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Gloston-Phelps v. Webre

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

April 24, 2019


         SECTION: “H”



         Before the Court are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion (Doc. 31) is GRANTED, and Plaintiffs' Motion (Doc. 33) is DENIED.


         Plaintiffs allege that the Lafourche Parish Sheriff, Defendant Craig Webre, violated Louisiana law and the U.S. Constitution by over-deducting wages that Plaintiffs earned as inmates participating in Lafourche Parish's work release program. The material facts are not in dispute. The main legal question involves the interpretation of state law. On January 15, 2019, Defendant moved for summary judgment on all Plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs oppose and moved for cross-summary judgment.


         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[1] “As to materiality . . . [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”[2] Nevertheless, a dispute about a material fact is “genuine” such that summary judgment is inappropriate “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”[3]

         In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court views facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draws all reasonable inferences in his favor.[4] “If the moving party meets the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence or designate specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial.”[5] Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.”[6]

         “In response to a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate the manner in which that evidence supports that party's claim, and such evidence must be sufficient to sustain a finding in favor of the nonmovant on all issues as to which the nonmovant would bear the burden of proof at trial.”[7] The Court does “not . . . in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.”[8] Additionally, “[t]he mere argued existence of a factual dispute will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion.”[9]


         Louisiana Revised Statutes Section 15:1111 governs inmate work release programs operated by the state's Department of Public Safety and Corrections (“DOC”). The statute provides that every inmate participating in a work release program “shall be liable for the cost of his room, board, clothing, and other necessary expenses incident to his employment or placement unless other means of payment are approved by the department.”[10] The statute further provides:

Deductions for room, board, and other administrative and incidental costs resulting from participation in a work release program authorized by this Section shall not exceed seventy percent of the gross wages received by the inmate. This deduction rate shall be established by the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.[11]

         The parties agree that the DOC established a deduction rate pursuant to the above statutory authorization and that the Sheriff's Office's Handbook (“Handbook”) covering its work release program described the applicable deduction rate as follows: the room and board deduction shall not exceed 64% of gross wages or $451.50 per work week (7 consecutive 24-hour days), whichever is less.[12]

         The claims in this suit depend entirely on the interpretation of the deduction rate described above. The sole issue is whether the “per work week” language in the policy obligates the Sheriff's Office to calculate deductions weekly. Plaintiffs argue that it does. Specifically, Plaintiffs argue that the Sheriff's Office may only deduct from a prisoner's weekly earnings the lesser of 64% of gross wages or $451.50. What the Sheriff's Office unlawfully did, Plaintiffs argue, is calculate the deduction from a bi-weekly paycheck. According to Plaintiffs, the Sheriff may not deduct from a bi-weekly paycheck the lesser of 64% of two weeks' worth of gross wages or $901-$451.50 times two. The reason the deduction method matters is that if an inmate earns more than $705 in the first week but less than $705 in the second week, the Sheriff's deduction method effectively results in more than $451.50 being deducted from wages earned during the first week.[13]

         The Court will now address the Cross Motions for Summary Judgment, analyzing Plaintiffs' federal claims first before turning to their state claims.

         I. Federal Claims

         Plaintiffs' seek relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the ground that Defendant Webre violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Webre violated both the substantive and procedural components of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause by over-deducting room and board expenses from Plaintiffs' paychecks and then failing to provide adequate pre- or post-deprivation process to remedy Plaintiffs' grievances. Defendant argues that neither claim can survive summary judgment. The Court will consider each claim in turn.

         a. Substantive Due Process

         An executive official violates a person's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights when the official's conduct is “so egregious, so outrageous, that it may fairly be said to shock the contemporary conscience.”[14]The burden “to show state conduct that shocks the conscience is extremely high, requiring stunning evidence of arbitrariness and caprice that extends beyond mere violations of state law, even violations resulting from bad faith to something more egregious and more extreme.”[15] The Supreme Court's “test for the substantive component of the due process clause prohibits ‘only the most egregious official conduct,' and will rarely come into play.”[16]

         Here, the Sheriff's alleged conduct is not conscience-shocking. At worst, the Sheriff interpreted an ambiguous policy in a way that was more convenient for and favorable to his office. Such behavior is neither stunningly arbitrary nor capricious. There is no genuine dispute of material fact regarding Plaintiffs' substantive due process claims, and they cannot survive summary judgment.

         b. Procedural Due Process

          The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause prohibits governmental actors from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[17] “In procedural due process claims, the deprivation by state action of a constitutionally protected interest in ‘life, liberty, or property' is not in itself unconstitutional; what is unconstitutional is the deprivation of such an interest without due process of law.”[18]

         In this case, Plaintiffs allege that the Sheriff deprived them of income they earned without providing Plaintiffs a meaningful way to challenge the earnings deductions as unlawful. The undisputed record shows, however, that the Sheriff has in place a grievance procedure for complaints regarding the work release program.[19] Pursuant to the policy outlined in the Handbook, an inmate may make a complaint on a particular form and submit that form to “the staff member having direct control over the issue/area of concern. Once the matter is investigated, a response will be sent to the offender. If the offender is not satisfied with the outcome he may request a review with Administration.”[20] If at the end of that process the inmate “is still not satisfied, ” he may file a written and signed grievance that begins a new three-step administrative review process.[21]

         Plaintiffs respond that the above-described process is insufficient to satisfy their right to due process for three reasons: (1) even though a grievance procedure exists, it did not provide a meaningful mechanism of review in this case because Plaintiff Gloston-Phelps submitted a complaint that was allegedly ignored by the Sheriff's Office; (2) the process itself is flawed because “there is no hearing (not even administrative) in any sense of the word;” and (3) the process is unfair because “the Sheriff [acts as] . . . proverbial judge, jury and executioner.”[22]

         Plaintiffs' arguments are unconvincing. “Standard analysis under the Due Process Clause proceeds in two steps: We first ask whether there exists a liberty or property interest of which a person has been deprived, and if so we ask whether the procedures followed by the State were constitutionally sufficient.”[23]

         The Fifth Circuit has not decided whether prisoners have a protected property interest in income deducted from their work release wages to cover room and board expenses. Under analogous facts, however, the Eighth Circuit has held that prisoners lack a constitutional property interest in such deductions.[24] In Christiansen v. Clarke, the Eight Circuit reasoned that a prisoner did not possess a constitutional property interest in room and board deductions from his work release wages because work release participation under Nebraska law was a privilege, not a right; Nebraska law authorized the deduction of room ...

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