United States District Court, E.D. California
JOSEPH G. ALCALA, Petitioner,
MIKE MARTEL, et al., Respondents.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
ALLISON CLAIRE, Magistrate Judge.
Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The petition challenges a 2008 prison disciplinary proceeding for obstructing a peace officer in the performance of his duties. The disciplinary violation involved petitioner's refusal to accept a cellmate. ECF No. 1.
I. Procedural History
A brief procedural history of the case is provided as context for the current position of the parties. Respondents' first motion to dismiss was denied on April 11, 2013, in an order finding petitioner's claims cognizable in a habeas corpus action. See ECF Nos. 21 (Findings and Recommendation); 24 (Order). The remaining argument in the motion to dismiss was denied without prejudice by Order of June 3, 2013. ECF No. 25. Respondents were allowed to renew their argument if they could demonstrate that petitioner's incarceration was unaffected by his 90 day loss of behavior credit and that the procedural due process protections of Wolff v. McDonnell , 418 U.S. 539 (1974), did not apply to his disciplinary conviction. Id. at 2-3. In the alternative, respondents were ordered to file an answer to the petition. Id. at 3.
On July 5, 2013, respondents renewed their argument that no clearly established federal law prescribes what process is due for a prison disciplinary decision that does not deprive the prisoner of credits that actually reduce his period of incarceration. After full briefing, the motion to dismiss was once again denied on March 26, 2014. ECF Nos. 34 (Order); 32 (Findings and Recommendations). Respondents were ordered to file an answer to the petition.
On May 27, 2014, respondents filed their answer, ECF No. 35, contending that (1) the petition was untimely filed, (2) the court lacks jurisdiction over the petition because any relief would not result in petitioner's speedier release from custody,  and (3) even on the merits petitioner is not entitled to any relief because the state court decision was not contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. ECF No. 35. Petitioner filed his traverse on June 18, 2014. ECF No. 36. Accordingly, the habeas petition is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.
II. Federal Habeas Petition
Petitioner, who is serving a sentence of 15 years to life, alleges that on July 3, 2008 he returned to Mule Creek State Prison from a hospital where he was receiving chemotherapy treatment for stage four lymphoma. Upon his return, he was placed in Administrative Segregation ("Ad Seg") on a "non-disciplinary" hold, instead of in the hospital's infirmary. See ECF No. 35-1 at 27. He asserts that he was held in Ad Seg without the benefit of having a classification hearing to be classified as an "Inmate Medical Patient, " in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Due to his medical condition, petitioner was admitted to San Joaquin General Hospital on July 11, 2008 and discharged on July 21, 2008. See ECF No. 35-3 at 23-25 (Transfer Summary from San Joaquin General Hospital). Following his July 21, 2008 return to Ad Seg, petitioner claims that he received an improper rules violation report ("RVR") for refusing to accept a cell-mate. Petitioner was issued the RVR on July 25, 2008 for his failure to comply with a direct order to double cell on July 24, 2008. See ECF No. 35-1 at 33 (copy of RVR). Although petitioner contends that he should have been exempt from accepting a cell-mate in light of his medical condition, he was found guilty at the hearing on the RVR on August 15, 2008. See ECF No. 35-1 at 34-35. He was assessed a 90 day loss of behavior credit for the disciplinary violation. Petitioner, whose last RVR was in 1994, argues that he suffered harm because he was denied parole in 2010 after the Board of Parole Hearings relied on the 2008 RVR in finding that he was unsuitable for release on parole.
III. Respondent's Answer
As an initial basis to deny relief, respondents assert that the federal habeas petition was untimely filed. ECF No. 35 at 4. Respondents contend that the statute of limitations commenced on January 7, 2009, the day following the exhaustion of petitioner's administrative remedies and thus the date the factual predicate of his claim was discovered. Id. at 4 (citing Redd v. McGrath , 343 F.3d 1077, 1082 (9th Cir. 2003)). The statute of limitations then ran for a period of 69 days until petitioner filed his first state habeas corpus petition in the trial court on March 17, 2009. Id . Respondents concede that petitioner is entitled to statutory tolling until November 10, 2009 when the California Supreme Court denied his state habeas petition. Id . Thus, by respondents calculation, the federal habeas petition was filed 112 days late. Id . However, this calculation does not acknowledge the possibility that equitable tolling could render the federal petition timely.
The second ground upon which respondents rely is based on the merits of petitioner's due process claim. Respondents invoke CDCR regulations to assert that the due process protections of Wolff v. McDonnell , 418 U.S. 539 (1974) and Superintendent v. Hill , 472 U.S. 445, 454 (1985), do not apply to petitioner because the credit loss resulting from his disciplinary hearing will not affect his release date since he already passed his minimum eligible parole date. Id. at 6. They further argue that petitioner is barred from relief under the AEDPA because granting the instant petition would require extending the holding of Wolff to a situation where its application is not clearly established. Id. at 7. Doing so, respondents contend, would lead to the conflicting result that while a federal court cannot examine the substance of parole authorities' ultimate decision to deny parole pursuant to Swarthout v. Cooke , 562 U.S. 216 (2011), it can review the substantive information relied upon by the parole board by applying a heightened level of due process protections. Id.
IV. Petitioner's Traverse
With respect to respondent's statute of limitations defense, petitioner contends that he was diligent in pursuing his administrative, state, and federal remedies following his disciplinary hearing. ECF No. 36 at 7-9. He commenced a federal habeas action challenging this disciplinary conviction on December 8, 2009. Id. at 8. However, that original petition as well as a subsequent one was both dismissed with leave to amend. Id. at 8-9. Petitioner merely followed the federal district court's instructions to proceed with his issues by filing a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 9. It was not until October 26, 2010 that petitioner was instructed to file a separate habeas corpus petition challenging his disciplinary conviction. Id. at 9. Once again, petitioner followed the district court's instructions and filed the instant federal habeas corpus petition on December 22, 2010. Id.
On the merits of his due process claim, petitioner asserts that prison officials violated their own rules and regulations by not affording him an Ad Seg classification hearing within 10 days of his placement in that unit. ECF No. 36 at 5. In fact, he alleges that he was held in Ad Seg for 33 days without the benefit of any hearing conducted by the Classification Committee. Id . As a result of this failure to determine whether petitioner's ongoing Ad Seg placement was proper, he received a RVR when he refused to double cell with another inmate who was placed in Ad Seg for "fighting, violence and choking-out his previous cellmate." Id. at 5. Petitioner alleges that he had ...