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Muhammad v. Pierce

Superior Court of Delaware

May 25, 2017


          Submitted: February 15, 2017


         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment: GRANTED


          Abigail M. LeGrow, Judge

         1. The plaintiff, an inmate at a Delaware prison, contends he was fired from his job at the prison commissary in violation of the Delaware Whistleblowers' Protection Act (the "Act"). That law prohibits an employer from discharging, threatening, or otherwise disciplining an employee "whistleblower." The question in this case, quite simply, is whether the named defendants, who worked in various roles in the prison, were the plaintiffs employer within the meaning of the Act. I conclude the defendants were not the plaintiffs employer and I therefore grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment.


         2. Except as otherwise noted, the following facts are not disputed. The plaintiff, Dawud Muhammad, is an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center ("JTVCC"). Muhammad was employed at the prison commissary until he was fired after he was found in possession of commissary items for which he could not provide proof of purchase. The defendants are or were staff members at JTVCC. Defendants David Pierce and Jeffrey A. Carrothers were the warden and security superintendent, respectively, at JTVCC during the events in question.[1] Defendants Tonya Smith, Carol Powell, and Ronald Holcomb all worked in various capacities in the commissary (referred to collectively with Warden Pierce and Mr. Carrothers, "Defendants").[2]

         3. In approximately May 2014, the Delaware State Police ("DSP") initiated an investigation into the commissary's operation at JTVCC and specifically into alleged improprieties by staff members.[3] Muhammad contends he cooperated in the investigation and was interviewed by the DSP. There is a factual dispute as to whether any of Defendants knew Muhammad cooperated in the investigation. For purposes of the pending motion, I will assume Defendants knew about Muhammad's involvement. The investigation did not lead to any charges or disciplinary action against anyone employed at JTVCC.[4]

         4. On August 26, 2014, Department of Correction ("DOC") officers conducted a search of Muhammad's cell.[5] The record supports an inference that the search was not at random, but instead was targeted to Muhammad's cell particularly. During the search, DOC officers found several food items for which Muhammad could not provide commissary receipts.[6] Possession of commissary items without proof of purchase is a violation of prison rules. As a result of this violation, Muhammad was suspended from his jobs at the commissary and the JTVCC gym.[7] Muhammad ultimately regained his job at the gym, though not at the commissary.

         5. Muhammad filed this action on December 22, 2014, alleging he was terminated from his employment in violation of the Act. Specifically, Muhammad contends his cell was searched in retaliation for his cooperation with the investigation of commissary staff and that the contraband found in his cell was a pretext for his termination from his employment. After discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment. This is my decision on that motion after briefing


         6. Summary judgment should be awarded if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."[8] When considering a motion for summary judgment, the evidence and the inferences drawn from the evidence are to be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[9] The Court will accept "as established all undisputed factual assertions . . . and accept the non-movant's version of any disputed facts. From those accepted facts[, ] the [C]ourt will draw all rational inferences which favor the non-moving party."[10] A party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists.[11] If the movant makes such a showing, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to submit sufficient evidence to show that a genuine factual issue, material to the outcome of the case, precludes judgment before trial.[12]

         7. Defendants contend they are entitled to summary judgment because they were not Muhammad's "employer" within the meaning of the Act and therefore cannot be held liable under that Act. They alternatively contend they are shielded from suit by qualified immunity. Finally, Defendants raised for the first time at oral argument a third basis for judgment as a matter of law: that Muhammad is not an "employee" within the meaning of the Act. Muhammad, on the other hand, argues that disputed issues of material fact remain and require presentation of this case to a jury. Those disputed facts relate to Defendants' knowledge of Muhammad's participation in the investigation, the reasons Muhammad's cell ...

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