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Williams v. Wetzel

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

November 18, 2019

James H. Williams, Petitioner
v.
John E. Wetzel (Secretary of Corrections) Dorina Varner (Chief Grievance Officer) Barry Smith (Facility Manager, S.C.I. Houtzdale) Susan McQuillen (I/M Employment Officer) (Houtzdale) Ginter (Unit Manager, S.C.I. Houtzdale) Pittsinger (Food Service Manager, Houtzdale) Derring (Food Service Staff Member, Houtzdale) Pa. Department of Corrections Officials, Respondents

          Submitted: November 16, 2018

          BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge [1] HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge.

          OPINION

          P. KEVIN BROBSON, JUDGE.

         This is a matter in the Court's original jurisdiction. Presently before the Court for consideration is an application for summary relief, filed by James H. Williams (Williams), pro se, with respect to a petition for review (Petition) filed by Williams. In his Petition, Williams seeks a multitude of declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory forms of relief against various officers and employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and DOC, collectively DOC Defendants, [2] relating to DOC's interpretation of its administrative directive DC-ADM 816[3] and DOC's alleged use of Section 1.M.7 of DC-ADM 816[4] to circumvent the procedural requirements provided in Section 93.10 of DOC's regulations, 37 Pa. Code § 93.10.[5] For the reasons set forth below, we grant Williams' application for summary relief with respect to his request for declaratory and injunctive relief.

         In his Petition, Williams avers that DOC is removing inmates from their job assignments using DC-ADM 816 as a means to bypass hearing requirements provided by DOC's regulations. Williams contends that DOC is attempting to bypass these hearing requirements because the hearing examiner "dismiss[ed] so many misconduct reports because staff were not following proper procedures." (Petition at 16.) DOC's actions, Williams avers, are in violation of the due process rights contained in the DOC Inmate Handbook (Inmate Handbook)[6] and this Court's decision in Bush v. Veach, 1 A.3d 981 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010), wherein we held that DOC must comply with the procedural requirements found in 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(b) when it is attempting to remove permanently an inmate from his job detail after the issuance of a DC-141. In response, DOC filed a preliminary objection in the nature of a demurrer to this action, challenging the legal sufficiency of Williams' claims. By opinion and order dated January 25, 2018, we overruled DOC's preliminary objections. In our decision, we described the facts of this action as follows:

According to the allegations in the [Petition], Williams is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale (SCI-Houtzdale), where he maintained a job assignment in the facility's kitchen. On December 30, 2016, a DOC officer performed a routine pat search on Williams prior to Williams leaving work. The officer discovered approximately two and one-half pounds of sugar concealed in Williams' boots. DOC did not issue Williams a misconduct report (DC-141) for this transgression.
On January 1, 2017, Williams filed an inmate grievance with DOC, alleging that DOC removed Williams from his job assignment without first affording him due process. Specifically, Williams alleged that in order for DOC to remove Williams from his job assignment, DOC must first afford Williams a hearing pursuant to DOC policy DC-ADM 801 and 37 Pa. Code § 93.10, [ ] relating to inmate discipline.
On January 4, 2017, prior to DOC responding to Williams' grievance, a DOC Unit Manager conducted a Support Team hearing at Williams' cell door. During this hearing, the Unit Manager informed Williams that Williams' work supervisor sent an email to the Unit Management Team regarding Williams' transgression, and that, as a result, the Unit Management Team removed Williams from his job assignment.
On January 17, 2017, DOC denied Williams' grievance. The denial provided that the procedures set forth in 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(b) did not apply, because Williams' removal was not the result of the issuance of a DC-141. Instead, DOC asserted that Section 1.M.7 of DC-ADM 816[ ] controlled Williams' removal. Moreover, Section 1.B.6 of DC-ADM 816 provides that inmates do not have a right to be assigned or continue any specific work assignment. On that basis, DOC denied Williams' grievance.
Williams appealed this decision to the facility manager, arguing that because he "committed a misconduct," DOC must follow the procedural requirements found in 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(b). DOC denied this appeal, stating that DOC's first response "appropriately addressed" Williams' issues.
Williams submitted a final appeal to DOC's Chief Grievance Officer, again arguing that DOC did not comply with proper procedure in removing Williams from his work position. Specifically, Williams argued that DOC misinterpreted the language of Section 1.M.7 of DC-ADM 816. As Section 1.M.7 provides that Unit Management Teams could remove an inmate for reasons "other than misconduct," Williams argued that he could not be removed under this section, as he had committed a form of misconduct.
DOC again denied Williams' appeal, as Williams presented "no evidence that DOC policy DC-ADM 816 was violated."

Williams v. Wetzel, 178 A.3d at 921-22 (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted).

         Williams now seeks summary relief before this Court on his contention that DOC has used its interpretation of Section 1.M.7 of DC-ADM 816 to remove inmates from job assignments without having to adhere to the procedural requirements in Section 93.10(b) of DOC's regulations. In response to Williams' application, DOC asks this Court to deny Williams summary relief, arguing that, pursuant to its interpretation of Section 1.M.7 of DC-ADM 816, DOC is permitted to remove inmates from job assignments without providing a hearing. Moreover, DOC contends that it is entitled to deference from the Court as to its interpretation of this administrative directive.

         With regard to applications for summary relief, Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1532(b) provides: "At any time after the filing of a petition for review in an appellate or original jurisdiction matter the court may on application enter judgment if the right of the applicant thereto is clear." Applications for summary relief are "similar to the relief envisioned by the rules of civil procedure governing summary judgment." Brittain v. Beard, 974 A.2d 479, 484 (Pa. 2009). Where, therefore, "a party's right to judgment is clear and no material issues of fact are in dispute[, ]" we may grant an application for summary relief. Jubelirer v. Rendell, 953 A.2d 514, 521 (Pa. 2008) (quoting Calloway v. Pa. Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 857 A.2d 218, 220 n.3 (Pa. Cmwlth.), appeal quashed, 864 A.2d 1199 (Pa. 2004)).

         DOC's administrative directives address inmate misconduct and disciplinary procedures. When inmates violate rules set forth by DOC, Section 1.A of DC-ADM 801[7] provides: "the violation shall be reported and disposed of either by an informal or formal process." Misconducts are defined as "[a]ny violation of [sic] alleged violation of [DOC] rules, regulations, or policies." Glossary of Terms, DC-ADM 801. Section 1.B of DC-ADM 801 requires misconducts to be reported "via a DC-141, Part 1, Misconduct Report." Further, inmates charged with misconduct "shall receive a copy of the [DC-141]." Section 1.B of DC-ADM 801 (emphasis added). DOC classifies misconduct by two categories: Class I charges and Class II charges. Section 1, Attachment 1-A of DC-ADM 801. Only some types of misconduct may be eligible for informal resolution-i.e., Class I charges numbers 35-46 and all Class II charges. Id. Class II charges include "[t]aking unauthorized food from the dining room or kitchen" and "[p]ossession of any item not authorized for retention or receipt by the inmate not specifically enumerated as Class I contraband."[8] Id. When a Shift Commander recommends a DC-141 for informal resolution, a Unit Manager and at least one other member of the Unit Management Team must meet with the offending inmate for disposition of the charges. Section 2.A.4 of DC-ADM 801. At the informal resolution meeting, the inmate "shall be permitted to give his/her version of the events." Id. Inmates may lose their job assignments for work-related misconduct as part of the informal resolution process, but inmates may appeal the informal resolution. Section 2.B.1.g of DC-ADM 801; Section 2.C.1, 2 of DC-ADM 801. These provisions coincide with Section 93.10 of DOC's regulations, which outlines the sanctions applicable when DOC issues a DC-141. See 37 Pa. Code § 93.10.

         Pursuant to DOC's regulations, inmates who commit Class II misconducts may suffer, among other sanctions, "change, suspension[, ] or removal from job." 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(a)(2)(v). Before DOC can impose a sanction under this regulation, however, DOC must follow the procedures set forth in subsection (b) of the regulation. 37 Pa. Code § 93.10(b). Subsection (b) lists six different procedural requirements applicable when imposing inmate discipline:

(1) Written notice of charges.
(2) Hearing before an impartial hearing examiner or an informal resolution process for charges specified by [DOC] in ...

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