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Williams v. Ozmint, No. 11-6940

Decided:  May 19, 2013

The Fourth Circuit held that prison inmate Jerome Williams had no clearly established constitutional right to visitation, therefore granting Warden Willie Eagleton qualified immunity from monetary damages for suspending Williams’s visitation privileges; that Williams’s claim for injunctive relief was mooted by the restoration of his visitation privileges; that Williams’s complaint did not raise a claim for declaratory relief; and that Williams’s challenge to a federal jury verdict and claim of ineffective assistance of counsel lacked merit.  The Fourth Circuit therefore dismissed Williams’s claim for injunctive relief, and affirmed the judgment of the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on the other aspects of his case.

Jerome Williams, an inmate serving a life sentence at a South Carolina prison, met with a visitor named Marilyn Massey on March 31, 2007.  The two met in a prison visitation room monitored by Officer Johnson.  After observing activities indicating that Massey had given marijuana to Williams, and that Williams had then placed the marijuana in his pants, Officer Johnson and other officers confronted Williams and strip-searched him.  However, the strip search did not reveal any contraband; a later search of Williams’s excrement also did not reveal evidence of marijuana use.  Though he was not charged with a disciplinary offense, Williams was subsequently held in disciplinary confinement for over two months.  On April 4, 2007, Warden Eagleton informed Williams that his visitation privileges would be suspended for two years—from March 31, 2007, to March 20, 2009—because he “was observed receiving contraband from [his] visitor and placing it in [his] pants.”  Williams filed a pro se complaint in a South Carolina state court in December 2008 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Williams claimed, inter alia, that Warden Eagleton had unconstitutionally deprived of his visitation privileges and that Officer Johnson had used excessive force against him.  Williams sought monetary relief, restoration of his visitation privileges, and “any other relief that seems just and proper.”  The defendants removed the case to federal court.  The federal district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment regarding the excessive force claim, but granted them summary judgment on all other claims; a jury then ruled in favor of Officer Johnson on the excessive force claim.  The district court entered a judgment in favor of the defendants, and Williams appealed.

Dismissing Williams’s initial contention that the case had to be remanded for further discovery on prison policies, the Fourth Circuit then determined that Warden Eagleton was shielded from monetary damages by the doctrine of qualified immunity.  The court noted that qualified immunity can only apply if the violated right was “clearly established” when the official’s conduct occurred.  As Williams cited no cases from the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit, or the Supreme Court of South Carolina that identify visitation as a “clearly established” right, he did not prove that the Warden violated such a right by suspending his visitation.  The Fourth Circuit then held that Williams’s claim for injunctive relief was moot, as the visitation privileges requested in his complaint had already been restored.  Furthermore, the case was not “capable of repetition yet evading review,” as Williams did not demonstrate that his visitation privileges would be suspended in the future.  According to the court, Williams’s invocation of the mootness exception “rest[ed] either on mere speculation, or on the possibility that he will violate prison rules in the future”—neither of which can be used to invoke the capable-of-repetition doctrine.  The court also ruled that, even construed liberally, Williams’s complaint did not raise a claim for declaratory relief; furthermore, his desire to obtain “any other relief that seems just and proper” was too much of a “fleeting reference[]” to constitute a claim for declaratory relief.  Lastly, the Fourth Circuit found Williams’s challenge to the jury verdict on the excessive force claim too conclusory to meet the “burden of demonstrating a substantial question warranting the production of a transcript at government expense”; additionally, the court rejected his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, as counsel is not constitutionally required in § 1983 suits.

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland