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Smith v. Dodrill

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


January 8, 2009

BENJAMIN SMITH, PETITIONER,
v.
D. SCOTT DODRILL, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Blewitt

District Judge John E. Jones III

MEMORANDUM

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS ORDER IS AS FOLLOWS:

This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt, which recommends that the petition of Benjamin Smith ("Smith" or "Petitioner"), a pro se inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland ("FCI-Cumberland"),*fn1 for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 be denied. (Rec. Doc. 4). Petitioner filed objections to the R&R (Rec. Doc. 10),*fn2 but the Respondents have not filed any documentation in opposition to these objections. Nonetheless, the issue is ripe for disposition.*fn3 For the reasons set forth below, the Court will deny the objections and adopt the R&R in its entirety.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When objections are filed to the report of a magistrate judge, the district court makes a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations. Id. Although the standard of review is de novo, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) permits whatever reliance the district court, in the exercise of sound discretion, chooses to place on a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 674-75; see alsoMathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976); Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984).

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

Smith filed the instant § 2241 petition*fn4 against the named Respondents*fn5 on December 20, 2007 (the "Petition"). (Rec. Doc. 1). In said Petition, Smith alleges that on June 20, 2005, while incarcerated at USP-Canaan, he was assaulted by a fellow inmate, subsequently quarantined in a special housing unit ("SHU") pending investigation into the incident, and ultimately released from SHU on June 30, 2005 after being cleared of any wrongdoing. (Id. at 5). On August 8, 2005, Warden Lindsay submitted to Respondent Dodrill a recommendation that Petitioner be transferred from USP-Canaan. (Id.). Pursuant to a memorandum authored by John M. Vanyur (the "Vanyur Memo"), the Assistant Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Dodrill denied transfer until Petitioner was placed in a 10-month disciplinary segregated housing program*fn6 ("DSP") and maintained a clear record during that time. (Id.).

Smith contends that his placement in the DSP was unwarranted because the Vanyur Memo was intended to prevent inmates from manipulating transfers for their own purposes, whereas his transfer was requested by Warden Lindsay as a result of the assault he sustained.*fn7 (Id.). Accordingly, the instant Petition requests habeas relief to the extent that we reverse the judgment of Respondent Dodrill and find that the placement of Petitioner in a 10 month DSP violated due process*fn8 because he was never given notice, an administrative detention order,*fn9 a hearing, or proper review regarding such placement. (Id.). In addition to this declaratory relief, Petition requests that $30,000 in monetary damages be awarded.

B. THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Initially, we note that Petitioner's previous Fifth Amendment Due Process claim was made pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971),*fn10 and was dismissed because it did not implicate a liberty interest. However, we elected to dismiss without prejudice not so that the Petitioner could reassert the Bivens claim in a habeas corpus motion, but so that the Petitioner could incorporate the averments as the basis for the habeas corpus motion. Nonetheless, it appears to us, as it evidently did to Magistrate Judge Blewitt, that Smith used the instant Petition to advance both theories.*fn11 Thus, Magistrate Judge Blewitt's February 13, 2008 R&R recommends that both the habeas petition and the due process claim be dismissed. We will address these requests in turn, beginning with the habeas petition.

In quoting Third Circuit precedent, Magistrate Judge Blewitt noted that when an inmate's complaint is to "a condition of confinement such that a finding in [the inmate's] favor would not alter his sentence or undo his conviction," that circumstance cannot support a petition for habeas corpus. See Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 542 (3d Cir. 2002).*fn12 Since a ruling in the Petitioner's favor would not alter his sentence or undo his conviction,*fn13 and since the Magistrate Judge concluded that the Petition was not challenging a disciplinary punishment or seeking expungement of his prison record as to his placement in DSP, he determined that the Petition was not a proper habeas petition and therefore recommended its dismissal.

Further, the Magistrate Judge opined that the Petitioner's averments could not meet the standards of a due process liberty claim. Quoting United States Supreme Court precedent, he noted, "The Due Process clause protects a prisoner's right to freedom from restraint [ when said restraint] . . . imposes atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life."*fn14 (Rec. Doc. 4, p. 15 (quoting Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995))). The Magistrate Judge proceeded to cite Sandin for the proposition that "discipline by prison officials in response to a wide range of misconduct falls within the expected perimeters of the sentence imposed by the court of law." Id. at 486. Indeed, Magistrate Judge Blewitt acknowledged that inmates who are considered security risks are often removed from the general prison population and placed in a more restrictive custodial environment. See Fraise v. Terhune, 283 F.2d 506 (3d Cir. 2002). Cognizant that Petitioner had been in the DSP for approximately seven months, the Magistrate Judge noted that transfers of prisoners from the general population into administrative or disciplinary segregation units for as long as fifteen months were not uncommon when the inmate was deemed a security risk. See Griffin v. Vaughn, 112 F.3d 703, 706 (3d Cir. 1997).

Since the Petitioner's conditions of confinement were more akin to the conditions in Francis and Fraise than those in Wilkinson, and since the term of confinement in the DSP was less than that in Griffin, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the Petitioner's liberty interests were not violated by his placement in DSP without a hearing, detention order, or the like. Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Blewitt determined not only that Petitioner could not maintain a due process claim, but also that Petitioner's due process assertions could not form the basis of a habeas petition. Rather, instead of supporting a Bivens claim or a habeas corpus petition, the Magistrate Judge noted that Petitioner's allegations might better support a cause of action under the Federal Torts Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et seq.*fn15 Thus, the Magistrate Judge recommends dismissal of Petitioner's habeas petition and due process claim without prejudice to file an FTCA action after the Petitioner has exhausted his administrative remedies.

III. DISCUSSION

On April 14, 2008, Petitioner filed objections to the R&R, (Rec. Doc. 10), which we will address and analyze below.

Petitioner appears to assert that the Magistrate Judge based his dismissal of the habeas petition solely on the assumption that the Petition did not challenge a disciplinary punishment in the DSP/SHU or seek expungement of his prison record relating to his participation in the DSP and attendant confinement in the SHU. (Rec. Doc. 10, p. 4 (citing Rec. Doc. 4, p. 5)). Smith then proceeds to assert that the Petition does challenge the disciplinary punishment in the DSP/SHU, which would necessarily result in an expungement of his prison record in that regard. (Rec. Doc. 10, p. 4). Therefore, Petitioner asserts that the R&R in incorrect and that he is entitled to habeas relief. However, Petitioner conflates the Magistrate Judge's reasoning.

As noted in our summary of the R&R, and in contravention to Petitioner's point of view, Magistrate Judge Blewitt's decision to dismiss the habeas petition does not rest exclusively on the assumption thatPetitioner was not challenging his confinement nor seeking expungement of his record. In fact, considering that that statement encompasses half a paragraph in a twenty page R&R, it seems like a mere afterthought rather than the crux of the Magistrate Judge's reasoning. Indeed, noting that the habeas petition challenged the conditions of confinement, rather than the validity or execution of the Petitioner's sentence, the bulk of the Magistrate Judge's discussion of the habeas petition focuses on the Leamer case, referenced above. To recapitulate, Leamer held that when a challenge to the conditions of confinement would not, if successful, alter the petitioner's sentence or undo his conviction, the challenge must be brought pursuant to either § 1983 or Bivens, not through a habeas petition. Leamer, 288 F.3d at 542. Indeed, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals followed its Leamer decision with its decision in Bronson v. Demming, 56 Fed. Appx. 551 (3d Cir. 2002). The Bronson Court concluded that where a petitioner desired to be released from one type of confinement to another (in that case from a restricted housing unit to the general population) habeas relief was unavailable because neither the fact nor length of petitioner's incarceration would be altered by granting the petition. Id. at 553.

As was the case in Bronson, Petitioner in the instant matter complains of confinement in a restrictive housing unit, asserting that he should have been housed with the general prison population. Similar to Bronson, neither the fact nor term of Petitioner's imprisonment would be altered in the instant matter by a declaration that his placement in the DSP/SHU was unconstitutional or the expungement of his prison record in that regard. Thus, pursuant to the dictates of Leamer and Bronson, we agree with the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that Smith's petition for habeas corpus relief is improper and must be dismissed.

Even if, assuming arguendo, Smith's habeas petition was proper, he would not be successful in obtaining relief on the same because his confinement did not violate the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. Petitioner's position is that his confinement in the SHU violated the liberty interests secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. In his objections, he opines that the authority cited by the Magistrate Judge in the R&R is inapposite in the instant matter because his case is factually distinguishable. Namely, he posits that the cases cited by Magistrate Judge Blewitt involved the "control of problematic prisoners or the proper discipline of prisoners who committed . . . misconducts," and are therefore inapplicable to the instant matter since his confinement in SHU was spawned not by any misconduct on his part, but by the assault he sustained at the hands of a fellow inmate. (Rec. Doc. 10, p. 2). While this statement is not altogether incorrect, Petitioner fails to take cognizance of certain facts that make the instant matter analogous to the authority cited by the Magistrate Judge.

To quickly restate that authority, Sandin stands for the proposition that an inmate's liberty interest is infringed only by an "atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin, 515 U.S. at 484. Moreover, the Third Circuit has held that transfers of prisoners from the general population into administrative or disciplinary segregation units for as long as fifteen months were not uncommon when the inmate was deemed a security risk. See Griffin,112 F.3d at 706. While the Petitioner is correct that an investigation into the assault that led to his confinement in SHU revealed that he was not at fault in that particular incident, the investigation also discovered that "his return to the general population at [USP-Canaan] would pose a threat to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the prison." (Rec. Doc. 1, Ex. 2).*fn16 Accordingly, since the Petitioner was determined to pose a security risk, the dictates of Sandin and Griffin lead us to believe that his confinement in a segregated housing unit was not violative of the liberty interest secured by the Fifth Amendment. Indeed, such confinement is not at all atypical for inmates determined to pose threats to the security and operation of a prison. See e.g., Sandin, 515 U.S. 472; Fraise, 283 F.2d 506; Griffin, 112 F.3d 703; Francis, 2005 WL 2216582.

Since Petitioner's claims are not sufficient in supporting either a due process claim or a habeas corpus petition, these actions must be dismissed. However, like the Magistrate Judge, we perceive that Petitioner's allegations may state a viable claim for relief under the FTCA. Thus, we believe that the habeas petition and due process claim should be dismissed without prejudice to file an FTCA claim after the exhaustion of administrative remedies. We therefore adopt the R&R in this extent.*fn17

Finally, the Magistrate Judge has recommended that Petitioner's Motion to Proceed in Forma Pauperis be granted with respect to the filing of the Petition.

Since the Petitioner has a mere $49.94 in his personal account, the de minimus nature of his assets militates in favor of the Magistrate Judge's determination. Therefore, we will adopt the Magistrate Judge's R&R in this regard.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, the Court will adopt the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge to dismiss Petitioner's habeas petition and due process claim without prejudice to file an FTCA claim after administrative remedies have been exhausted. The Court will also adopt Magistrate Judge Blewitt's recommendation that Petitioner's Motion to Proceed in Forma Pauperis be granted as it relates to this case. An appropriate order in accordance with this memorandum will be entered.


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