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Maben v. Thelen

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

April 3, 2018

James Maben, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Troy Thelen, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: March 13, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-10602-Stephen J. Murphy, III, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          William C. Marra, COOPER & KIRK, PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Joseph Y. Ho, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          William C. Marra, COOPER & KIRK, PLLC, Washington, D.C., for Appellant.

          Joseph Y. Ho, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: MERRITT, CLAY, and SUTTON, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          CLAY, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff James Maben ("Maben") appeals from the judgment entered by the district court granting Defendant Troy Thelen's ("Thelen") motion for summary judgment and dismissing the case. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part the judgment of the district court and REMAND the case to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual History

         Maben is an incarcerated prisoner in Michigan. On October 19, 2015, Maben was in the prison's food service line for lunch. The cafeteria server provided Maben with half a serving of food, dumping out the other half. Maben "politely ask[ed]" the cafeteria server why he did not receive a full serving. (R. 14, Maben Affidavit, PageID # 79.) The server responded that he "was doing as told" and directed Maben to speak to a designated cafeteria employee. (Id.) Maben raised the issue with that employee, who instructed Maben to speak with his supervisor at the end of the line. Before Maben could speak to the supervisor, Thelen, a prison guard, "began yelling" and said "shut the fuck up if you wanna eat, your [sic] not gonna change anything Bitch." (Id.) The supervisor "acknowledged the severely inadequate portion, " took Maben's tray, and gave him the full portion of food. (Id.)

         Thelen then came over to Maben and demanded his identification number. Thelen said "if you're going to complain then you're going to get a misconduct for it." (R. 1, Complaint, PageID # 5.) Thelen then issued Maben a misconduct ticket for creating a disturbance. The cafeteria "was dead silent in amazement with defendant Thelen's behavior." (R. 14, Maben Affidavit, PageID # 79.) Maben claimed that he "[n]ever" became disruptive, but that Thelen "became bel[l]iger[e]nt[, ] swearing and yelling, which did [frighten him], [and] humiliate [him] in front of 100 plus other prisoners." (Id.) Maben was "embarrassed, demeaned, and humiliated by Defendant Thel[e]n's statements, and felt that he could no longer comply with the grievance procedure if he was going to be treated in this manner." (R. 1, Complaint, PageID # 5.) He has "been forced to endure shortened portions ever since, as a result of Thelen[']s retaliation [and] out of fear of future retaliation." (R. 14, Maben Affidavit, PageID # 80.)

         On October 22, 2015, a misconduct hearing was held. The hearing officer found Thelen's statement "more credible" because his report was "clear, detailed, and unequivocal." (R. 13-2, Misconduct Report, PageID # 67.) The hearing officer chose not to view video footage of the incident, concluding that it would be irrelevant because there was no sound. Maben was found guilty of "Class II misconduct" for "creating a disturbance" and lost privileges for seven days as punishment. (Id.)

         II. Procedural History

         On February 16, 2016, Maben brought a pro se action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Thelen in his official and individual capacities. He alleged that Thelen unconstitutionally retaliated against him "for participating in the protected activity of attempting to comply with the Michigan Department of Corrections[1] Grievance Policy." (R. 1, Complaint, PageID # 3.)

         On April 25, 2016, Thelen filed a motion for summary judgment. Thelen argued that the court should dismiss the official capacity claim because of the Eleventh Amendment. He also argued that Maben's First Amendment retaliation claim failed because he "did not engage in any protected activity and whatever treatment he received was not attributable to any protected activity." (R. 13, Thelen MSJ, PageID # 47.) Finally, Thelen argued that he was protected by qualified immunity because Maben had not demonstrated that Thelen violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. Maben filed a pro se response to Thelen's motion.

         On March 1, 2017, the district court granted Thelen's motion for summary judgment, and dismissed the case. The district court concluded that Maben's retaliation claim was barred based on two grounds. First, the court concluded that "the dispute as to what really occurred was already adjudicated by the MDOC in the course of its grievance process" and that those factual findings were entitled to preclusive effect in federal court. (R. 20, Opinion, PageID # 120.) Second, the court concluded that the finding of guilt at Maben's misconduct hearing "checkmates" his retaliation claim, citing to the Eighth Circuit's "checkmate doctrine." (Id.) Henderson v. Baird, 29 F.3d 464, 469 (8th Cir. 1994).

         On March 17, 2017, Maben timely filed his notice of appeal. On appeal, Maben argues that the district court incorrectly gave preclusive effect to the factual findings at Maben's misconduct hearing and incorrectly applied the "checkmate doctrine." Thelen argues that this panel should affirm the judgment of the district court on the alternative grounds that Maben has failed to establish a First Amendment retaliation claim, that Thelen is entitled to qualified immunity, and that the Eleventh Amendment bars Maben's suit for damages against Thelen in his official capacity.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Preclusive Effect of Factual Findings Made at the Misconduct Hearing

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Gillis v. Miller, 845 F.3d 677, 683 (6th Cir. 2017). Summary judgment is proper "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).

         Analysis

         The district court incorrectly found that Maben "failed to establish a First Amendment retaliation claim" because "the dispute as to what really occurred was already adjudicated by the MDOC in the course of its grievance process, " and "federal courts give preclusive effect to the factual findings at misconduct hearings like Maben's." (R. 20, Opinion, PageID # 119-20.) The factual findings made at Maben's minor misconduct hearing do not have preclusive effect in federal court and do not bar Maben's claim.

         To determine whether we must give preclusive effect to "factfinding from Michigan prison hearings, " we look to four requirements, all of which must be met: (1) the state agency "act[ed] in a 'judicial capacity'"; (2) the hearing officer "resolved a disputed issue of fact that was properly before it"; (3) the prisoner "had an adequate opportunity to litigate the factual dispute"; and, (4) if these other three requirements are met, we must "give the agency's finding of fact the same preclusive effect it would be given in state courts." Peterson v. Johnson, 714 F.3d 905, 911-13 (6th Cir. 2013) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         In Peterson, the Court considered, as a matter of first impression, whether a hearing officer's factual determination at a Michigan major misconduct hearing has preclusive effect in litigation brought by a prisoner under § 1983. Id. at 908, 911. The Court concluded that, because all four requirements were met, the "hearing officer's factual finding that [the prisoner] was the one who grabbed [the officer's] hand precludes a contrary finding in federal court." Id. at 917. In Roberson v. Torres, the Court considered the same issue, and identified the four requirements listed above. 770 F.3d 398, 403-04 (6th Cir. 2014). The Court said that Peterson does not mean that "any factual findings by a hearing officer in a major-misconduct hearing in a Michigan prison are to be accorded preclusive effect." Id. at 404. "Peterson is not a blanket blessing on every factual finding in a major-misconduct hearing." Id.

Indeed, the question of preclusion cannot be resolved categorically, as it turns on case-specific factual questions such as what issues were actually litigated and decided, and whether the party to be precluded had sufficient incentives to litigate those issues and a full and fair opportunity to do so-not just in theory, but in practice. It likewise turns on the court's sense of justice and equity, which may require a case-by-case analysis of surrounding circumstances.

Id. at 404-05 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The Court declined to decide the preclusion question, and remanded the case to the district court to consider the argument for the first time. Id. at 405. The Court instructed the district court to "give particular attention to the fairness and accuracy of the factual findings made by the major-misconduct hearing officer." Id. The Court advised that "[n]umerous inquiries may be relevant to the district court's analysis, " like "why the hearing officer refused to review the alleged video of the incident, whether the hearing officer provided a sufficient and reasonable basis for her factual findings, and whether the testimony of other witnesses corroborated the accounts provided by either [the prisoner] or [the officer]." Id. at 405.

         This Court has not considered whether a hearing officer's factual determinations at a minor misconduct hearing have preclusive effect in subsequent § 1983 litigation. However, in this case, we conclude that they do not because ...


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