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Smith v. Unknown Parson

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

September 25, 2017

DERRICK LEE SMITH, Petitioner,
v.
UNKNOWN PARSON et al., Respondents.

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Promptly after the filing of a petition for habeas corpus, the Court must undertake a preliminary review of the petition to determine whether “it plainly appears from the face of the petition and any exhibits annexed to it that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court.” Rule 4, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases; see 28 U.S.C. § 2243. If so, the petition must be summarily dismissed. Rule 4; see Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 141 (6th Cir. 1970) (district court has the duty to “screen out” petitions that lack merit on their face). A dismissal under Rule 4 includes those petitions which raise legally frivolous claims, as well as those containing factual allegations that are palpably incredible or false. Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436-37 (6th Cir. 1999). After undertaking the review required by Rule 4, the Court concludes that the petition must be dismissed because it fails to raise a meritorious federal claim.

         Factual Allegations

         Petitioner Derrick Lee Smith presently is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF). He sues MCF Counselor (unknown) Parson, MCF Correctional Officer (unknown) McKenzie, and MDOC Hearings Officer D.J. Pallas. Petitioner currently is serving eight prison terms of 22 ½ to 75 years, imposed by the Wayne County Circuit Court on October 29, 2008, after Petitioner pled no contest to six counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520b(1)(c), and two counts of kidnaping, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.349. Petitioner also is serving two terms of 6 to 15 years, when he also pled no contest to third-degree criminal sexual conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520d(1)(b).

         Although Petitioner expressly labels his action as one seeking relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the allegations of his complaint have nothing to do with the fact or duration of his confinement. Instead, Petitioner complains about the conditions of his confinement. Petitioner contends that Defendants have violated his constitutional rights by keeping him in segregation on the basis of a mistake about the convictions for which he is imprisoned. Petitioner asserts that Defendant Parson told him that he was being held in segregation because of his convictions for involuntary manslaughter and weapons trafficking while in the MDOC. Petitioner claims that prisoner Devi Smith, not Petitioner, was convicted of those offenses.

         Petitioner does not identify the relief he seeks.

         Discussion

         The instant petition is subject to summary dismissal because Petitioner is challenging the conditions of his confinement. Where a prisoner is challenging the very fact or duration of his physical imprisonment and the relief that 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 petition for writ of habeas corpus. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973). However, habeas corpus is not available to prisoners who are complaining only of the conditions of their confinement or mistreatment during their legal incarceration. See Martin v. Overton, 391 F.3d 710, 714 (6th Cir. 2004); Lutz v. Hemingway, 476 F.Supp.2d 715, 718 (E.D. Mich. 2007). Complaints like the ones raised by Petitioner, which involve conditions of confinement, “do not relate to the legality of the petitioner's confinement, nor do they relate to the legal sufficiency of the criminal court proceedings which resulted in the incarceration of the petitioner.” Id. (quoting Maddux v. Rose, 483 F.Supp. 661, 672 (E.D. Tenn. 1980)). An inmate like Petitioner may, however, bring claims that challenge the conditions of confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id.; see also Austin v. Bell, 927 F.Supp. 1058, 1066 (M.D. Tenn. 1996). Because Petitioner challenges only the conditions of his confinement, his claims “fall outside of the cognizable core of habeas corpus relief.” See Hodges v. Bell, 170 F. Appx 389, 393 (6th Cir. 2006).

         Although pro se litigants are treated to less stringent pleading formalities, courts still require such litigants to meet basic pleading standards. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989). “Arguably, hanging the legal hat on the correct peg is such a standard, and ‘[l]iberal construction does not require a court to conjure allegations on a litigant's behalf.'” Martin, 391 F.3d at 714 (quoting Erwin v. Edwards, 22 F. App'x 579, 580 (6th Cir. 2001) (dismissing a § 1983 suit brought as a § 2254 petition)). The Sixth Circuit has held that where, as here, the claims about the conditions of confinement are not cognizable in an action under § 2254, the district court must dismiss the habeas action without prejudice to allow the petitioner to raise his potential civil rights claims properly in a § 1983 action. Martin, 391 F.3d at 714.[1]

         Conclusion

         In light of the foregoing, the Court will summarily dismiss Petitioner's application pursuant to Rule 4 because it fails to raise a claim that is cognizable in a habeas action.

         Certificate of Appealability

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2), the Court must determine whether a certificate of appealability should be granted. A certificate should issue if Petitioner has demonstrated a “substantial showing of a denial of a constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). This Court's dismissal of Petitioner's action under Rule 4 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases is a determination that the habeas action, on its face, lacks sufficient merit to warrant service. It would be highly unlikely for this Court to grant a certificate, thus indicating to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that an issue merits review, when the Court has already determined that the action is so lacking in merit that service is not warranted. See Love v. Butler, 952 F.2d 10 (1st Cir. 1991) (it is “somewhat anomalous” for the court to summarily dismiss under Rule 4 and grant a certificate); Hendricks v. Vasquez, 908 F.2d 490 (9th Cir. 1990) (requiring reversal where court summarily dismissed under Rule 4 but granted certificate); Dory v. Comm'r of Corr. of New York, 865 F.2d 44, 46 (2d Cir. 1989) (it was “intrinsically contradictory” to grant a certificate when habeas action does not warrant service under Rule 4); Williams v. Kullman, 722 F.2d 1048, 1050 n.1 (2d Cir. 1983) (issuing certificate would be inconsistent with a summary dismissal).

         The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has disapproved issuance of blanket denials of a certificate of appealability. Murphy v. Ohio, 263 F.3d 466 (6th Cir. 2001). Rather, the district court must “engage in a reasoned assessment of each claim” to determine whether a certificate is warranted. Id. at 467. Each issue must be considered under the standards set forth by the Supreme Court in Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473 (2000). Murphy, 263 F.3d at 467. Consequently, this Court has examined each of Petitioner's claims under the Slack standard. Under Slack, 529 U.S. at 484, to warrant a grant of the certificate, “[t]he petitioner must demonstrate that reasonable jurists would find the district court's assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong.” Id. “A petitioner satisfies this standard by demonstrating that . . . jurists could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed ...


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