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Ho v. Major

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 12, 2017

TRUC N. HO, Plaintiff,
v.
E. MAJOR, et al. Defendants.

          ORDER

          CRAIG M. KELLISON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, a prisoner proceeding pro se, brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pending before the court is plaintiff's complaint (Doc. 1).

         The court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if it: (1) is frivolous or malicious; (2) fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; or (3) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), (2). Moreover, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that complaints contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This means that claims must be stated simply, concisely, and directly. See McHenry v. Renne, 84 F.3d 1172, 1177 (9th Cir. 1996) (referring to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e)(1)). These rules are satisfied if the complaint gives the defendant fair notice of the plaintiff's claim and the grounds upon which it rests. See Kimes v. Stone, 84 F.3d 1121, 1129 (9th Cir. 1996). Because plaintiff must allege with at least some degree of particularity overt acts by specific defendants which support the claims, vague and conclusory allegations fail to satisfy this standard. Additionally, it is impossible for the court to conduct the screening required by law when the allegations are vague and conclusory.

         I. PLAINTIFF'S ALLEGATIONS

         Plaintiff appears to be challenging a prison disciplinary proceeding wherein he was found guilty of battery on an inmate with a weapon causing serious bodily injury. Plaintiff was assessed with 360 days loss of credit and 15 months in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU). He claims his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated in that there was not “some evidence” to support the findings that a weapon was used. However, other than setting out the proceedings and the involvement of the various defendants in those proceedings, plaintiff makes no allegation as to any specific wrongdoing or errors in the proceedings. He has requested the guilty finding be set aside and he be awarded monetary damages.

         II. DISCUSSION

         There are several defects in plaintiff's complaint. First, it appears that plaintiff's claims sound in habeas and are not cognizable as a § 1983 action. When a state prisoner challenges the legality of his custody and the relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to an earlier or immediate release, such a challenge is not cognizable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the prisoner's sole federal remedy is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973); see also Neal v. Shimoda, 131 F.3d 818, 824 (9th Cir. 1997); Trimble v. City of Santa Rosa, 49 F.3d 583, 586 (9th Cir. 1995) (per curiam). Thus, where a § 1983 action seeking monetary damages or declaratory relief alleges constitutional violations which would necessarily imply the invalidity of the prisoner's underlying conviction or sentence, or the result of a prison disciplinary hearing resulting in imposition of a sanction affecting the overall length of confinement, such a claim is not cognizable under § 1983 unless the conviction or sentence has first been invalidated on appeal, by habeas petition, or through some similar proceeding. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 483-84 (1994) (concluding that § 1983 claim not cognizable because allegations were akin to malicious prosecution action which includes as an element a finding that the criminal proceeding was concluded in plaintiff's favor); Butterfield v. Bail, 120 F.3d 1023, 1024-25 (9th Cir. 1997) (concluding that § 1983 claim not cognizable because allegations of procedural defects were an attempt to challenge substantive result in parole hearing); cf. Neal, 131 F.3d at 824 (concluding that § 1983 claim was cognizable because challenge was to conditions for parole eligibility and not to any particular parole determination); cf. Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005) (concluding that § 1983 action seeking changes in procedures for determining when an inmate is eligible for parole consideration not barred because changed procedures would hasten future parole consideration and not affect any earlier parole determination under the prior procedures).

         In particular, where the claim involves the loss of good-time credits as a result of an adverse prison disciplinary finding, and the resulting loss directly impacts the length of the prisoner's sentence, the claim is not cognizable. See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 646 (1987) (holding that § 1983 claim not cognizable because allegations of procedural defects and a biased hearing officer implied the invalidity of the underlying prison disciplinary sanction of loss of good-time credits); Blueford v. Prunty, 108 F.3d 251, 255 (9th Cir. 1997); cf. Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850, 858 (9th. Cir. 2003) (holding that the favorable termination rule of Heck and Edwards does not apply to challenges to prison disciplinary hearings where the administrative sanction imposed does not affect the overall length of confinement and, thus, does not go to the heart of habeas); see also Wilkerson v. Wheeler, 772 F.3d 834 (9th Cir. 2014) (discussing loss of good-time credits); Nettles v. Grounds, 830 F.3d 922, 934-35 (9th Cir. 2016) (discussing the impact of a prison disciplinary violations in determining suitability for parole).

         The Ninth Circuit recently addressed the issue of a pro se litigant filing the incorrect action to address his claim. “[A] district court may construe a petition for habeas corpus to plead a cause of action under § 1983 after notifying and obtaining informed consent from the prisoner.” Nettles, 830 F.3d at 936. “‘If the complaint is amendable to conversion on its face, meaning that it names the correct defendants and seeks the correct relief, the court may recharacterize the petition so long as it warns the pro se litigant of the consequences of the conversion and provides an opportunity for the litigant to withdraw or amend his or her complaint.'” Id. (quoting Glaus v. Anderson, 408 F.3d 382, 388 (7th Cir. 2005)). However, the Court recognized that following enactment of the PLRA, “‘a habeas corpus action and a prisoner civil rights suit differ in a variety of respects-such as the proper defendant, filing fees, the means of collecting them, and restrictions on future filings-that may make recharacterization impossible or, if possible, disadvantageous to the prisoner compared to a dismissal without prejudice of his petition for habeas corpus.'” Id. at 935-36 (quoting Robinson v. Sherrod, 631 F.3d 839, 841 (7th Cir. 2011)). Based on these differences, the court is not inclined to recharacterize plaintiff's civil rights complaint as a habeas petition in this instance.

         As stated above, it appears that plaintiff's claim sound in habeas. He is challenging a prison disciplinary proceeding wherein he lost 360 days of credit and is seeking to have the guilty finding set aside and theose credits restored. If plaintiff is a determinately sentenced prisoner, or he has not yet reached his minimum eligible parole date (MEPD), a finding in his favor would affect the overall length of confinement. However, if plaintiff is an indeterminately sentenced prisoner past his MEPD and is currently receiving parole consideration hearings, then a restoration of his good time credit would not necessarily affect the length of his confinement. There is simply not enough information in the complaint for the court to determine whether this case would impact the length of plaintiff's confinement. This defect may be curable, and plaintiff will be provided an opportunity to file an amended complaint if he determines, based on the information provided herein, that his claim is appropriately raised in a § 1983 action.

         Assuming that this action is properly filed as a § 1983 action, plaintiff is informed that the Due Process Clause protects prisoners from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556 (1974). In order to state a claim of deprivation of due process, a plaintiff must allege the existence of a liberty or property interest for which the protection is sought. See Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 672 (1977); Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 569 (1972). Due process protects against the deprivation of property where there is a legitimate claim of entitlement to the property. See Bd. of Regents, 408 U.S. at 577. Protected property interests are created, and their dimensions are defined, by existing rules that stem from an independent source - such as state law - and which secure certain benefits and support claims of entitlement to those benefits. See id.

         Liberty interests can arise both from the Constitution and from state law. See Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 466 (1983); Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 224-27 (1976); Smith v. Sumner, 994 F.2d 1401, 1405 (9th Cir. 1993). In determining whether the Constitution itself protects a liberty interest, the court should consider whether the practice in question “. . . is within the normal limits or range of custody which the conviction has authorized the State to impose.” Wolff, 418 U.S. at 557-58; Smith, 994 F.2d at 1405. Applying this standard, the Supreme Court has concluded that the Constitution itself provides no liberty interest in good-time credits, see Wolff, 418 U.S. at 557; in remaining in the general population, see Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 485-86 (1995); in not losing privileges, see Baxter v. Palmigiano, 425 U.S. 308, 323 (1976); in staying at a particular institution, see Meachum, 427 U.S. at 225-27; or in remaining in a prison in a particular state, see Olim v. Wakinekona, 461 U.S. 238, 245-47 (1983).

         In determining whether state law confers a liberty interest, the Supreme Court has adopted an approach in which the existence of a liberty interest is determined by focusing on the nature of the deprivation. See Sandin v. Connor, 515 U.S. 472, 481-84 (1995). In doing so, the Court has held that state law creates a liberty interest deserving of protection only where the deprivation in question: (1) restrains the inmate's freedom in a manner not expected from the sentence; and (2) “imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.” Id. at 483-84. Prisoners in California have a liberty interest in the procedures used in prison disciplinary hearings where a successful claim would not necessarily shorten the prisoner's sentence. See Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850, 853, 859 (9th Cir. 2003) (concluding that a due process challenge to a prison disciplinary hearing which did not result in the loss of good-time credits was cognizable under § 1983); see also Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 82 (2005) (concluding that claims which did not seek earlier or immediate release from prison were cognizable under § 1983).

         Finally, with respect to prison disciplinary proceedings, due process requires prison officials to provide the inmate with: (1) a written statement at least 24 hours before the disciplinary hearing that includes the charges, a description of the evidence against the inmate, and an explanation for the disciplinary action taken; (2) an opportunity to present documentary evidence and call witnesses, unless calling witnesses would interfere with institutional security; and (3) legal assistance where the charges are complex or the inmate is illiterate. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 563-70. Due process is satisfied where these minimum requirements have been met, see Walker v. Sumner, 14 F.3d 1415, 1420 (9th Cir. 1994), and where there is “some evidence” in the record as a whole which supports the decision of the hearing officer, see Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 455 (1985). The “some evidence” standard is not particularly stringent and is satisfied where “there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached.” ...


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