On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey - Camden, D.C. Civil No. 86-3284.
Weis, Stapleton, and Hunter, Circuit Judges.
This is an appeal from a decision of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granting summary judgment to defendants-appellees, who are officials of the New Jersey Department of Corrections. The appellant, Ralph Brown, is an inmate of the Leesburg State Prison, and he filed this action in order to challenge the constitutionality of a prison disciplinary proceeding that resulted in a finding that Brown had violated prison regulations by assaulting a fellow inmate. Our jurisdiction over this case stems from 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982).
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW
On August 1, 1986, Brown received a written notice from a prison official advising that he had been charged with assaulting and doing bodily harm to inmate Michael Graham by striking Graham on the head with a hair clipper. On August 5, 1986, a hearing on the charges was held. The institution's evidence against Brown consisted of six investigative reports that revealed the following. On July 31, 1986, Sergeant Lester Ayars, a corrections officer at Leesburg, observed inmate Michael Graham as he was exiting one of the detention units. Ayars noticed that Graham was bleeding from his forehead, and Ayars, therefore, approached Graham to inquire about the injury. Graham stated that Brown had assaulted him and had hit him on the head with a pair of hair clippers. Sergeant Ayars allowed Graham to clean the wound and then escorted Graham to the prison infirmary. After Graham's injuries were treated, prison authorities offered to place Graham in protective custody. Graham declined and stated that he was not in fear of an attack on his person and that he, in fact, had sustained his head injury during an accidental trip and fall. At a later interview, however, Graham again claimed that Brown had attacked him with hair clippers. Graham explained that the attack followed an argument between Graham and Brown concerning a mutual female acquaintance.
Brown presented no witnesses at the hearing. He did, however, deny all culpability, and he expressed his belief that Graham is a chronic liar.
Ultimately, the hearing officer found Brown guilty of the assault. Though Graham had given conflicting accounts of how he had sustained the head injury, the hearing officer found that Graham's original statement to Sergeant Ayars was credible. The hearing officer was especially impressed by the fact that this statement was made immediately following the alleged attack. As a result of this finding, Brown received a sanction of 15 days in disciplinary detention, 270 days in administrative segregation, and 270 days loss of good-time credit.
Following an unsuccessful appeal to the prison superintendent, Brown brought his action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982). Brown's complaint alleged that under section 9.15(a) of the New Jersey prison regulations, an inmate may be found guilty of violating a prison rule even if the institution fails to prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence. Section 9.15(a) provides that "[a] finding of guilt at a disciplinary hearing shall be based upon substantial evidence that the inmate has committed a prohibited act." N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.15(a) (1986). Brown argued to the district court that the substantial evidence standard prescribed by the regulation defines a burden of proof that is lower than the preponderance of the evidence standard used in civil cases, and since the preponderance standard "simply requires the trier of fact 'to believe that the existence of a fact is more probable than its nonexistence,'" In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 371, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring) (quoting F. James, Civil Procedure 250-51 (1965)), the substantial evidence standard allows a finding of guilt even when the trier of fact believes that the accused probably did not commit a prohibited act. According to Brown, the substantial evidence standard is fundamentally unfair, and, therefore, application of the standard at his disciplinary hearing constituted a violation of his rights under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment.
In their answer, the defendants-appellees admitted that under section 9.15(a) "substantial evidence" defines a burden of proof that is lower than a preponderance of the evidence. They urged, however, that under the Supreme Court's decision in Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 86 L. Ed. 2d 356, 105 S. Ct. 2768 (1985) (holding that, a state prison disciplinary determination will withstand a due process challenge if the decision is supported by "some evidence"), the substantial evidence standard defines a constitutionally permissible burden of proof for prison disciplinary proceedings. The district court agreed with the appellees and accordingly, entered summary judgment in their favor. This appeal followed. For reasons stated below, we will vacate the judgment of the district court and remand with instructions to dismiss.
In his complaint, Brown demands relief in the form of an injunction "barring enforcement of the sanction imposed upon the plaintiff." The parties have informed us that Brown was released from administrative segregation on April 1 of this year; therefore, at this point, Brown merely seeks restoration of his good-time credits and, consequently, speedier release from prison. This is a form of habeas corpus relief, and under the Supreme Court's decision in Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 36 L. Ed. 2d 439, 93 S. Ct. 1827 (1973), we are restrained from granting such relief in a suit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Preiser the Court recognized that a challenge to a prison disciplinary proceeding aimed at restoring good-time credits "is just as close to the core of habeas corpus as an attack on the prisoner's conviction for it goes directly to the constitutionality of his physical confinement itself." Id. at 489. The Court then went on to hold "that when a state prisoner is challenging the very fact or duration of his physical imprisonment, and the relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to immediate release or a speedier release from that imprisonment, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus." Id. at 500. This holding was reaffirmed in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 555-56, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974), where the Court refused to restore good-time credits in a suit brought under § 1983. The type of relief that Brown seeks here is identical to the type of relief that the Supreme Court refused to grant to § 1983 plaintiffs in Preiser and Wolff.
A primary concern underlying the Preiser decision is the prevention of "end-runs" around the requirement that state prisoners exhaust state remedies before seeking federal habeas relief. Preiser, 411 U.S. at 490-93; see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) (1982). Thus, if Brown had in fact exhausted his state judicial remedies before filing his federal suit, then we might not be so concerned about his seeking habeas relief in an action brought under § 1983 instead of 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (1982). Brown, however, has not exhausted his state remedies. New Jersey Court Rule 2:2-3(a)(2) provides that all final decisions of state administrative agencies are reviewable, as of right, by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division. The Department of Corrections is an "administrative agency" within the meaning of Rule 2:2-3(a)(2). Stufflebean v. Neubert, 627 F. Supp. 712, 713 (D.N.J. 1986); In re Hawley, 192 N.J. Super. 85, 89, 469 A.2d 88, 90 (App. Div. 1983), aff'd, 98 N.J. 108, 484 A.2d 684 (1984). Under the federal habeas corpus statute, when possible, the state must be given "an initial opportunity to ...