collectively "Motion Defendants")[4] for civil contempt. (Doc. 132). Motion Defendants acknowledged that mail from Barrett was photocopied, but opposed the motion on the ground that there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of Lowe and Kyler. (Doc. 133). Finding the response deficient, the Court directed Motion Defendants to file a more responsive brief that included sworn affidavits to support any factual assertions. (Doc. 136).

         Motion Defendants duly complied and again asserted that sanctions should be denied because, although Lowe and Kyler violated the Order, they did not act in bad faith. (Doc. 137). Specifically, Lowe and Kyler asserted that they had no knowledge of the Order on December 15, 2018, when they opened the letter from Barrett. (Id. at 5-6; see Id . at Exs. 2, 3). Moreover, Motion Defendants contended that "no one at SCI-Huntingdon knew of, or had seen the Order on December 15, 2018, " and the Superintendent's office had no record of having received the Order. (Id. at 6; see Id . at Ex. 1). Rather, according to Motion Defendants, Lowe and Kyler opened the letter in reliance on the then-extant Pennsylvania Depart of Corrections ("PA DOC") policy that mandated prison officials open, inspect, and photocopy all incoming prisoner mail. (Doc. 137 at 3, 5; id. at Ex. 4).

         Hill filed a reply brief in which he asserted that-contrary to any assertion that Lowe and Kyler had no knowledge of the Order-he personally informed both officers that the Order prohibited them from opening Barrett's letter. (Doc. 139 at 2). Hill further claimed that, on March 5, 2019, correctional officers again opened and photocopied a letter from Barrett to Hill. (Id. at 3). The resolution of Hill's motion thus appeared to rely on unresolved factual issues-including questions of credibility-that necessitated an evidentiary hearing, which was held on September 19, 2019.

         At that hearing, this Court heard from SCI Huntingdon Administrative Officer Andrea Wakefield, SCI Huntingdon Security Captain Kevin Stevens, Lowe, Kauffman, and Hill. Wakefield testified that all mail addressed to the Superintendent of SCI Huntingdon is reviewed by the Superintendent's Assistant and that, between December 1, 2018, and January 31, 2019, she acted as the Superintendent's Assistant. (Evidentiary Hearing Tr. at 6-7). Wakefield further stated that institutional records do not show that SCI Huntingdon received the Order. (Id. at 7-9).

         Stevens testified that he oversees the department that searches incoming mail and that, in December 2018, Pennsylvania state prison regulations provided that incoming privileged mail must be opened and photocopied in front of the inmate to whom it was addressed. (Id. at 10-11). Stevens was notified of the Order for the first time on February 19, 2019, and immediately directed Lieutenant Caleb Younker to inform "all mailroom personnel, as well as all search team members" not to photocopy any mail from Barrett to Hill. (Id. at 11-12). Younker then sent an email to most relevant staff members informing them of the directive; for an unknown reason, Lowe was not copied on that email. (See id. at 12; Evidentiary Hearing Def. Ex. 2). Lowe testified that he was not informed of the Order until May 2019 and, thus, photocopied Hill's mail in March 2019. (Evidentiary Hearing Tr. at 22-23). Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, affidavits, and testimony, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Hill's motion for sanctions.

         II. Discussion

         In his motion for civil contempt, Hill requests monetary sanctions for the admitted breach of the Order. (Doc. 132). As discussed previously, Motion Defendants assert that sanctions are not warranted because staff at SCI Huntingdon were not aware of the Order when they photocopied Hill's mail. (Doc. 137). Based upon the submissions to the Court and testimony at the evidentiary hearing, there appear to be three relevant events that bear upon the motion for contempt: (1) the December 15, 2018, photocopying of a letter from Barrett to Hill ("December 15 Incident"); (2) the March 5, 2019, photocopying of a letter from Barrett to Hill ("March 5 Incident"); and (3) the photocopying of mail from Barrett to Hill on March 19, 2019 ("March 19 Incident").

         "Proof of contempt requires a movant to demonstrate (1) that a valid order of the court existed; (2) that the defendants had knowledge of the order; and (3) that the defendants disobeyed the order." F.T.C. v. Lane Labs-USA, Inc., 624 F.3d 575, 582 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). "These elements must be proven by 'clear and convincing' evidence, and ambiguities must be resolved in favor of the party charged with contempt." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "Although courts should hesitate to adjudge a defendant in contempt when there is ground to doubt the wrongfulness of the conduct, an alleged contemnor's behavior need not be willful in order to contravene the applicable decree." Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "In other words, good faith is not a defense to civil contempt." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).[5] Upon finding an individual in civil contempt, courts may impose a broad variety of sanctions depending upon the circumstances of the case and may sanction a nonparty if he or she "abet[s] the defendants or [is] legally identified with him." Quinterv. Volkswagen of Am., 676 F.2d 969, 973 (3d Cir. 1982) (ellipsis omitted).

         It is undisputed that there is a valid court order that prohibited "prison officials... [from] photocopying or otherwise recording direct communications between Plaintiff and the court appointed mediator." (Doc. 130 at 2). Moreover, Motion Defendants concede that-in two instances-prison officials photocopied mail from Barrett to Hill, thereby establishing that the Order was disobeyed.[6] (Doc. 137-2; Doc. 137-3; Evidentiary Hearing Tr. at 13-15, 22-24). Therefore, the only dispute is whether prison officials had knowledge of the Order at the time they violated it.

         A Decembe ...

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