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Theodore Willis v. R. Grounds

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


August 31, 2011

THEODORE WILLIS, PETITIONER,
v.
R. GROUNDS, RESPONDENT.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent moves to dismiss the petition on the grounds that it fails to state a cognizable claim. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss should be denied.

I. Background

Petitioner is serving an indeterminate life term. Pet. at 2, 8.*fn1 He challenges a 2008 disciplinary action taken against him for allegedly having contraband (weapons and a cell phone) in his cell. Id. at 8. Petitioner was found guilty of possession of a deadly weapon, was assessed a SHU term, lost 360 days of good time credits, lost his privilege group status and was placed in a different level of custody. Id. at 15, 16. Petitioner alleges that the contraband belonged to his cellmate and he had no knowledge of it, that he was deprived of due process at the disciplinary hearing when he was not allowed to call witnesses, that staff falsified evidence against him, and that the evidence against him "is so slim as to be nonexistent." Id. at 9, 18, 21.

Petitioner alleges that because he has been found guilty of possessing a weapon and a cell phone, there is a "very strong likelihood" that he will be denied parole at his next hearing, whereas "absent the guilty finding, petitioner stood an excellent chance of receiving a parole date, after 30 years of incarceration." Id. at 16. He states that his chance to parole depends heavily on his conduct, and that he "had maintained an exemplary record of conduct and reform since receiving his last disciplinary violation . . . more than 18 years" ago. Id. at 14.

He further alleges that his loss of night yard, weekend and holiday yard, and night dayroom, and his loss of the right to pursue his vocation (which is needed in order to be found suitable for parole), show that he has been denied a liberty interest. Id. at 17.

II. Respondent's Motion to Dismiss

Respondent moves to dismiss the petition pursuant to Rule 4 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases in the U.S. District Courts for failure to state a cognizable claim. This court has authority under Rule 4 to dismiss a petition if it "plainly appears from the face of the petition and any attached exhibits that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court . . . ." As a corollary to that rule, the court may also consider a respondent's motion to dismiss, filed in lieu of an answer, on the same grounds. See, e.g., O'Bremski v. Maass, 915 F.2d 418, 420 (9th Cir. 1990) (using Rule 4 to evaluate a motion to dismiss for failure to exhaust state remedies); White v. Lewis, 874 F.2d 599, 602-03 (9th Cir. 1989) (using Rule 4 as the procedural vehicle to review a motion to dismiss for state procedural default). Respondent argues that petitioner's claim is not cognizable in a habeas petition because petitioner has not established that issuance of the writ (i.e. ordering that the disciplinary conviction be expunged) would necessarily shorten the duration of his confinement.

"Federal law opens two main avenues to relief on complaints related to imprisonment: a petition for habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and a complaint under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Rev Stat § 1979, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Challenges to the validity of any confinement or to particulars affecting its duration are the province of habeas corpus . . .; requests for relief turning on circumstances of confinement may be presented in a § 1983 action." Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 750 (2004) (citing Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973)).While not expressly framed as such, respondent's argument is a jurisdictional one -- respondent claims that success on the petition will not impact petitioner's custody and thus the court is without power to hear the case under the habeas statute. See Docken v. Chase, 393 F.3d 1024, 1028-29 (9th Cir. 2004) (treating the issues of whether a claim that could potentially impact the duration of custody was cognizable or was within the court's federal habeas jurisdiction as interchangeable). Because the question presented on the motion necessarily calls into question the court's subject matter jurisdiction, analysis of the motion must begin with the fundamental threshold question of whether there is jurisdiction to hear petitioner's claim.

The party seeking to invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court bears the initial burden of pleading facts sufficient to establish jurisdiction. McNutt v. Gen'l Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 182 (1936); Jackson v. Cal. Dep't of Mental Health, 399 F.3d 1069, 1074 (9th Cir. 2005); United States v. Bustillos, 31 F.3d 931, 933 (10th Cir. 1994). Thus, the court must determine whether petitioner has alleged sufficient facts in the petition to show that the challenged actions impacted his custody in a manner sufficient to invoke the court's jurisdiction under the habeas statute.

Generally, a prisoner challenging a disciplinary action with an attendant loss of time credits must pursue the challenge in a habeas petition, because a decision in the case in the prisoner's favor would require restoration of the lost time credits and would therefore accelerate the inmate's date of release, making the case the type of "core" habeas challenge that must be pursued by habeas petition. Preiser, 411 U.S. at487-88, 490.Here, however, petitioner is a life-term inmate who passed his Minimum Eligible Parole Date ("MEPD") in 2005. Dckt. No. 1 at 45.*fn2 Respondent argues that because petitioner has passed his MEPD, the loss of credits will not "necessarily spell speedier release" and that therefore the petition is not cognizable in habeas. Dckt. No. 11 at 4.

Petitioner has been sentenced to life for murder, so the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Article 11 (Parole Consideration Criteria and Guidelines for Murders Committed on or After November 8, 1978) applies. See Dckt. No. 1 at 1. This statute explains that an inmate's MEPD is established by statute, and may be reduced by "good conduct" credits. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2400. Inmates receive their initial parole hearing one year before the MEPD, and they continue to receive parole hearings until they are found suitable for parole. Cal. Penal Code § 3041(a). One factor "tending to show unsuitability" for parole is "[t]he prisoner has engaged in serious misconduct in prison or jail." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2402(c)(6).

Once an inmate has been found suitable for parole, the Board of Prison Terms determines the length of time a prisoner must serve prior to actual release on parole by setting a base term and then adjusting the term by accounting for aggravating or mitigating circumstances. Id. at § 2400, 2403-2409. Next, the Board determines the amount of "post-conviction" credit an inmate should be granted, which reduces the length of time the inmate must serve. Id. at§§ 2403, 2410. In determining the amount of post-conviction credit, the Board "shall" consider the inmate's behavior in prison. Id. at § 2410(c)(3). The regulations state that no post-conviction credit "shall be granted in the case of any prisoner who commits serious . . . infractions of departmental regulations, violates any state law, or engages in other conduct which could result in rescission of a parole date (see Section 2451) unless the panel finds evidence in mitigation and supports such finding with a statement of its reasoning." Id. at § 2410(d). Section 2451 specifically provides that "possession of a weapon without permission" and "possession of escape tools without permission" are examples of conduct that may result in the rescission proceedings.

Respondent seems to argue that because petitioner had already passed his MEPD at the time of the disciplinary proceeding, the 360-day credit loss that he was assessed will not affect when he is released from prison. Dckt. No. 11 at 4. But petitioner argues that his 360 days of credit loss "will be assessed once he receives a parole date." Dckt. No. 1 at 15.

It appears that there are two possible ways that the disciplinary conviction may affect the length of petitioner's sentence. First, the Parole Board may find (possibly at multiple hearings) that petitioner is unsuitable for parole because of the disciplinary conviction. Second, if the Board eventually does find petitioner suitable for parole, the disciplinary conviction will likely prevent petitioner from receiving his post-conviction credits, and the duration of his confinement will be lengthened. Thus, to rule on respondent's motion to dismiss, the court must determine whether federal habeas jurisdiction exists in an action where a petitioner challenges prison discipline that will potentially or likely, but not definitely, impact the duration of his confinement.

Courts within the Ninth Circuit have not responded uniformly to this issue. Compare, e.g., Bostic v. Carlson, 884 F.2d 1267, 1269 (9th Cir. 1989) ("Habeas corpus jurisdiction . . . exists when a petitioner seeks expungement of a disciplinary finding from his record if expungement is likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole."); Hardney v. Carey, No. CIV S-06-0300 LKK EFB P, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35603, at *18-22 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2011) (recommending that the district court find that a challenge to a disciplinary conviction carrying no credit loss was cognizable in habeas because of its likely impact on parole eligibility, adopted in full by district court order dated June 6, 2011); Johnson v. Swarthout, No. CIV S-10-1568 KJM DAD P, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43798, at *4-8 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 22, 2011) (same); and Silva v. Cal. Dep't of Corr., No. CIV S-03-1508 DFL GGH P, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32046, at *2-3 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2005) (same, adopted in full by 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3661 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2006)) with Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850, 859 (9th Cir. 2003) (stating that "habeas jurisdiction is absent, and a § 1983 action proper, where a successful challenge to a prison condition will not necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence."); Everett v. Yates, No. CIV F-11-00150 AWI GSA HC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23224, at *2-5 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2011) (recommending the dismissal of a habeas petition challenging a disciplinary conviction with no attendant credit loss, because the potential impact of the conviction on the petitioner's parole prospects was "entirely speculative"); and Perrotte v. Salazar, No. ED CV 06-00539-JOHN (VBK), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140385, at *9-16 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 8, 2010) (same, adopted in full by 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6606 (C.D. Cal. Jan 24, 2011)).*fn3 As is apparent from these cases, courts within this circuit have varied when addressing habeas challenges to prison disciplinary decisions that would have an impact on the duration of confinement only to the extent that they may affect the petitioners' parole eligibility. A brief discussion of the apparent source of the disagreement and the various approaches courts have taken is appropriate.

Three Ninth Circuit cases are central to the controversy: Bostic v. Carlson, 884 F.2d 1267 (9th Cir. 1989), Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850 (9th Cir. 2003), and Docken v. Chase, 393 F.3d 1024 (9th Cir. 2004). In Bostic, the court of appeals reviewed district court dismissals of ten separate habeas petitions filed by the same petitioner, challenging nine prison disciplinary actions taken against him. 884 F.2d at 1269. Prison officials had assessed a forfeiture of good-time credits for some of the infractions, but the remainder did not carry a loss of time credits -- only a term of segregated housing. Id. at 1269. In each of the petitions, the petitioner sought expungement of the infractions from his disciplinary record. Id. The court "assume[d]" that habeas jurisdiction existed over all the petitions, even those challenging discipline with no attendant credit loss, stating:

Habeas corpus jurisdiction is available under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 for a prisoner's claim that he has been denied good time credits without due process of law. [citations] Habeas corpus jurisdiction is also available for a prisoner's claims that he has been subjected to greater restriction of his liberty, such as disciplinary segregation, without due process of law.[*fn4 ] [citations] Habeas corpus jurisdiction also exists when a petitioner seeks expungement of a disciplinary finding from his record if expungement is likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole. [McCollum v. Miller, 695 F.2d 1044, 1047 (7th Cir. 1982)].

Id. at 1269 (emphasis added). The court did not elaborate on when expungement would be "likely to accelerate" parole-eligibility.*fn5

The court revisited Bostic's statements on habeas jurisdiction in Ramirez. 334 F.3d at 858-59. In Ramirez, a prisoner brought a civil rights action under § 1983 rather than a habeas petition to challenge the procedures used in imposing disciplinary sanctions of ten days of disciplinary detention, 60 days loss of privileges (but no loss of time credits), and a referral to administrative segregation. Id. at 852-53. He sought expungement of the disciplinary record from his file and an injunction prohibiting the state from considering it "when they fix plaintiff's terms and decide whether plaintiff should be released on parole." Id. at 859 n.6. The district court dismissed the case, finding it barred by Heck's favorable termination rule after determining that success in the case would necessarily imply that the disciplinary finding was invalid. Id. at 852; see supra n.2.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the favorable termination rule does not apply to prison disciplinary sanctions that do not necessarily affect the fact or length of a prisoner's confinement. Id. at 854-58; see supra n.2. The court rejected the state's Bostic-based argument that the plaintiff's claim that his disciplinary hearing violated due process was "logically inseparable from an attack on the outcome of that hearing, and that a judgment in his favor would necessarily imply the invalidity of his disciplinary conviction." Id. at 859. The court reasoned that the favorable termination rule applies only if success in the § 1983 action would necessarily imply the invalidity of a disciplinary finding and necessitate a reduction in the plaintiff's length of confinement. Id. The state had failed to show that expungement of the disciplinary finding would necessarily accelerate the plaintiff's release, because the parole board could still deny parole on the basis of other factors. Id. ("As Ramirez's suit does not threaten to advance his parole date, his challenge to his disciplinary hearing is properly brought under § 1983.").

In the course of its analysis, the court discussed Bostic in some detail: Bostic does not hold that habeas corpus jurisdiction is always available to seek the expungement of a prison disciplinary record. Instead, a writ of habeas corpus is proper only where expungement is "likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole." Bostic, 884 F.2d at 1269 (emphasis added). . . . Bostic thus holds that the likelihood of the effect on the overall length of the prisoner's sentence from a successful § 1983 action determines the availability of habeas corpus."

Id. at 858. From this, the court made the following leap, assuming that the courts' jurisdiction over habeas petitions and their jurisdiction over § 1983 actions are mutually exclusive: "[H]abeas jurisdiction is absent, and a § 1983 action proper, where a successful challenge to a prison condition will not necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence." Id. at 859 (emphasis added). For ease of discussion, this quote will be referred to herein as the "mutual exclusivity rule." This language has created uncertainty, because challenges to prison conditions that will necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence fall squarely within the "core" of habeas jurisdiction identified in Preiser, and the Ramirez language indicates that only "core" habeas cases can be brought in federal habeas petitions. It is important to recall that Preiser simply held that "core" cases had to be brought in habeas petitions but did not hold that habeas jurisdiction was limited to such cases. However, Bostic -- quoted with apparent approval by the Ramirez panel -- squarely found habeas jurisdiction to exist in a non-"core" situation, where success would not necessarily spell earlier release, but was merely likely to accelerate parole-eligibility. Thus, Ramirez's mutual exclusivity rule quoted above appears inconsistent both with the opinion's prior reliance on Bostic for the proposition that "the likelihood of the effect on the overall length of the prisoner's sentence from a successful § 1983 action determines the availability of habeas corpus" and with Bostic itself.

One year after Ramirez, the court again visited the intersection of habeas and § 1983 in Docken. 393 F.3d at 1026-31. In Docken, as in Bostic, the court reviewed the dismissal of a habeas petition for want of jurisdiction. Id. at 1025, 1026. Unlike Bostic, the petitioner in Docken did not challenge a prison disciplinary finding, but rather the timing of his parole-eligibility reviews. Id. at 1025-26. The district court had concluded that the claim could only be brought under § 1983 rather than habeas, because the plaintiff's success in the case would not "entitle" him to release, just an earlier eligibility review. Id.

In reversing that conclusion, the Court of Appeals discussed at length U.S. Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedent. The first conclusion the court drew from that precedent was that, "although Supreme Court law makes clear that § 1983 is not available where a prisoner's claim 'necessarily' implicates the validity or duration of confinement, it does not set out any mirror-image limitation on habeas jurisdiction." Id. at 1028. The court, citing Bostic, noted that its own precedent held that habeas jurisdiction was available in some non-"core" circumstances. See id. ( "In [Bostic], for example, we held that 'habeas corpus jurisdiction . . . exists when a petitioner seeks expungement of a disciplinary finding from his record if expungement is likely to accelerate the prisoner's eligibility for parole.'").

Importantly, in speaking of claims only "likely to accelerate" eligibility for parole, Bostic defined a class of suits outside the "core" habeas claims identified in Preiser. Success on the merits in such cases would not "necessarily" implicate the fact or duration of confinement. Instead, such claims have, at best, only a possible relationship to the duration of a prisoner's confinement, as eligibility for parole is distinct from entitlement for parole.

Id. at 1028-29. Thus, the court recognized that, under Bostic, habeas jurisdiction was proper even where success on the claim would not necessarily shorten the plaintiff's sentence -- a view of habeas jurisdiction squarely at odds with the mutual exclusivity rule announced in Ramirez. In fact, the Docken court went further than Bostic, finding cognizable not only those challenges that, if successful, were "likely to accelerate" release, but also those that, if successful, "could potentially affect the duration of . . . confinement." Id. at 1031 (emphasis added).

Unfortunately, the Docken panel did not expressly resolve the inconsistency between Bostic and Ramirez. It did attempt to distinguish Ramirez's mutual exclusivity rule in a footnote by stating that it was limited to the circumstances presented in that case, where the prisoner challenged "internal disciplinary procedures" and consequent administrative segregation that did not "deal with the fact or duration of his confinement." Id. at 1030 n.4. A close reading of Ramirez reveals that the case cannot be distinguished from Bostic on those grounds, however. As in Ramirez, the petitioner in Bostic challenged at least one prison disciplinary action that resulted in administrative segregation but no loss of time credits. Importantly, in both cases, the prisoners sought expungement of a disciplinary finding from their records, and the prisoner in Ramirez specifically argued that the challenged disciplinary findings would have an adverse impact on his parole eligibility. Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 859 n.6; Bostic, 884 F.2d at 1269. Thus, both cases "deal[t] with the fact or duration of confinement" in the same manner.

Here, this court must decide whether to follow Ramirez's mutual exclusivity rule or the approach of Bostic and Docken. Some district courts that have taken the latter route have reasoned that Ramirez's mutual exclusivity rule was dictum and thus not binding. E.g., Foster v. Washington-Adduci, No. CV 09-07987-PSG (DTB), 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41578, at *12 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 24, 2010); Hickey v. Adler, No. 1:08-cv-00826-JMD-HC, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67064, at *6 n.4 (E.D. Cal. July 27, 2009); Dutra v. Cal. Dep't of Corr. & Rehab., No. C 06-0323 MHP, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82377, at *16-17 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 6, 2007); Drake v. Felker, No. 2:07-cv-00577 (JKS), 2007 WL 4404432, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 13, 2007). The undersigned agrees with that reasoning. The mutual exclusivity rule was not essential to the holding in Ramirez, which held simply that Heck's favorable termination rule does not apply to § 1983 cases where success in the action would not necessitate earlier release. That holding is not contrary to, and may coexist beside, Docken's conclusion that § 1983 and habeas are not mutually exclusive but instead may both be available to prisoners in some instances, specifically in those challenges that implicate the duration of confinement but would not necessarily, if successful, result in speedier release.*fn6

Accordingly, the court finds that, under Bostic and Docken, habeas jurisdiction exists over the instant petition, because expungement of the disciplinary action challenged by petitioner could potentially accelerate petitioner's release. Petitioner alleges that because he has been found guilty of possessing a weapon and a cell phone, there is a "very strong likelihood" that he will be denied parole at his next hearing, whereas "absent the guilty finding, petitioner stood an excellent chance of receiving a parole date, after 30 years of incarceration." Dckt. No. 1 at 16. He alleges that his chance to parole depends heavily on his conduct, and that he "had maintained an exemplary record of conduct and reform since receiving his last disciplinary violation . . . more than 18 years" ago. Id. at 14. That assertion is expressly bourne out by the regulations governing parole.

The Board is statutorily obligated to consider petitioner's conduct while incarcerated as a factor in deciding parole suitability. One factor "tending to show unsuitability" for parole is whether "[t]he prisoner has engaged in serious misconduct in prison or jail." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 2402(c)(6). Petitioner has been found guilty of possessing weapons and a cellphone; expungement of this finding could potentially accelerate his release, especially since he had been disciplinary-free for the previous 18 years. Indeed, the seriousness of these two offenses makes it probable that failure to expunge the finding would result in petitioner serving a longer period of incarceration because of the affect on parole consideration.

In addition, assuming that the Board eventually finds petitioner suitable for parole, the disciplinary finding will very likely impact the length of time petitioner serves for the further reason that he will not be granted post-conviction credit. See id. at §§ 2410(c)(3), 2410(d), 2451 (the Board shall not grant post-conviction credit if an inmate has been found guilty of possessing a weapon or escape tools "unless the panel finds evidence in mitigation and supports such finding with a statement of its reasoning"). Because the court finds that expungement of the disciplinary conviction not only could potentially accelerate petitioner's release, but likely will do so, habeas jurisdiction exists.*fn7

IV. Mootness

Although petitioner's claims are within the jurisdiction of the habeas statute for the reasons just discussed, the court must also examine whether that petitioner's claims are nevertheless moot and are thus outside the court's jurisdiction under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Under Article III, § 2, a federal court's jurisdiction is limited to those cases which present "cases-or-controversies." Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 7 (1998). In habeas actions, the case-or-controversy requirement mandates that a petitioner must have suffered, or be threatened with, an actual injury traceable to the respondent and redressable by issuance of the writ. See id. Respondent does not argue that petitioner's claims are moot, but federal courts "have an independent duty to consider" mootness sua sponte. Demery v. Arpaio, 378 F.3d 1020, 1025 (9th Cir. 2004). Like jurisdiction under the habeas statute, it is petitioner's obligation to allege facts sufficient to show that his claim is within the court's power under Article III. Jackson, 399 F.3d at 1074.

In general, a habeas petition challenging a prison disciplinary action no longer presents such a case or controversy, and therefore becomes moot, when the punishment for the action has been withdrawn or completed at the time of the petition. See Wilson v. Terhune, 319 F.3d 477, 479, 481-82 (9th Cir. 2003). Where the petitioner can show that so-called "collateral consequences" flow from the disciplinary action (i.e., circumstances beyond the punishment imposed that constitute an actual injury), however, the case remains justiciable. Id. at 479-80; see Spencer, 523 U.S. at 14-16. This court must therefore determine whether petitioner has alleged facts showing that the disciplinary sanctions against him have not yet been completed or that collateral consequences of the disciplinary action cause his case to remain live.

Here, petitioner alleges that at the time the petition was filed, he was at a more favorable level of custody, and had lost night yard, weekend and holiday yard, and night dayroom privileges, and had lost his right to work. Dckt. No. 1at 17. These allegations are sufficient to show that, at this stage of the proceedings, petitioner's case is not moot because the disciplinary sanctions against him have not yet been completed. Therefore, the court need not decide address the collateral consequences doctrine because the disciplinary finding may be used against petitioner in future parole proceedings.*fn8

V. Conclusion

Accordingly, it is hereby RECOMMENDED that respondent's motion to dismiss be denied.

These findings and recommendations are submitted to the United States District Judge assigned to the case, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l). Within fourteen days after being served with these findings and recommendations, any party may file written objections with the court and serve a copy on all parties. Such a document should be captioned "Objections to Magistrate Judge's Findings and Recommendations." Failure to file objections within the specified time may waive the right to appeal the District Court's order. Turner v. Duncan, 158 F.3d 449, 455 (9th Cir. 1998); Martinez v. Ylst, 951 F.2d 1153 (9th Cir. 1991).


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