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McLaughlin v. Pallito

Supreme Court of Vermont

May 5, 2017

William McLaughlin
Andrew Pallito

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division Timothy B. Tomasi, J.

          Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Kelly Green, Prisoners' Rights Office, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Andrew Bolduc of McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan, P.C., Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          DOOLEY, J.

         ¶ 1. Can a prison superintendent order a second administrative hearing when a hearing panel finds a prisoner not guilty of violating a prison rule at an initial hearing because of a clerical mistake in the prison's evidence? Petitioner appeals a summary judgment decision validating a superintendent's authority to order a second hearing under these factual circumstances. We affirm.

         ¶ 2. Petitioner is a prisoner in the custody of the State of Vermont. The Department of Corrections (DOC) charged him with fighting, a violation of prison rule A5. In accord with DOC Directive 410.01, the prison held a hearing on the charge against petitioner.

         ¶ 3. Directive 410.01 lays out an internal adjudicative process by which the DOC determines the merits of a rule-violation charge against a prisoner. This process has four steps. First, the rules require the facility superintendent to refer the charged violation for investigation by an officer uninvolved in the alleged violation incident. Vermont Department of Corrections Directive 410.01, Facility Rules and Inmate Discipline 8 []. The investigating officer interviews the charged prisoner and any witnesses, takes written statements as appropriate, gathers other pertinent records, and prepares a report of findings for the facility superintendent. The report of findings includes a recommendation to either refer the charge for resolution, amend the charge, or dismiss the charge altogether. Id. at 8-9.

         ¶ 4. If the charge is referred for resolution, the rules require the superintendent to then designate a hearing officer. The hearing officer designates a presenting officer, who presents the facts relevant to the alleged violation incident at the hearing. A charged inmate is given notice of a hearing twenty-four hours in advance and is permitted to have a hearing assistant, who cannot be an attorney, help to prepare for and attend the hearing. The charged inmate is also given twenty-four hours to review the investigating officer's collected material and report. The hearing officer considers the evidence presented in the hearing and reaches one of three resolutions: not guilty, guilty of the charged violation, or guilty of a lesser or equal violation. Id. at 11-12. The hearing officer may find a charged inmate guilty only if a preponderance of the evidence supports such a finding. Id. at 11.

         ¶ 5. After the hearing officer reaches a resolution, the officer submits the disposition to a three-member disciplinary committee appointed by the facility superintendent. Id. at 14. The disciplinary committee reviews all evidence presented in the hearing and determines whether a preponderance of evidence supports the hearing officer's determination, as well as whether procedural rules were followed and whether any imposed sanctions are proportionate to the violation found. The disciplinary committee then forwards its findings to the facility superintendent for review. Id. The superintendent's review is the final step in Directive 410.01's adjudicative process. The superintendent can take one of four actions upon review of the disciplinary committee's findings: (1) support the disciplinary committee's decision, (2) reverse the disciplinary committee's decision, (3) order a new hearing related to the alleged violation incident, or (4) reduce any sanctions imposed on the inmate. Id. Directive 410.01 does not specify the grounds under which the superintendent may order a new hearing.

         ¶ 6. Prison officials began investigating the A5 charge against petitioner shortly after the alleged violation incident. The investigating officer collected photographs of contusions and swelling on petitioner as well as the reporting officer's written statement. In this statement, the reporting officer wrote that he received information on September 2, 2015, that petitioner may have been involved in an assault in the gym area of the prison the previous day. But he also wrote that recorded footage showed petitioner and the other inmate allegedly involved leaving the gym area on September 2, 2015, with injuries consistent with an assault.

         ¶ 7. The hearing officer found petitioner not guilty of the charged violation. In his written findings, the hearing officer noted that a preponderance of evidence did not support the charge because the reporting officer's written statement was that petitioner and the second inmate returned from the gym area on September 2, 2015, but the second inmate had been moved to administrative segregation on September 1, 2015. Logically, petitioner could not be found guilty of fighting with the second inmate on September 2 if that inmate was removed from the general population on September 1. The disciplinary committee unanimously agreed with the hearing officer. The superintendent then ordered a new hearing on the charge against petitioner.

         ¶ 8. Prior to the second hearing, the date in the reporting officer's statement was changed. September 2 was crossed out and September 1 written in; the revised report stated that petitioner and the second allegedly involved inmate were seen leaving the gym area on September 1 with injuries consistent with an assault. At this second hearing, the hearing officer found petitioner guilty of an A5 violation. The disciplinary committee and the facility superintendent upheld the hearing officer's determination.

         ¶ 9. Petitioner first filed an internal appeal of this determination; the superintendent again affirmed. Petitioner then sought review in superior court pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 75, claiming in a motion for summary judgment that collateral estoppel barred the superintendent from ordering a second hearing on the charge against him when the issue had been previously decided and no new evidence was presented. ...

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