Court: Ex-inmate can continue lawsuit over late release
NEW ORLEANS — A former Louisiana inmate who was held about two months after his rightful release date can continue his lawsuit against the prison system employee who stretched out the sentence, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling keeps alive a lawsuit filed by Ellis Ray Hicks, who alleges he was held 60 days too long in retaliation for pursuing his rights.
Wednesday’s unsigned ruling by a three-judge panel cites evidence of the state corrections department’s “long history of overdetaining inmates” and notes the lawsuit raises questions of “incompetence” among department employees.
Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc and Corrections Department employee Terry Lawson had argued the suit should be dismissed because they enjoyed “qualified immunity” that generally protects public officials from suits over actions taken in the performance of their duties.
The appeals court agreed that LeBlanc should be dropped from the suit, saying “it cannot be said that LeBlanc had notice that his employees were purposely disregarding sentencing orders out of retaliatory intent.”
But the court said Lawson was not immune from the lawsuit. It said Lawson’s actions in denying Hicks his proper release date were “objectively unreasonable” and violated Hicks’ constitutional rights.
Court records say Hicks had been incarcerated in Louisiana for a parole violation stemming from an arrest and imprisonment in Arkansas. A judge eventually ordered that his time served in Arkansas be counted toward his Louisiana release date. The release date, based on the judge’s calculation that included the Arkansas time, should have been in late February of 2018, according to the court record. But, Lawson eventually set a July, 2018, release date.
Hicks was eventually released on April 25, 2018, after phone calls between his attorney and the Department of Corrections, according to the ruling.
Hicks’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, alleges that Lawson miscalculated the release date in retaliation for Hicks going to court in 2017 to ensure he would be released at the proper time.
The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We are so happy to see the Fifth Circuit is rejecting the State’s attempts to have cases dismissed by hiding behind qualified immunity,” Casey Denson, an attorney for Hicks, said in a news release.