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Bolden v. State


April 21, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Douglas L. Blankenship, Judge. Superior Court No. 4FA-06-02772 CI.

No. 1363


Before: Fabe, Winfree, and Christen, Justices. [Carpeneti, Chief Justice, and Eastaugh, Justice, not participating.]


The superior court interpreted a prisoner's suit as an administrative appeal from a final grievance decision by the Department of Corrections (DOC) and dismissed it for lack of subject matter jurisdiction without notice or opportunity for either the prisoner or DOC to be heard. Because the superior court's procedure infringed on the prisoner's right to due process, we reverse the dismissal of his suit and remand for further proceedings.


A. Facts

On the evening of December 17, 2005, prisoner Ivan Bolden and two DOC officers disputed necessary and appropriate remedial actions after the toilet in his cell at Fairbanks Correctional Center (FCC) overflowed. Bolden demanded "the sewage out of my [cell]" and "a new cast on my leg since I have to walk through sewage." The correctional officers instead offered Bolden some cleaning supplies, but they came to an impasse when Bolden insisted they open his cell door rather than transfer a cleaning mop back and forth through his food tray slot. Due to security concerns and what the officers viewed as Bolden's uncooperative behavior (perhaps including a belief that Bolden deliberately caused the toilet to overflow), Bolden was not allowed out of his cell - which remained uncleaned - until the next day.

Bolden immediately filed a grievance,*fn2 asserting that the correctional officers' actions were "against the 8th amendment [and his] human right[s]." For relief Bolden requested that the correctional officers "go back through training" and the incident be noted in their employment records. The FCC Superintendent denied Bolden's grievance a few days later, concluding there was no appearance of "staff misconduct." Bolden filed a grievance appeal, asserting he had been left in a cell full of sewage, his leg cast had been contaminated, and he was being tested "for pathogens"; he claimed the correctional officers' conduct "was plain unprofessional" and requested an apology. The Director of Institutions denied the appeal. Bolden filed a final grievance appeal, which the Standards Administrator denied in April 2006 in DOC's "final administrative action" on Bolden's grievance.*fn3

B. Proceedings

In November 2006 Bolden filed a pro se superior court action in which he:

(1) referred to himself as the plaintiff and to DOC as the defendant; (2) referred to his pleading as a complaint; (3) alleged that on the night of the incident "a foul smell" woke him, he got off his bed with a casted broken leg to find himself "standing in raw sewage barefoot," he "couldn't get help from anyone," and he was left overnight in his cell in violation of his civil rights; and (4) noted his prior unsuccessful grievance and concluded that he "would like to file this complaint under 42 [U.S.C.] § 1983 for settlement."*fn4 Later that month he obtained a summons for service on DOC.

Before DOC appeared in the action, the superior court sua sponte ordered Bolden to submit his DOC grievance and decision to the court. Bolden apparently complied because the record includes six pages from his grievance file. Still before DOC appeared in the action and without affording Bolden prior notice or opportunity to be heard, the superior court sua sponte (1) stated that it interpreted Bolden's action "as an administrative appeal from a final decision of the [DOC] grievance process" and (2) dismissed the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because the appeal did not raise issues of constitutional magnitude.*fn5


We review de novo dismissals on the pleadings,*fn6 questions of due process,*fn7 questions of subject matter jurisdiction,*fn8 and the appropriateness of converting an action into an administrative appeal.*fn9


Bolden is a pro se appellant and his briefing does not fully differentiate between an appeal and a direct action. But from the thirteen "issues presented for review" and other portions of his brief we can glean that he has raised three relevant points on appeal.*fn10

First, Bolden argues the premature dismissal of his action violated his constitutional right to due process. Second, he argues the superior court had subject matter jurisdiction for his action. Third, he argues he raised substantive issues of constitutional magnitude about the December 2005 incident. Bolden concludes his brief by asserting the right to "no less than [t]wenty [m]illion [d]ollars for the violations of his guaranteed rights."

DOC affirmatively contends it was error for the superior court to treat Bolden's action as an administrative appeal instead of a direct civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. DOC notes that the State cannot be a defendant in a § 1983 action*fn11 and suggests that if we remand, Bolden should be given an opportunity to amend his complaint to substitute a proper defendant. But DOC further contends that Bolden's overnight confinement conditions did not violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and that dismissal of Bolden's direct action under § 1983 can be affirmed on this ground.*fn12 We have consistently held that " `[h]owever denominated, a claim is functionally an [administrative] appeal if it requires the court to consider the propriety of an administrative determination.' "*fn13 If a court cannot grant the requested relief without reversing the prior agency determination, the action should be treated as an administrative appeal.*fn14 It is also proper to treat an action as an administrative appeal if the action "seeks exactly the same review by the superior court as could be had in an appeal from the administrative order"*fn15 or where "the relief sought is essentially the same as that sought" in the agency proceeding.*fn16 Finally, we note that an action seeking review on the record of a prior agency proceeding, as opposed to the de novo reception of evidence, is characteristic of an administrative appeal.*fn17 It is not clear why Bolden's action should be considered an appeal from DOC's grievance process and not, as probably Bolden and certainly DOC contend on appeal, a direct action for relief under § 1983 based in the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The relevant DOC grievance process allows prisoners to grieve alleged violations of DOC-related statutes, regulations, policies, and procedures,*fn18 not alleged violations of federal constitutional rights.*fn19 Although in his grievance Bolden did refer to a violation of his federal constitutional rights, he specifically alleged that the correctional officers responded inappropriately when his toilet overflowed and he requested that they receive a written reprimand and be retrained; this seems consistent with the parameters of the grievance process. In contrast, in his superior court action Bolden appears to focus not on violations of DOC statutes, regulations, policies, and procedures, nor on DOC's decision-making regarding his grievance, but rather on an underlying conditions-of-confinement violation of the United States Constitution. He also appears to seek money damages, which likely cannot be awarded through the grievance process.*fn20

During the grievance process DOC expressly concluded that it was not staff misconduct to pass cleaning materials through a tray slot and that Bolden was retained in his cell because of security concerns and uncooperative behavior. The Standards Administrator noted that "[p]risoners are responsible for the cleanliness and order of their living areas" under Procedure 806.02(F) of DOC's Policies and Procedures and that correctional staff suspected Bolden's toilet was the source of the flooding in the segregation unit; we infer that the Standards Administrator concluded Bolden had stopped up his own toilet and was responsible for cleaning up his cell. But whether Bolden's confinement violated his Eighth Amendment rights depends on (1) whether he sustained a risk to his health*fn21 and (2) whether the correctional officers were aware of that risk and how they responded to it.*fn22 It therefore seems unlikely that the merits of an Eighth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claim could be resolved by reviewing the meager record or limited factual findings produced by DOC's grievance process.*fn23

To the extent Bolden's superior court action seeks the relief DOC denied him in his grievance, Bolden's action can properly be treated as an administrative appeal.*fn24 But to the extent Bolden seeks damages through a § 1983 action based on the Eighth Amendment, his action should not have been converted to an administrative appeal. It appears that Bolden seeks the latter, but it is not clear; this lack of clarity arises in part because the superior court summarily dismissed Bolden's action without notice and opportunity for Bolden or DOC to be heard.

We conclude it was error to dismiss Bolden's superior court action without notice and an opportunity to clarify the nature of the action and present arguments why it should not be dismissed.*fn25 We therefore reverse the dismissal of Bolden's action.

On remand Bolden may choose to: (1) appeal DOC's denial of his original grievance and related request that the correctional officers undergo retraining and an incident report be placed in their employee files;*fn26 (2) proceed with a direct action against an appropriate defendant under § 1983 for damages or other relief for alleged violations of his federal constitutional rights; or (3) pursue both an appeal and a direct action. No matter which claim or claims he chooses to bring, the superior court may not dismiss his claims without giving him notice and opportunity to oppose the dismissal.


The superior court's dismissal of Bolden's action is REVERSED and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

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