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Payne v. Britten

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 16, 2014

Christopher M. Payne, Plaintiff - Appellee
Fred Britten; Christopher Connelly; Michelle Hillman; Lee Tinkler; Benny Noordhoek; Carina McRoberts; Jennifer Kunzman, Defendants - Appellants, Jerry Bell; Mailroom Person 1; Mailroom Person 2, Defendants

Submitted June 26, 2013

Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Nebraska - Lincoln.

For Christopher M. Payne, Plaintiff - Appellee: Dana C. Bradford III, Bradford & Coenen, Omaha, NE.

Christopher M. Payne, Plaintiff - Appellee, Pro se, Tecumseh, NE.

For Fred Britten, Christopher Connelly, Michelle Hillman, Lee Tinkler, Benny Noordhoek, Carina McRoberts, Jennifer Kunzman, Defendants - Appellants: James Kirk Brown, Linda Louise Willard, Attorney General's Office, Lincoln, NE.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, MELLOY and KELLY, Circuit Judges. RILEY, Chief Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part.


Page 698

MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

Christopher Payne is an inmate at Nebraska's Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (the prison). Prison officials censored

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and confiscated Payne's incoming and outgoing mail. Payne filed a lawsuit asserting various claims, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Payne named several of the prison officials as defendants, asserting that they wrongfully censored and confiscated his mail.

The officials moved for dismissal on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting qualified immunity. The district court did not rule on the motion but converted it to a motion for summary judgment. The officials reasserted qualified immunity. The district court granted summary judgment to the officials in part on a limited issue, but otherwise denied summary judgment and again declined to rule on qualified immunity. Finally, the officials filed a motion for reconsideration seeking a ruling on qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion for reconsideration. The officials appeal.

We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand. When an official properly and timely files a motion for dismissal or for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity, the official is entitled to a ruling on the issue of qualified immunity. As such, the district court must issue a reviewable ruling--either granting or denying qualified immunity--before requiring the officials to progress further in litigation at the district court.

I. Background

A. Facts

Payne is serving sentences for two convictions of first-degree sexual assault of a child. See Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-319.01. Between October 13, 2010, and March 23, 2011, prison officials reviewed and held correspondence mailed by and to Payne. According to the officials, the censored correspondence was pedophilia-related and included efforts by Payne to obtain sexually related stories, pictures, and information about children, including information about Payne's prior victims. Also according to the officials, some of the correspondence indicated Payne was attempting to share such materials and run a business (from inside the prison) selling such materials to others both inside and outside the prison. The officials assert that some correspondence suggested Payne was attempting to contact his prior victims. The officials explain that a March 23, 2011 letter mailed to Payne contained: potential contact information for some of Payne's victims; a reference to " BL" (which the officials interpret as meaning " boy love" ); an explanation that " the reason we can't find a good address for [victim's name[1]] is that he is a kid" ; and " possible addresses" for a certain individual with notes that two of the addresses were associated with someone sharing the individual's name but who were " too old."

The officials confiscated the mail and alerted the FBI, which ultimately decided not to open a criminal investigation. Payne disputes the officials' classification of his mail as pedophilia-related and disputes assertions regarding the contents of his mail. Prison officials continue to hold the confiscated mail, and, other than the March 23, 2011 letter, such mail has not been made available for the courts' review.

B. Procedural History

On February 11, 2011, Payne filed his § 1983 complaint in the District of Nebraska against several of the officials. On September 26, 2011, the officials moved to dismiss the individual capacity claims on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

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because the officials " are immune from suit pursuant to the doctrine of qualified immunity." The district court did not rule on the motion to dismiss. Rather, on March 8, 2012, the district court issued an order instructing the officials to supplement the record with evidence supporting their claims for qualified immunity. In a May 15, 2012 order, the district court stated " it is now apparent that the court must consider matters outside of the pleadings to resolve this matter." The district court stated that it would treat the pending motions for dismissal as motions for summary judgment and provided the parties with an opportunity to submit additional evidence. The district court specifically directed the officials " to file, under seal, a copy of the March 23, 2011, letter."

In response to the district court's conversion of their dismissal motion into a summary judgment motion, the officials again invoked qualified immunity. At the same time, the officials complied with the district court's order and filed under seal a copy of the March 23, 2011 letter. They also submitted a memorandum explaining certain names and terms used in the letter. On September 19, 2012, the district court granted summary judgment to the officials on the " First and Fourth Amendment claims relating to the censoring and monitoring of [Payne's] mail as part of a criminal investigation." The district court denied the motion for summary judgment in all other respects, stating, " questions of fact remain regarding the content of [Payne's] incoming and outgoing mail and the reasonableness of the [officials'] continued detention of that mail." The district court identified the surviving claims as " claims regarding the continued detention of [Payne's] mail after [the FBI] declined to initiate a criminal investigation." The district court's order did not decide whether the officials were entitled to qualified immunity or assess whether any alleged violations were of clearly established federal law.

The officials then filed a " Motion for Reconsideration and Determination of Qualified Immunity." The district court denied the motion without ruling on qualified immunity. ...

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