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Wells v. Israel

decided: August 10, 1988.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, No. 81 C 133-Robert W. Warren, Judge.

Cummings, Wood, and Manion, Circuit Judges.

Author: Manion

MANION, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Clifton Wells, a state prisoner, alleged that defendant prison officials did not accord him procedural due process when they placed him first in punitive segregation and then in administrative segregation. In disciplining Wells, the officials relied on confidential information which they did not disclose to Wells. The district court granted the prison officials' motion for summary judgment while denying Wells's cross-motion. Wells v. Israel, 629 F. Supp. 498 (E.D. Wis. 1986). We affirm. However, while the district court's reasoning was otherwise sound, the district court did not determine whether that confidential information was reliable. We publish this opinion to emphasize to district courts the importance of making specific findings in that regard.


This case's factual and procedural history is set forth in the district court's reported opinion. The parties stipulated below to the facts necessary to decide this appeal. Briefly stated, Wells, convicted under Wisconsin law in 1969 of murder and armed robbery, is a prisoner at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin. The defendants are various prison officials. Four times between September, 1977 and April, 1981, they placed Wells in punitive segregation after a hearing before a prison disciplinary committee convened in accordance with Wis. Admin. Code § HSS 303.

In each instance, the prison disciplinary committee comprised of four prison staff members convened in response to allegations from informants among the inmates that Wells had threatened other inmates and attempted to forcibly secure sex. The disciplinary committee considered as evidence confidential written statements from the informants and in three of the four incidents considered a statement by Wells or a staff advocate appointed to represent him.*fn1 The committee also considered the testimony of the investigating officer who obtained the confidential informant statements and who had initiated the disciplinary proceedings by issuing a written conduct report. Neither the contents of the confidential statements nor their sources nor the specific acts constituting the conduct were disclosed to Wells or his staff advocate. Each time, the disciplinary committee found that Wells had violated prison rules by engaging in serious misconduct, see Wis. Admin. Code § HSS 303.70.

Subsequently, on April 12, 1981, the prison officials placed Wells in "administrative" segregation. Administrative segregation is not designed to punish a prisoner but rather is imposed on a prisoner pursuant to Wis. Admin. Code § HSS 308 "solely because he or she is dangerous, to ensure personal safety and security within the institution." A prison review committee reviewed Wells' administrative segregation every three months. Each time, until October, 1983, the review committee determined that Wells continued to be dangerous and thus his administrative segregation should continue.


Wells brought this action under § 1983 alleging that defendants did not afford him his procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment in conducting the disciplinary hearings and in punishing him. Wells filed his complaint on February 12, 1981. He later committed his fourth disciplinary violation, and after the start of his administrative segregation he amended his pleadings to include later events. Wells sought money damages from the individual defendants as well as equitable relief--including expunging the disciplinary violations from his records and eliminating any adverse collateral consequences resulting from those violations.

Wells charged that in imposing the punitive and then the administrative segregation, defendants failed to provide him the minimum due process requirements for a prison disciplinary setting set forth by Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974). Those requirements include advance written notice of the charges against him and a written statement by the fact finder as to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken. Id. at 563. In particular, Wells challenged the prison committee's reliance upon the reports from the confidential informants. As Wells complained, "[a]t no time . . . have the officially designated fact finders, whether it be the disciplinary committees or the review committee, chosen to conduct in camera interviews or examinations of inmates who complained against Mr. Wells, or otherwise to inquire into the credibility or competence of those witnesses." Wells argued that this all makes a difference because he was just a peaceful prisoner innocent of all the internal charges brought against him. Wells maintained that he never knew what the charges were, and whatever they were, they had to have been false, because he did not violate any prison rule: "I am not guilty of any of the misconduct alleged in any of the conduct reports described above, or any other wrongdoing which would warrant the imposition of the segregated confinement to which I have been subjected since September, 1977."

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. On February 26, 1986, the district court granted defendants' motion and issued its opinion. The court examined whether providing the confidential information to Wells might benefit his case and at the same time whether providing that information might harm prison security or threaten the informants' safety. After weighing those conflicting interests, the court determined that the prison officials appropriately withheld the information. 629 F. Supp. at 504. The court then held that in light of that balancing, Wells received adequate advance written notice. Attached to each notice was the conduct report, each of which specifically mentioned sexual threats.

The court then found that except for the first finding in September, 1977, in which the committee found that Wells was "[g]uilty of all charges," the findings were constitutionally adequate. The court in particular held the Fourteenth Amendment did not require that the committee expressly evaluate the confidential information's reliability. 629 F. Supp. at 505. While the court did find that the sparse first finding failed to meet Wells's due process rights, only one of the named defendants, Thomas Israel, then the warden, was responsible for that, and at the time a prisoner's right to a more complete statement was not clearly established. Therefore, the court held, Israel was immune from damages. The court further held that as the evidence did sufficiently establish that Wells was guilty of the wrongdoing, he was not entitled to having that first disciplinary violation expunged from his administrative record. 629 F. Supp. at 509.

The district court concluded that the review committee's decisions to continue to confine Wells in administrative segregation was constitutional. The court found that Wells, a staff advocate, and a social worker all had an opportunity to speak on Wells's behalf at the review hearings. The review committee based its decisions on those statements as well as on the contents of a complete file, which included--in addition to the earlier conduct reports--other ...

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