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filed: September 12, 1989.


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Western District of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, D.C. Civil Action No. 81-1588.

Stapleton, Scirica and Cowen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Stapleton


STAPLETON, Circuit Judge:

This appeal raises interesting questions about the liability of prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Constitution when a prisoner is held in jail beyond the term of his sentence.

On September 21, 1979, Joseph Sample was serving a life sentence for murder. On that date, the sentence was vacated and a new trial ordered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Sample was granted bail pending the new trial, and his family was ready to post the required bail. The authorities detaining Sample in Philadelphia called Appellant Ernest Diecks, the senior records officer in the Pittsburgh Correctional Institution, to determine whether Sample could be released. Diecks informed them that Sample still had time to serve on another sentence. Accordingly, the Philadelphia authorities refused to set Sample free.

Diecks, however, was mistaken. As eventually determined by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Probation and Parole, Sample had already served his time on the other sentence. When Sample sent a copy of the Bureau's determination to Diecks, Diecks directed that Sample be set free -- more than nine months after his sentence should have been completed.

On June 17, 1981, Sample filed a damages suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Diecks and against appellant William Robinson, who was at that time the Commissioner of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Corrections. Sample claimed that, "[by] unlawfully detaining and falsely imprisoning [him] for nine months and eight days longer than the five year maximum to which he was sentenced," Diecks and Robinson had deprived him of his constitutional rights under color of state law. para. 13, Amended Complaint; app. at 39-40.

Sample represented himself in a hearing on May 4, 1982 before Chief Magistrate Ila Jeanne Sensenich of the Western District of Pennsylvania, who was delegated the responsibility of hearing pretrial motions under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and holding an evidentiary hearing under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The magistrate determined that the factual issues were complex enough to require appointed counsel. Accordingly, Sample was represented by counsel at a second hearing, on August 4, 1986.

Magistrate Sensenich submitted proposed factual and legal findings in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Finding that Diecks had violated the eighth amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by failing to take any meaningful action in response to Sample's complaint concerning his confinement beyond his release date, she recommended that judgment be entered for Sample on his claim against Diecks in the amount of $3,520. Regarding Sample's claim against Commissioner Robinson, the magistrate concluded that Robinson had violated Sample's right to procedural due process under the fourteenth amendment by "[failing] to establish a system by which [Sample] could effectively challenge the computation of his sentence. . . ." App. at 182. Accordingly, she recommended that Robinson be held jointly and severally liable for the amount awarded to Sample on his claim against Diecks. The district court adopted the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations in their entirety. We have jurisdiction to review the district court's final order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


Three of Sample's sentences are relevant to the issues raised in this appeal: a sentence imposed on a 1968 conviction for aggravated robbery; a sentence of probation and, upon its revocation, a term of imprisonment on a 1974 conviction for receiving stolen goods; and a life sentence in 1975 for murder. This simple enumeration, however, is somewhat complicated by Sample's parole and probation history.

In 1968, Sample was convicted of aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to two to six years, with the term of imprisonment commencing on December 24, 1968. Sample was paroled on December 28, 1970.

On September 27, 1972, Sample was arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods and other offenses. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole issued a "warrant to commit and retain" Sample for violating the terms of his parole from the 1968 sentence. In 1973, Sample was found guilty on the receiving-stolen-goods charge, but the conviction was vacated and a new trial ordered. On January 14, 1974, Sample pleaded guilty to the receiving-stolen-goods charge before Judge Albert Sabo of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Judge Sabo sentenced Sample to two years of probation.

Because of Sample's conviction for receiving stolen goods, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole determined that Sample had violated the terms of his parole on the 1968 conviction. The board formally revoked Sample's parole on January 21, 1974. But not long after that determination, on May 8, Sample was reparoled on his 1968 sentence.

On January 8, 1975 -- before his probation sentence had expired and while on parole for the second time from his 1968 sentence -- Sample was arrested on a charge of murder and other offenses. On January 14, 1975, because of that arrest, the Board of Probation and Parole issued a warrant to commit and retain Sample for allegedly violating the terms of his reparole on his 1968 sentence. But no further action was taken on this charge -- no hearing was held and no revocation effected -- before the Board of Probation and Parole closed the 1968 case in 1976. Meanwhile, also because of Sample's arrest for murder, on January 15, 1975, the probation department of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas placed a detainer against Sample for allegedly violating the terms of his probation sentence on the receiving-stolen-goods charge.

On December 15, 1975, Sample was convicted of murder. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment. He began serving his sentence at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford.

On April 29, 1976, while he was serving time on his murder sentence, Sample was brought before Judge Sabo in Philadelphia. Judge Sabo revoked Sample's probation on the receiving-stolen-goods conviction and sentenced Sample as follows:

Defendant sentenced to not less than two (2) years nor more than five (5) years at the S.C.I. at Graterford. Sentence to run consecutive to any sentence now serving. The sentence will take precedence over murder sentence.

App. at 102. Judge Sabo did not provide any more explicit indication of when the sentence was to commence. A status change report dated May 3, 1976 noted an effective commencement date of April 29, 1976, the date of Judge Sabo's sentence. Sample was returned to Graterford. In August 1978, Sample was transferred to the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh.

On September 21, 1979, Sample's murder conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered. Judge Ribner of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County set bail for Sample on the murder charge on December 4. In January 1980, Sample's mother and a friend went to the Philadelphia Detention Center to post bond for Sample's release. The records supervisor of the Philadelphia Detention Center, Lieutenant Robert Lee, called appellant Diecks in Pittsburgh*fn1 to determine whether there were any detainers outstanding against Sample. Diecks told Lee that Sample had not served his full sentence on the receiving-stolen-goods conviction.*fn2 After speaking with Diecks, Lee refused to release Sample.

Sample was imprisoned in Philadelphia until late April 1980. During this period he contacted his social worker about what he believed to be an illegal imprisonment, and he also contacted a lawyer named David Pollock. Pollock contacted Judge Sabo, apparently to no avail. Sample also contacted various correctional officers, who called Lieutenant Lee in Philadelphia on Sample's behalf to inquire about his continued imprisonment. According to Sample's testimony, these officers told Sample that Lee believed the problem was an outstanding detainer. Sample requested a copy of the detainer, but without success.

Sample was then transferred to the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. The afternoon Sample was brought in -- in late April 1980 -- he contacted Ernest Diecks and had a conversation with him at the prisoners' entrance to the jail. According to Diecks' testimony, Sample told Diecks his life sentence had been vacated and that he "should be out of jail." Diecks testified he then told Sample that Sample was "doing a two to five year sentence" and that he could not be released. Diecks further testified:

And I went as far as going over to the phone and called Judge Sabo's chambers due to the fact that if Mr. Sample had a legitimate beef, then I would hold the sheriffs there and have them take him right back to the Philadelphia Detention Center where he came from. I contacted Judge Sabo's chambers. And I don't know if I talked to the judge himself or one of his clerks, but the reply to me was that the judge sentenced Sample to a two to five year sentence, and it was out of his control. There was nothing he could do for it anymore, and that it would be a decision of the Pennsylvania Parole Board to release him.

App. at 500.

Diecks admitted that he did nothing further regarding Sample's case. He made no record of the conversation with Sample and did not refer Sample or his problem to anyone else.

Sample's account of his contact with Diecks varied somewhat from Diecks'. Sample testified, and the district court found, that he told Diecks that he was being held illegally because his sentence on the receiving-stolen-goods conviction had expired. Sample also testified that he had a subsequent conversation with Diecks, during which Sample told him that his receiving-stolen-goods sentence should have been adjusted back to January 15, 1975.

Sample then made numerous further efforts to make his problem known to various authorities. A letter written by Sample was forwarded by a state representative to Commissioner Robinson's office. That letter was apparently given to a subordinate of Commissioner Robinson. The magistrate found, and Sample does not dispute on appeal, that Robinson had no personal knowledge of Sample's complaint regarding the expiration of his sentence.

Sample also wrote a letter to William H. Moul, Director of the Division of Pre-release, Case and Record Management, Board of Probation and Parole. Moul -- writing for the board and for its secretary -- eventually answered Sample's query on August 22, 1980. Moul confirmed Sample's view that his continued imprisonment was incorrect. Moul wrote that, upon the vacating of the life sentence for murder, the receiving-stolen-goods sentence should have been readjusted to an effective date of January 15, 1975 -- the date the detainer was placed against Sample on his violation of probation. This would have meant a release date of January 15, 1980 -- as Sample believed -- since the maximum sentence imposed by Judge Sabo on the receiving-stolen-goods conviction was five years.

Sample's saga was not over, however. Moul also wrote: "Although it is apparent that you are deserving of the credit back to 1-15-75 on your current 2 to 5 years sentence, our agency cannot specifically order that this time be applied as these two most recent sentences have never come directly under our supervision." Moul did not advise Sample regarding who exercised "supervision" over predicaments such as Sample's; instead, he told Sample he "hoped that the above information will be of assistance to you in obtaining this period of credit."

Sample did not send Moul's letter to Diecks, assuming instead that Diecks would have been sent a copy. After over a month passed without any word from Diecks, Sample mailed a copy of Moul's letter to Diecks on October 6, 1980. Diecks' response was swift. Notwithstanding his assertion at the second hearing that adjustment of sentences was purely a matter for the courts, two days after receiving Moul's letter, Diecks wrote to Lieutenant Lee in Philadelphia, where Sample was then being held, and directed him to release Sample. Sample was released on October 23, 1980, nine months and eight ...

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