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Locke v. Solomon

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

April 25, 2018

KAREEM LOCKE, Plaintiff,
GEORGE SOLOMON, et al., Defendants.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Defendants Daniel Hatley's and Benjamin Carver's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Doc. No. 17). Also before the Court are Plaintiff's “Pro Se Request for Production of Documents and Things and Notice of Depositions on Written Questions” (Doc. No. 9), “Request for Leave to Conduct Discovery" (Doc. No. 21), Motion to Appoint Counsel (Doc. No. 22), and Motion for extension of time (Doc. No. 26), and Defendants' Motion for Discovery Protective Order (Doc. No. 24).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a prisoner of the State of North Carolina. According to his Complaint, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff was placed on a Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) “watch list” for suspected gang membership and affiliation on August 3, 2009. (Compl. 7, Doc. No. 1.) On December 11, 2015, Plaintiff was informed by Defendant Hatley, identified as a Security Risk Group Intelligence Officer (“SRGIO”) at Brown Creek Correctional Institution (“BCCI”), that he was going to recommend Plaintiff be taken off the watch list and given a Security Threat Group (“STG”) level classification based on Plaintiff's membership in a gang.[1] (Grievance # 3510-2015-5CDM-01231 (hereinafter “Grievance # 01231”), Doc. No. 1 at 16.) Plaintiff filed a grievance on December 16, 2015, complaining of Hatley's decision and pointing out that he had held prison jobs, completed all assigned tasks, and had not been charged with any gang-related infraction since being placed on the watch list. (Grievance # 01231.)

         On January 6. 2016, Defendant Hatley informed Plaintiff that he had been classified as STG Level III, with accompanying restrictions on visitation and phone-calls, among others things. (Compl. 7.) Hatley told Plaintiff he was classified as Level III because of his “rank” within the identified gang. (Compl. 7.)

         On January 19, 2016, Plaintiff was charged with two infractions - attempting to possess cell phones and watches, and attempting to possess tobacco. (Compl. 8.) The charges were levied based upon allegations purportedly made by a confidential informant to Defendant Samantha Horne, identified as an SRG Officer at BCCI. (Compl. 8; Off. and Disc. Rpt., Doc. No. 1 at 22.) Defendant Benjamin A. Carver, identified as a Disciplinary Hearing Officer (“DHO”) at Alexander Correctional Institution, presided over Plaintiff's January 29, 2016 disciplinary hearing. Defendant Carver found Plaintiff guilty of both infractions and punished him accordingly. (Compl. 8.)

         Plaintiff claims that he was given an STG classification in violation of his right to due process because Defendants failed to follow DPS's policies and procedures with respect to that classification. (Compl. 9.) Plaintiff further claims that he was given a Level III STG classification in retaliation for filing Grievance # 01231 and that the January 19, 2016 infractions were fabricated to legitimize the increase in his security status after the fact and to retaliate for Grievance # 01231. (Compl. 10-13.) Finally, Plaintiff claims Defendant Carver violated his rights to due process in connection with the administrative disciplinary hearing. (Compl. 12-13.)

         The Court conducted a frivolity review of the Complaint and found Plaintiff's claim that he was given an STG classification in violation of his right to due process did not state a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Initial Rev. Order 3-5, Doc. No. 7.) The Court found Plaintiff's retaliation claims as to both the STG classification and the fabrication of disciplinary charges were not clearly frivolous. (Initial Rev. Order 5.) The Court also found Plaintiff's due process claims as to the administrative disciplinary proceeding were not clearly frivolous and allowed Plaintiff to proceed with those claims. (Initial Rev. Order 5-6.) The Court dismissed Defendants George Solomon, Christopher Rich, and Kenneth Diggs from this civil action, as Plaintiff has not alleged any acts by those defendants. (Initial Rev. Order 6.)

         Defendants Hatley and Carver have filed an Answer (Doc. No. 16) and a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 17). They also have filed a Motion for Discovery Protective Order (Doc. No. 24) in response to Plaintiff's requests to conduct discovery (Doc. Nos. 9, 21). Defendant Samantha Horne has not yet been served a summons in this action. Plaintiff has filed a Motion for extension of time to respond to the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 26), and a Response to the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 30).


         A. Standard of Review

         “A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] is assessed under the same standard that applies to a Rule 12(b)(6)[2] motion.” Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 115 (4th Cir. 2013). “A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (1990)) (emphasis added). In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are taken as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). “The sole distinction between the two motions is that a court ruling on a Rule 12(c) motion may consider the answer as well as the complaint.” In re Stucco Litigation, 364 F.Supp.2d 539, 541 (E.D. N.C. 2005).[3] The court may also consider any materials referenced in, incorporated by reference, or attached to the pleadings. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c).

         A court should grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings only if, “ ‘after accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to relief.' ” Drager v. PLIVA USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 470, 474 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999)). A court may grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings if a claim fails as a matter of law regardless of the facts alleged. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326 (1989) (“Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes a court to dismiss a claim on the basis of a dispositive issue of law.”).

         B. Discussion

         1. § 1983 v. Habeas

         Defendants contend they are entitled to judgment on the pleadings because Plaintiff's due process challenges to the administrative disciplinary proceedings are not cognizable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Mot. 1, Doc. 17.) Defendants argue that judgment in Plaintiff's favor would call into question the duration of his sentence, and that he, therefore, must raise his claims in an application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Mot. 1.) They likewise assert Plaintiff cannot maintain his disciplinary hearing-related retaliation claim without, by necessity, challenging the duration of his sentence. (Mot. 1.)

         The Due Process Clause mandates several procedural safeguards before an inmate may be punished for violating prison disciplinary rules with the loss of a protected liberty interest, such as earned good-time credit, or with deprivation of property. See Superintendent, Mass. Corr. Inst. v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 455 (1985); Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 557 (1974). An inmate is entitled to these procedural protections only when the disciplinary action results in the loss of statutory good-time credits or where some other liberty or property interest is at issue. See Wolff, 418 U.S. at 557.

         “[A] state prisoner's § 1983 action is barred, ” however, “if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of [that prisoner's] confinement or its duration, ” unless the prisoner proves that the challenged criminal or disciplinary conviction has been terminated in his favor. Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005) (interpreting Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994)); see also Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 647-48 (1997) (applying Heck to § 1983 claim seeking restoration of good conduct time forfeited as penalty for prison disciplinary conviction). In other words, when an inmate's § 1983 claim challenging a disciplinary conviction, if successful, could shorten his term of imprisonment through the restoration of forfeited good conduct time, the claim is barred under Heck, unless he first proves that the conviction has been terminated in his favor, through habeas proceedings or otherwise. See id.

         Conversely, “where success in the action would not necessarily spell immediate or speedier release” from imprisonment, a prisoner may not pursue his claims in a habeas corpus proceeding. Dotson, 544 U.S. at 81. Instead, a civil rights action under ...

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