Sept. 12, 2023 – An inmate’s claim that a prison security official violated the inmate’s due process rights by improperly influencing the official adjudicating charges against him should have survived summary judgment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled in Prude v. Meli, No. 21-1320 (Aug. 7, 2023).
Terence Prude, an inmate at Waupun Correctional Institute (WCI), helped a fellow inmate file a civil rights lawsuit against the prison.
Prude’s fellow inmate eventually found an attorney, Brent Nistler, to represent him in the suit. Nistler won the lawsuit, and his client was awarded $40,000 in damages.
Nistler’s client was overjoyed, so he used $10,000 of the damages to retain Nistler to represent Prude on his criminal appeal.
Prude, however, wanted a different lawyer to represent him. So Nistler gave Prude the $10,000, in the form of a check sent to his prison account.
Prison Seizes Check
Anthony Meli, the director of security at WCI, had been monitoring Prude’s non-legal mail, because the authorities suspected Prude was part of a gang.
Meli seized the $10,000 check as contraband before it could be deposited in Prude’s account. He then interviewed Prude and began an investigation.
During the interview, Prude became upset and threatened Meli. Meli then charged Prude with conduct violations: lying, threats, enterprises and fraud, and unauthorized use of the mail.
Prude admitted threatening Meli and engaging in the unauthorized use of the mail. But he was innocent of enterprises and fraud, he claimed, because the $10,000 was a legal gift and unrelated to any conduct violation.
Meli set a date to hear the charges against Prude.
Prisoner Turns Down Deal
Prude and Meli spoke several times before the hearing.
Prude claimed that in a December 2016 interview, Meli told him:
he would make sure Prude’s money was added to the state general fund;
to forget about his money because he wouldn’t get it back; and
he guaranteed that the hearing officer wouldn’t return the money to Prude or Nistler.
Prude also claimed that about one month after the December 2016 meeting, Meli offered him a deal: plead guilty to the violations in exchange for 180 days in disciplinary segregation, with the $10,000 being seized permanently.
Prude declined the deal.
Limit on Evidence
In preparation for the hearing, Prude sent an information request form to Nicole Kamphuis, who worked in the WCI business office.
On the information request form, Prude asked Kamphuis “Is it true that Meli authorized my funds to be put in state general fund regardless of what Westra decides at the disciplinary hearing (yes or no answer requested only)?”
Kamphuis apparently wrote down “Yes,” and signed the form.
Prude also sent an information request form to Meli; he also asked Meli if he could submit a written statement at the hearing.
On Feb. 1, 2017, Meli responded and told Prude that under the prison’s policy, he couldn’t submit a statement or any other evidence.
The hearing was held on Feb. 2, 2017, with Captain Jeremy Westra presiding as the hearing officer. Prude claims that Meli and Westra share an office, and that Meli supervises Westra.
During the hearing, Prude alleged, Westra took his cues from Meli. He also alleged that Westra began the hearing by saying his “hands were tied” regarding handing down 180 days in disciplinary segregation and seizing the $10,000.
Westra found Prude guilty of the conduct violations.
According to Prude, Westra then said, “You must’ve really pissed Meli off – You already know what the sentence is which is the same sentence Meli offered you.”
Federal Lawsuit Follows
In May 2017, Prude filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Wisconsin.
Prude alleged that the state had violated his due process rights under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The district court dismissed the bulk of Prude’s claims.
The district court did allow Prude’s claim that Meli had unconstitutionally denied him the right to present evidence at the hearing to proceed, but then granted summary judgment for Meli on that claim.
The district court based its ruling on a determination that statements of Kamphuis and Westra were inadmissible hearsay.
‘A Puppet in the Ajudicator’s Seat’
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Amy St. Eve explained that while the ajudicator of a prison disciplinary process enjoys a presumption of honesty and integrity, the presumption was not limitless.
St. Eve pointed out that under Seventh Circuit caselaw, principles of due process prohibit an officer who’s substantially involved in the investigation of an inmate from serving on the committee that ajudicates the charges against the inmate.
Judge St. Eve concluded that Meli’s role in the hearing on the charges against Prude raised an issue of fact sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment.
“An investigator cannot circumvent this [due process] requirement by placing a puppet in the adjudicator’s seat and pulling the strings to control the decision,” St. Eve wrote.
“Here, significant evidence in the record permitted a reasonable inference that Meli … conspired with or controlled Westra to pre-determine the hearing outcome,” Judge St. Eve wrote. “The district court erred by drawing inferences in Meli’s favor to hold otherwise.”
Westra Statement Admissible
Judge St. Eve concluded that the district court also erred by ruling that the statements Westra made at the hearing were inadmissible because Prude was not seeking to admit them to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein.
“They were offered to show Westra’s belief that the outcome of the hearing was set, even before any evidence had been presented,” St. Eve wrote.
Judge St. Eve concluded that the district court was correct in ruling that Kamphuis’ statement was inadmissible hearsay.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the district court.