Civil Case Law - Third Circuit

3rd Circuit (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania)

Cases Upholding Agency Anti-Fraternization Policies

Lord v. Erie County , 476 Fed. Appx. 962 (3d Cir. 2012): The former roommate of a male correctional officer was arrested on misdemeanor simple assault and disorderly conduct, and spent forty-eight hours at the Erie County Prison, and received twenty-one months of probation. The officer informed the warden of this incident, and the warden advised the officer to stay away from his friend in light of the agency’s anti-fraternization policy, which stated that “[e]mployees shall not develop a personal relationship with inmates during, or for at least one year after, the inmate's incarceration. (Examples of personal relationships include romance, co-habitation, business dealings or the provision of legal assistance).” The officer continued the friendship with his former male roommate, against the facility’s anti-fraternization policy and the warden’s orders to stay away from the felon. Another employee saw the officer and his friend out at a bar, and the warden asked the employee to resign. The officer refused to resign and was terminated. The officer brought an action alleging violation of his First Amendment association rights and procedural due process rights. The court found that the anti-fraternization policy did not violate his First Amendment rights, as mere friendships do not merit constitutional protection.

Lape v. Pennsylvania , No: 05–1094, 157 Fed. Appx. 491 (3d Cir.2005): A female counselor at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) brought suit challenging her termination for marrying a former inmate. The pair met while the inmate was under the counselor’s care. The inmate was transferred because of unsubstantiated allegations that the counselor and inmate had developed a relationship. After his transfer, the inmate telephoned the counselor at home and sent her correspondence, and the counselor may have sent him a Christmas card. Shortly after the inmate was paroled, the two were married. The counselor added her husband to her medical coverage. A year later, he was readmitted as a parole violator. While he was housed within a community corrections facility, he filed a form requesting permission to operate his wife’s motor vehicle.

The PA DOC code of ethics stated that “[t]here shall be no fraternization or private relationship of staff with inmates, parolees, or members of their families,” and that “[e]mployees will promptly report to their supervisor any information which comes to their attention and indicates violation of the law, rules, and/or regulations of the [DOC] by either an employee or an inmate . . .”

The PA DOC terminated the counselor for violating the code of ethics. The female officer brought a claim alleging violations of her First Amendment right of free association. The court noted that the PA DOC did not terminate the counselor for marrying a parolee, but for having unauthorized conduct with an inmate and parolee, and failing to disclose that conduct. The court granted summary judgment for the defendants, noting that “fraternization between guards and prisoners would not only increase the risk that contraband could be introduced into the facility, but would also compromise the respect and authority that must be commanded by correctional officers by giving inmates a basis to question their impartiality.”

Gardner v. Barry , 1:10-CV-0527, 2012 WL 719005 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 1, 2012): A female probation officer and a male probationer under her direct supervision entered into an intimate relationship. The female officer subsequently left her position. Once the probation department learned of the relationship, they forbid the probationer from having contact with the officer. The officer and the probationer then married, and brought action alleging their First and Fourteenth Amendment associational rights were violated. The court granted summary judgment for the probation department, recognizing the compelling state interests in rehabilitation and protecting the integrity of the probation system.

King v. Department of Corrections , 2008 WL 4876082 (N.J. Super. A.D., November 13, 2008): A female nurse who was employed by a private contractor and working at the New Jersey State Prison met a male inmate in the course of her employment. The inmate requested a transfer to another facility, where the nurse then visited him on three occasions. Officers who searched the inmate’s cell found letters and $300 the nurse had given the inmate to use in the commissary. Officials banned the nurse from that facility and the contractor fired her. The inmate was disciplined for violating a provision in the inmate handbook which stated that “[a]ny inmate who participates in, or engages in, any unauthorized contact, interaction, or relationship with a staff member or volunteer shall be subject to disciplinary action.” The court affirmed the inmate’s discipline, finding that the nurse fit the handbook provision’s definition of employee, as “her services as a nurse within a state prison were clearly part and parcel of the Department of Correction's delivery of medical care to inmates.” The court further reasoned that, “[t]he constraints on undue fraternization should not evaporate when a prisoner is transferred to a different building within the State penal system, given the regular movement of prisoners and personnel to and from the various institutions.”

Leek v. New Jersey Dept. of Corrections , 2008 WL 2026428, (N.J. Super. A.D., May 14, 2008): A male correctional officer at the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJ DOC) who also worked part-time as an associate pastor at a local church, met a male criminal defendant facing the possibility of incarceration. The criminal defendant came to the correctional officer for spiritual guidance. The correctional officer wrote a letter to the court on the defendant’s behalf, and appeared with him in court. While he was in court, he wore a T-shirt with a corrections department insignia. The NJ DOC conducted a disciplinary hearing and gave the correctional officer a thirty-day suspension. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found the officer had engaged in conduct unbefitting of an officer by breaking department rules concerning undue familiarity with inmates, and reporting of all prior relationships with inmates. The court deferred to the agency’s interpretation of its own regulation that the criminal defendant could be considered an inmate, as breaches of security, loss of morale, and blackmail are still possible even before confinement. The court affirmed the ALJ’s decision, finding that in writing a leniency letter and attending court with a criminal defendant, the officer became unduly familiar with an inmate, and he failed to report it. The court also denied the officer’s claim of violation of his First Amendment rights, as the NJ DOC’s right to ensure security and safety in its facilities outweighed the officer’s First Amendment rights.

Cases Not Upholding Agency Anti-Fraternization Policies

Via v. Taylor , 224 F. Supp. 2d 753, 758 (D. Del. 2002): A female correctional officer in the Delaware Department of Corrections (DDC) became acquainted with a male inmate under her care. The inmate entered a work release program and was then paroled. Upon his release, he moved in with the correctional officer. She reported this living arrangement, and was terminated for violating the agency’s anti-fraternization policy. The policy stated “No staff person shall have any personal contact with an offender, incarcerated or non-incarcerated, beyond that contact necessary for the proper supervision and treatment of the offender. Examples of types of contact not appropriate include, but are not limited to, living with an offender . . . Any sexual contact with offenders is strictly prohibited. Contact for other than professional reasons with the offenders outside of the work place shall be reported in writing to the employee[']s supervisor.”

The officer sued the Commissioner of Corrections, the former Commissioner of Corrections, the personnel director, and prison warden alleging her termination in accordance with agency policy violated of her First and Fifth Amendment rights to freedom of association and privacy. The court applied intermediate scrutiny, and found that the policy was unconstitutional as applied to the officer, in that it was not substantially related to ensuring discipline and security. The court went further, and struck down the policy for vagueness and overbreadth, as the policy would “prohibit all relationships with former inmates or parolees, even those that did not impact on security or operations.” The court also noted that the rule was not uniformly instituted. No applicants had been rejected due to a pre-existing relationship with an offender, and DDC did not track how many new employees had these prior relationships.