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Kitchen v. Snyder

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

August 16, 2019

MICHAEL A. KITCHEN, Plaintiff,
v.
RICHARD SNYDER, HEIDI WASHINGTON, and MICHAEL EAGEN, Defendants.

          Anthony P. Patti Magistrate Judge

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS AND FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [15]

          LAURIE J. MICHELSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In 1987, when Michael Kitchen was 17 years old, he was convicted of felony firearm, armed robbery, and criminal sexual conduct. Kitchen was sentenced to 42 to 60 years in prison. Whether Kitchen will spend closer to 42 years in prison or closer to 60 years in prison is in the hands of Michigan's parole board. But under Michigan Compiled Laws § 791.234, Kitchen cannot even come before the board until he completes his minimum sentence, i.e., until he has served 42 years in prison (less good-time credits he's earned). Currently, that is slated for November 2026; Kitchen will be 57 years old.

         Kitchen believes that § 791.234 is unconstitutional as applied to him. He stresses that he committed the offenses leading to his sentence when he was only 17 years old. Yet, says Kitchen, § 791.234 does not distinguish between those who committed crimes as adults and those who committed crimes as minors. In other words, § 791.234 fails to account for what the Supreme Court calls the “mitigating qualities of youth, ” Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 476 (2012). Thus, Kitchen says that § 791.234 violates the Federal Constitution in three ways and the Michigan Constitution in one. (See ECF No. 20, PageID.123-125.) As relief, Kitchen would like the Court to declare § 791.234 unconstitutional as applied to him; he would also like parole evaluation earlier than someone serving a like sentence but who committed the underlying crime as an adult. (See ECF No. 20, PageID.126.)

         Two of the three defendants, Heidi Washington (the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections) and Michael Eagen (the Parole Board Chairperson), ask the Court to dismiss Kitchen's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. (ECF No. 15.) For this argument, they point to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Washington and Eagan also seek summary judgment under Rule 56, primarily asserting that People v. Wines, 916 N.W.2d 855 (Mich. Ct. App. 2018), precludes Kitchen's claims.

         For the reasons that follow, Washington and Eagen's motion will be denied.

         I.

         Before turning to the merits of Defendants' Heck argument, the Court notes that Defendants may not have used the correct procedural vehicle to bring it. While the law is not entirely uniform, a defendant's argument that a plaintiff's claim is barred by Heck is probably not a challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction and probably should be brought via Rule 12(b)(6). See Ortiz v. New Jersey State Police, 747 Fed.Appx. 73, 77 (3d Cir. 2018); Topa v. Melendez, 739 Fed.Appx. 516, 518 (11th Cir. 2018); Mendia v. City of Wellington, 432 Fed.Appx. 796, 798 n.1 (10th Cir. 2011); Polzin v. Gage, 636 F.3d 834, 837-38 (7th Cir. 2011); but see Spencer v. Gidley, No. 15-11822, 2015 WL 4642904, at *4 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 4, 2015). Here, though, the Rule 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6) distinction does not matter-Defendants' Heck argument does not warrant dismissal.

         The Defendants' argument is as follows. Kitchen challenges a statute that provides (in relevant part), “a prisoner sentenced to an indeterminate sentence and confined in a state correctional facility with a minimum in terms of years . . . is subject to the jurisdiction of the parole board when the prisoner has served a period of time equal to the minimum sentence imposed by the court . . . less good time and disciplinary credits, if applicable.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 791.234(1). Given that § 791.234 equates a prisoner's minimum-sentence end date with the first date he is eligible for parole review, Defendants argue that by asking for an earlier parole-evaluation date, Kitchen is seeking to shorten his minimum sentence. But under Heck, “a prisoner in state custody cannot use a § 1983 action to challenge the . . . duration of his confinement.” Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 78 (2005). So, Defendants' conclude, Kitchen's constitutional challenges brought via § 1983 are Heck-barred.

         Defendants' argument has some legal and factual support.

         Start with legal. In Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973), the Supreme Court explained that when a prisoner seeks release from unlawful imprisonment, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the better tool than a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After all, the language of § 2254 is tailored to challenges of unlawful imprisonment, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus is the traditional means of challenging unlawful custody, and a petition for a writ requires exhaustion, which in turn, respects state sovereignty. See Preiser, 411 U.S. at 486, 490- 491; Wilkinson, 544 U.S. at 78-79. Indeed, in Wilkinson, Justice Kennedy asserted that “it is elementary that habeas is the appropriate remedy for challenging a sentence, ” 544 U.S. at 88, and the majority apparently agreed with Justice Kennedy on this point, id. at 83.

         Factually, Kitchen at least indirectly challenges his sentence. To be sure, Kitchen directly challenges only the parole-jurisdiction statute, § 791.234. But a premise of Kitchen's challenge is that his sentencing judge did not consider his youth and maturity in imposing a 42-year minimum sentence. For, if the sentencing judge did consider Kitchen's youth and maturity in setting the 42- year minimum sentence, it is difficult to see how § 791.234 deprives Kitchen of any constitutional right: his youth would have already been factored into his parole-eligibility date.

         Despite that legal and factual support for Defendants' position, the Court still finds that Kitchen is not required to bring his federal constitutional claims via a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and that Heck does not bar Kitchen's § 1983 complaint. In Wilkinson, William Dotson and Rogerico Johnson filed a suit via § 1983; Dotson sought an order “requiring prison officials to grant him an ‘immediate parole hearing'”; Johnson likewise sought “a new parole hearing.” 544 U.S. at 77. The Supreme Court explained that success for Dotson would “not mean immediate release or a shorter stay in prison; it [would] mean[] at most new eligibility review, which may speed consideration of a new parole application.” Id. at 75. And the same was true for Johnson: “Success for Johnson means at most a new parole hearing at which parole authorities may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term.” Id. “Because neither prisoner's claim would necessarily spell speedier release, neither lies at ‘the core of habeas corpus.'” 544 U.S. at 75. As such, Dotson and Johnson could proceed under § 1983 rather than § 2254. Id. at 76; see also Hill v. Snyder, 878 F.3d 193, 209 (6th Cir. 2017) (finding that prisoners' successful challenge to parole-consideration process would not necessarily result in less time in prison because parole board could still deny parole).

         Wilkinson coupled with Michigan's indeterminate sentencing scheme carries the day for Kitchen. Even if Kitchen's direct attack on § 791.234 is an indirect attack on his 42-year minimum sentence, a successful attack will not necessarily speed Kitchen's release from prison. Suppose Kitchen's § 1983 complaint results in a new minimum sentence where he is given a 34-year minimum. That would only mean that Kitchen would immediately come within the parole board's jurisdiction. Yet the parole board could deny parole and, ultimately, Kitchen could be forced to serve his maximum sentence, 60 years. So success here-even if that success comes in the form of a new, shorter minimum sentence-would not necessarily speed Kitchen's release. That would all depend on what the parole board does. As such, Heck does not preclude Kitchen from pursuing his federal constitutional claims via § 1983. See Wershe v. Combs, 763 F.3d 500, 504 (6th Cir. 2014) (“Because success in his § 1983 claim ...


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