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Hill v. Snyder

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan

April 9, 2018

HENRY HILL, et al., Plaintiffs,
RICK SNYDER, et al., Defendants.


          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge.

         The United States Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder cannot be subject to mandatory life sentences without parole. Because of their lesser culpability and greater capacity to change, they must be sentenced under a process that gives them an individualized opportunity to present mitigating circumstances to avert such a harsh sentence. In response, the Michigan legislature enacted legislation that purported to comply with the Court's ruling, which included the possibility of being resentenced to prison for a term of years. However, the legislature provided that in calculating any such sentence, the youth offenders were not to receive any credit - known as good time or disciplinary credit - even though such credits were earned while the youth offenders served their illegally imposed sentences. In that respect, the legislative response ran afoul of our Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws - the constitutional guarantee that laws may not retroactively criminalize conduct or enhance the punishment for criminal acts already perpetrated. For this reason, the Court must declare that provision of the statute unconstitutional and order that the youth offenders receive the credit that they have previously earned.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This matter is currently before the Court on competing motions of the parties, for which a hearing was held on March 22, 2018. For the following reasons, the Court grants in part and denies in part Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment, declaratory judgment and permanent injunction (Dkt. 181); denies Defendants' cross-motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 190); and grants Plaintiffs' second renewed motion for class certification (Dkt. 180).[1]

         Plaintiffs are individuals who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole for homicide crimes that they committed as juveniles. From the outset of the case over seven years ago, they have alleged that Michigan's sentencing scheme violates their constitutional rights by depriving them of a meaningful opportunity for release - first challenging their mandatory sentences of life without parole, and now, in light of the Supreme Court's decisions in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), they challenge Michigan's statutes, policies, and procedures implemented in the post-Miller world.

         In Miller, the Supreme Court held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender convicted of homicide violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In Montgomery, the Court held that Miller applied retroactively.

         Michigan law had previously provided that youth offenders who were convicted of first-degree murder were ineligible for parole. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316 (life imprisonment without parole for first-degree murder); Mich. Comp. Laws § 791.234(6)(a) (ineligibility for parole for individuals convicted of first-degree murder under § 750.316). Following Miller, the Michigan legislature enacted new statutory provisions to ensure that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder would not be sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without parole.[2] As explained by the Sixth Circuit:

Michigan amended its sentencing scheme to prospectively address the effect of Miller. The Legislature enacted a new statutory provision, which covered both juveniles convicted of first-degree homicide after Miller and those juveniles whose cases were still pending or eligible for direct appellate review at the time of the statute's enactment. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25. This new provision allows prosecutors to seek life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of first-degree homicide crimes by filing a motion specifying the grounds for imposing that punishment. Id. § 769.25(3). It also requires courts to conduct a hearing on such motions, where the judge “shall consider the factors listed in Miller v. Alabama, . . . and may consider any other criteria relevant to its decision, including the individual's record while incarcerated.” Id. § 769.25(6) (citation omitted). If the court does not sentence the individual to life without parole, the court must sentence the individual to a minimum term of 25 to 40 years and a maximum term of 60 years. Id. § 769.25(9).
Michigan simultaneously enacted Section 769.25a, which anticipated a United States or Michigan Supreme Court decision making Miller retroactively applicable. Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25a(2). This provision applies to juveniles who were convicted of first-degree homicide offenses before Miller and who received mandatory sentences of life without parole. Id. Section 769.25a incorporates portions of Section 769.25 and relies on the same process for imposing renewed life-without-parole or term-of-years sentences. In January 2016, the Supreme Court held that Miller established a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively, Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718, 736 (2016), and thereby triggered implementation of Section 769.25a.

Hill II, 878 F.3d at 200.

         According to Plaintiffs, there are 363 offenders who are subject to the resentencing provisions of Section 769.25a. Michigan prosecutors have filed motions seeking the re-imposition of sentences of life without parole for 236 of these individuals. To date, none of these resentencings has taken place.[3] However, resentencing hearings are proceeding for those individuals who were not the subject of motions for re-imposition of life-without-parole sentences. Approximately one hundred individuals have been resentenced to a term of years; of these, over thirty have been paroled and the remaining are parole eligible. Twenty-two individuals are still awaiting resentencing for a term-of-years sentence. See Pl. Mot. at 4 (Dkt. 181).

         Plaintiffs filed their second amended complaint in June 2016, naming Governor Rick Snyder; Heidi E. Washington, Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”); Michael Eagen, Chair of the Michigan Parole Board; and Bill Schuette, Michigan Attorney General, as defendants (Dkt. 130). The second amended complaint asserts several claims, only three of which remain in the case, following the Sixth Circuit's second opinion, reversing in part and affirming in part Judge O'Meara's grant of Defendants' motion to dismiss. Hill II, 878 F.3d at 215. The remaining claims are: Count IV (alleging that those facing a term-of-years sentence with a mandatory maximum of sixty years are subjected to the equivalent of life imprisonment, in violation of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments); Count V (alleging that Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25a(6) retroactively deprives them of earned good time and/or disciplinary credits, in violation of the constitutional guarantee against ex post facto laws); and Count VI (alleging denial of rehabilitative programming necessary for release on parole deprives Plaintiffs of a “fair and meaningful opportunity for release, ” in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments). These remaining claims were remanded for “expeditious resolution.” Hill II, 878 F.3d at 215.

         Plaintiffs promptly filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Counts V and VI of the second amended complaint (Dkt. 181), as well as a motion for class certification (Dkt. 180). Defendants filed a response containing a cross-motion for partial summary judgment on those same counts (Dkt. 190).


         A motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 shall be granted “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 genuine dispute of material fact exists when there are “disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “[F]acts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)

         Once the movant satisfies its initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth specific facts showing a triable issue of material fact. Scott, 550 U.S. at 380; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Scott, 550 U.S. at 380 (quoting Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586), as the “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment, ” id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-248) (emphasis in original); see also Babcock & Wilcox Co. v. Cormetech, Inc., 848 F.3d 754, 758 (6th Cir. 2017) (“A mere scintilla of evidence or some metaphysical doubt as to a material fact is insufficient to forestall summary judgment.”).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Abstention

         Before addressing the merits of Plaintiffs' claim on Count V, the Court will address Defendants' argument that the Court should abstain from deciding the claim. In Count V, Plaintiffs challenge Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25a(6), which provides that individuals resentenced under Michigan's post-Miller sentencing scheme “shall not receive any good time credits, special good time credits, disciplinary credits, or any other credits that reduce the defendant's minimum or maximum sentence.” Plaintiffs allege that this statute retroactively deprives them of earned good time and disciplinary credits in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs never earned good time or disciplinary credits to begin with, and thus there has been no retroactive deprivation. The crux of Plaintiffs' claim, therefore, hinges on an interpretation of the good time and disciplinary credit statutes, and whether these statutes previously afforded credit to individuals who were sentenced to life without parole.

         Defendants argue that because the constitutional issue turns on an issue of state law, this Court should leave both the constitutional and state law issues for decision by the state courts. They base their abstention arguments on Railroad Comm'n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), and Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and also argue that the Court should decline to exercise its declaratory judgment jurisdiction. The Court finds each of these arguments without merit.

         i. Pullman Abstention and Certification to the Michigan Supreme Court

          “Where uncertain questions of state law must be resolved before a federal constitutional question can be decided, federal courts should abstain until a state court has addressed the state questions.” Brown v. Tidwell, 169 F.3d 330, 332 (6th Cir. 1999) (quotations and alterations omitted). “This doctrine of abstention, known as the Pullman doctrine, acknowledges that federal courts should avoid the unnecessary resolution of federal constitutional issues and that state courts provide the authoritative adjudication of questions of state law.” Id. A federal court should decline to exercise jurisdiction where uncertain state law might fairly be interpreted to avoid constitutional determinations, so as to honor important principles of federalism and avoid premature resolution of constitutional issues. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-535 (1965). “But the relevant inquiry is not whether there is a bare, though unlikely, possibility that state courts might render adjudication of the federal question unnecessary. Rather, we have frequently emphasized that abstention is not to be ordered unless the statute is of an uncertain nature, and is obviously susceptible of a limiting construction.” Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 237 (1984) (internal quotations and alterations omitted).

         Defendants argue that Michigan law on whether credits were earned by individuals convicted of first-degree murder is clear and favors Defendants' position; but if it is unclear, they say that state courts should resolve the ambiguity and potentially obviate the necessity of resolving the federal constitutional question. Def. Resp. at 11-12 (Dkt. 190). The Court disagrees. For the reasons set forth infra in section III.B., the Court concludes that state law regarding good time and disciplinary credits is unmistakably clear and solidly supports Plaintiffs' position. Before modification by the Michigan legislature in 2014, Michigan law regarding good time and disciplinary credits made no distinction based on whether the prisoner was serving a life sentence and allowed such a prisoner to earn credit if otherwise eligible.

         Defendants' position founders on other grounds. Abstention is inadvisable if it carries too high a risk that constitutional guarantees will go unenforced. The Supreme Court has warned that “because of the delays inherent in the abstention process and the danger that valuable federal rights might be lost in the absence of expeditious adjudication in the federal court, abstention must be invoked only in special circumstances, and only upon careful consideration of the facts of each case.” Harris Cty. Comm'rs Ct. v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 83 (1975) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         Defendants argue that there would be no undue delay if this Court abstained, because of the pendency of two cases currently before the Michigan Court of Appeals: People v. Wiley, No. 336898, and People v. Rucker, No. 338870. The appellants in these cases were resentenced pursuant to Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25a in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and now have appealed their new sentences. Defendants claim that these cases would provide an avenue for the state courts to promptly address the issue of whether Plaintiffs earned credits during their prior sentences. Def. Cross-Reply at 7 (Dkt. 195).

         However, it is not clear whether the court of appeals would decide to address this question. As Plaintiffs point out, the prosecutor argued in both cases that the court of appeals should not consider the question of whether Wiley or Rucker earned disciplinary credits. See Prosecutor Brief in People v. Wiley, Ex. A to Pl. Mot. for Leave to File Supplement, at 6-10 (Dkt. 199-2); Prosecutor Brief in People v. Rucker, Ex. B. to Pl. Mot. for Leave to File Supplement, at 8-10 (Dkt. 199-3) (“[I]t seems that defendant's challenge would be better directed in a suit against the Department of Corrections and not in an appeal of his validly imposed sentence.”).

         Even if the court of appeals did decide to address the question, there is every indication that Defendants will not follow its dictates in cases involving other class members unless and until there is a definitive ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court.[4] Thus, only if the court of appeals addresses the credit issue, and only if the Michigan Supreme Court decides to grant leave to appeal in those cases, and only if the Michigan Supreme Court actually decides the issue will there be a definitive statement on Michigan law as to the credit issue. Needless to say, there is no guarantee that any, much less all, of those contingencies will be realized. And even so, it may take many months, if not years, for that process to become final. Furthermore, Wiley and Rucker only involve disciplinary credits; thus the good time credit issue, which involves a separate statute, will not be addressed by those cases at all. This is hardly a prompt avenue for the definitive determination of state law that would be applicable in our case.

         “The doctrine of abstention is equitable in its origins, ” Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 377 U.S. 324, 328 (1964), and it would be inequitable to require Plaintiffs - some of whom, if they prevail, would be immediately eligible for parole consideration - to wait even longer to seek resolution of their claims, particularly where the interpretation of the good time and disciplinary credits statute is clear. “[W]here the litigation has already been long delayed . . . abstention should not be required.” Moore, 420 U.S. at 84; see also West v. Village of Morrisville, 728 F.2d 130, 135 (2d Cir. 1984) (describing “inordinate delay or inconvenience” as “one of the major drawbacks in invoking the abstention doctrine”); Bickham v. Lashof, 620 F.2d 1238, 1245 (7th Cir. 1980) (“[W]e are mindful that abstention is rooted in equity. Thus, we cannot overlook the delays that have occurred in plaintiff's case . . . or the nature of the injury alleged to occur as long as the Act remains in force.”). Compelling Plaintiffs to languish in prison while an uncertain and lengthy state court process plays out - with no assurance of a definitive answer at the end of that journey - is the antithesis of the equitable principles enshrined in the abstention doctrine.

         Alternatively, Defendants argue that the Court should certify the question of whether Plaintiffs earned any credits to the Michigan Supreme Court. Def. Resp. at 12-13. “Certification today covers territory once dominated by . . . Pullman abstention, ” and “allows a federal court faced with a novel state-law question to put the question directly to the State's highest court[.]” Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 75-76 (1997).

         Certification of this question to the Michigan Supreme Court would be inappropriate for the same reason Pullman abstention is unwarranted - the delay involved in such a process. The Sixth Circuit has noted that federal courts “will not trouble our sister state courts every time an arguably unsettled question of state law comes across our desks. When we see a reasonably clear and principled course, we will seek to follow it ourselves.” Pennington v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 553 F.3d 447, 450 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Pino v. United States, 507 F.3d 1233, 1236 (10th Cir. 2007)); see also City of Houston, Tex. v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 470-471 (1987) (“[T]he availability of certification is not in itself sufficient to render abstention appropriate. It would be manifestly inappropriate to certify a question in a case where, as here, there is no uncertain question of state law whose resolution might affect the pending federal claim.”) (internal citations omitted); State Auto Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Hargis, 785 F.3d 189, 194 (6th Cir. 2015) (“The state court need not have addressed the exact question, so long as well-established principles exist to govern a decision.”). Finally, as Plaintiffs note, the Eastern District of Michigan's Local Rule regarding certification requires written findings by the court that “certification of the issue will not cause undue delay or prejudice.” L.R. 83.40(a)(3). This Court cannot make such a finding.

         Accordingly, this Court will not decline to exercise its jurisdiction under Pullman, nor certify this issue to the Michigan Supreme Court.

         ii. Younger Abstention

         Defendants argue that this Court should abstain from deciding the issue based on the principles of federalism and comity set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). “The Younger abstention doctrine counsels a federal court to refrain from adjudicating a matter that is properly before it in deference of ongoing state criminal proceedings.” Executive Arts Studio, Inc. v. City of Grand Rapids, 391 F.3d 783, 791 (6th Cir. 2004). The doctrine has been expanded to include “certain civil enforcement proceedings and civil proceedings uniquely involving the ability of state courts to perform their judicial functions, such as civil contempt order or appellate bond requirements.” Id. Younger applies where: “(1) state proceedings are pending; (2) the state proceedings involve an important state interest; and (3) the state proceedings will afford the plaintiff an adequate opportunity to raise his constitutional claims.” Kelm v. Hyatt, 44 F.3d 415, 419 (6th Cir. 1995). However, Younger abstention is the exception, not the rule, when a federal court must decide whether to exercise jurisdiction. See Hill II, 878 F.3d at 205 (“Federal courts are to treat Younger as a limited carve-out to federal courts' virtually unflagging obligation to exercise their jurisdiction.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendants argue that there are currently ongoing state judicial proceedings regarding this same issue - Rucker and Wiley. In addition, they point to “[t]he putative class members' state criminal proceedings [which] were reopened for resentencing when prosecutors notified the state trial courts in March 2016 which prisoners were subject to resentencing under Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.25a.” Def. Resp. at 17. Therefore, they argue, at least two putative class members have raised this ex post facto claim in state courts, and there may be more who have done so.

         However, the “threshold issue in any Younger analysis is the ‘question of whether interference exists.'” Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Conway, 909 F.Supp.2d 781, 784 (E.D. Ky. 2012) (quoting Mass. Delivery Ass'n v. Coakley, 671 F.3d 33, 40 (1st Cir. 2012)). “In the typical Younger case, the federal plaintiff is a defendant in ongoing or threatened state court proceedings seeking to enjoin continuation of those state proceedings.” Devlin v. Kalm, 594 F.3d 893, 894 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Crawley v. Hamilton Cty. Cmm'rs, 744 F.2d 28, 30 (6th Cir. 1984)).

         Here, Younger abstention is not appropriate, because Plaintiffs are not seeking to interfere with, or enjoin, any ongoing judicial proceedings. Michigan courts do not typically play any role in determining good time and disciplinary credits to which a defendant may be entitled. Rather, the Michigan court rules require the sentencing court to state only the time served by the defendant. See Mich. Ct. R. 6.425(E)(1)(d) (“The court must . . . state the sentence being imposed, including the minimum and maximum sentence if applicable, together with any credit for time served to which the defendant is entitled . . . .”). It is the MDOC that regularly calculates good time and disciplinary credits to determine eligibility for parole. See Richard Stapleton Aff., Ex. 5 to Pl. Mot., ¶¶ 10, 14 (Dkt. 181-6). And MDOC has done this historically when a prisoner serving a life sentence has been resentenced to a term of years. Id. ¶ 9. Thus, the relief this Court now orders will not present any interference with the state courts, within the meaning of Younger.

         The kind of interference that would raise a Younger concern is on-going intrusion in a state adjudication process. See, e.g., Shafizadeh v. Bowles, 476 Fed. App'x 71, 73 (6th Cir. 2012) (Younger abstention applicable where the plaintiff sought “an injunction to direct the judge who presided over the divorce to remove himself from the case” and “declarations that the rules or practices applied in his case are invalid”); J.P. v. DeSanti, 653 F.2d 1080, 1085 (6th Cir. 1981) (finding interference with a state proceedings where plaintiffs sought to prevent the use of “social histories” during juvenile court proceedings); Parker v. Turner, 626 F.2d 1, 4, 8 (6th Cir. 1980) (finding Younger abstention appropriate where plaintiffs sought “a declaratory judgment that certain allegedly widespread practices in the juvenile court are unconstitutional, ” as this “would necessarily require monitoring of the manner in which the state juvenile judges conducted contempt hearings in non-support cases”).

         The absence of any on-going interference in state court proceedings by this Court in granting the relief Plaintiffs request makes our case like Dwayne B. v. Granholm, No. 06-13548, 2007 WL 1140920 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 17, 2007), where the court found Younger abstention inapplicable - a case seeking class-wide declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy the “[m]yriad systemic failings” of Michigan's foster care system. The court reasoned that while “there may be some ongoing juvenile court proceedings for individual foster care children [in the plaintiffs' class], this lawsuit does not seek to interfere with any such proceedings. The relief sought here is not directed at the juvenile courts. It is directed at the executive branch.” Id. at *6.

         Similarly here, Plaintiffs are correct in arguing that the relief they seek is “directed at the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Parole Board, not the state-court resentencing process.” Pl. Reply at 12 (Dkt. 193). They properly note that the resentencing courts will only decide a prisoner's minimum and maximum term, and that any application of good time or disciplinary credits “is an administrative and executive function outside the purview of state judicial proceedings[.]” Id.

         This Court's ruling on the unconstitutionality of revoking credits will present no on-going intrusion into state adjudication, as it “will not require ongoing federal court oversight or interference with the daily operation of Michigan's . . . courts.” Dwayne B., 2007 WL 1140920, at *7.

         Therefore, Younger ...

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