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Sweezer v. Heyns

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 31, 2015

DANIEL HEYNS, et al., Defendants.


STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III, District Judge.

Plaintiff Jerome Sweezer is a prisoner at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. He is serving two life sentences for two counts of second degree murder, and two concurrent sentences of 40 to 80 years for armed robbery. He filed this suit against various administrators in the Michigan Department of Corrections ("MDOC" or "Defendants"), arguing the prison was not accurately applying good time and disciplinary credits to his armed robbery sentence. He contends that he "is entitled to disciplinary credits, special disciplinary credits, Emergency Power Acts (EPA's), and 238 county jail credits on his minimum" and "to have regular good time and special good time applied to his maximum sentence of 80 years." Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. 2-3, ECF No. 23. He seeks damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, urging the Court to dismiss the case because Sweezer had failed to properly file an administrative grievance. The Court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Patricia Morris. The Magistrate filed a Report and Recommendation, advising the Court to dismiss the case because a prisoner seeking restoration of disciplinary credits can be addressed only in a habeas corpus petition, not an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Sweezer filed a timely objection to the Magistrate's Report. The Court then ordered the Defendants to file a brief addressing the merits of Sweezer's complaint. Order, ECF No. 34. The Defendants filed such a brief, with an accompanying affidavit from the Records Administrator explaining the sentencing computation. Resp., ECF No. 35.


The Magistrate Judge advised the Court to sua sponte dismiss Sweezer's complaint because a request for application of good time credits must be brought as a Writ of Habeas Corpus, not as a civil rights action. When a pro se prisoner brings suit in federal court, the Court is obligated to screen the complaint to ensure it is not "frivilous, malicious, [or] fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). A complaint is "frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). In addition, "[a] complaint is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim if the allegations, taken as true, show the plaintiff is not entitled to relief." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007).

The Defendants also filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing Sweezer failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Summary judgment is warranted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is "material" for purposes of summary judgment if proof of that fact would establish or refute an essential element of the cause of action or defense. Kendall v. Hoover Co., 751 F.2d 171, 174 (6th Cir. 1984). A dispute over material facts is "genuine" "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To show that a fact is, or is not, genuinely disputed, both parties are required to either "cit[e] to particular parts of materials in the record" or "show[] that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. 60 Ivy St. Corp. v. Alexander, 822 F.2d 1432, 1435 (6th Cir. 1987). The Court must take care, in evaluating the motion, not to make judgments on the quality of the evidence, because the purpose of summary judgment is to determine whether a triable claim exists. Doe v. Metro. Nashville Pub. Schs., 133 F.3d 384, 387 (6th Cir. 1998) ("[W]eigh[ing] the evidence... is never appropriate at the summary judgment stage.").


The current case presents three issues. First, whether Sweezer's request for the MDOC to properly apply good time and disciplinary credits can be brought as a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, or whether it is cognizable only under the habeas corpus statute. Second, whether Sweezer properly exhausted his administrative remedies. And finally, it addresses the merits of Sweezer's complaint-whether the MDOC deprived Sweezer of the credits to which he is entitled. The Court finds that Sweezer's claims may be brought under Section 1983, that he properly exhausted his administrative remedies, but that the MDOC is correctly calculating his sentence.

I. Sweezer May Bring His Claim Under Section 1983

Section 1983 provides a private cause of action against state officials acting "under color of state law" that deprive persons of "a right secured by the Federal Constitution or laws of the United States." 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The parties do not dispute that the prison administrators acted "under color of state law" when they calculated Sweezer's good time and disciplinary credits. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has recognized that prisoners have a liberty interest in the correct application of jail credits to their sentences. See Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74 (2005).

The Supreme Court has held, however, that when the application of good time credits necessarily results in the prisoner's "immediate release from physical custody" or "in shortening the length of their actual confinement in prison, habeas corpus [is] their appropriate remedy." Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 487 (1973). In Preiser, three prisoners argued the correction facility unconstitutionally deprived them of good time credits without due process of law. Restoration of the credits would have entitled each of the three prisoners to immediate release on parole. The Court held that the prisoners could only proceed under the habeas statute, because the prisoners' grievance was that they were being "unlawfully subjected to physical restraint." Id. at 486-87. Such a claim fell "squarely within [the] traditional scope of habeas corpus, " and was therefore not cognizable as a civil rights claim under Section 1983.

In Wilkinson v. Dotson , by contrast, a prisoner brought suit against prison administrators arguing that the retroactive application of harsher guidelines to his pre-guidelines case violated the Constitution's Ex Post Facto and Due Process Clauses. 544 U.S. at 77. As relief, Dotson sought "an immediate parole hearing in accordance with the statutory laws and administrative rules in place when [he] committed his crimes." Id. Ohio parole officers argued Dotson could only bring suit under the habeas statute, not Section 1983. The Court disagreed, explaining that "[s]uccess for Dotson does not mean immediate release from confinement or a shorter stay in prison; it means at most new eligibility review, which at most will speed consideration of a new parole application." Id. at 82. Indeed, "[s]uccess for Johnson means at most a new parole hearing at which Ohio parole authorities may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term." Id. Such a remedy-which "neither terminates custody, accelerates the future date of release from custody, nor reduces the level of custody"-was far removed from the traditional scope of habeas review, and was therefore properly brought under Section 1983. Id. at 86 (Scalia, J., concurring).

In this case, a judge sentenced Sweezer to two life terms for murder, and two concurrent terms of 40 to 80 years imprisonment for armed robbery. Sweezer argues the MDOC is not applying disciplinary credits to his 40 year minimum, and incorrectly calculating good time credits to decrease his 80 year maximum (for armed robbery). If the Court agrees, it will not entitle Sweezer to immediate release from prison or necessarily shorten the duration of his imprisonment. Rather, a finding by the Court that MDOC is incorrectly calculating his minimum, would only result to hasten Sweezer's eligibility for parole. And if the Court finds that MDOC is incorrectly computing Sweezer's 80 year maximum, it will not necessarily shorten his term of imprisonment because he is also serving a life sentence ...

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