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Huber v. State, Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Alaska

August 31, 2018

BOB HUBER, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3PA-15-01336 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Gregory Heath, Judge.

          Jon Buchholdt, Buchholdt Law Office, and Christopher V. Hoke, Hoke Law, Anchorage, for Appellant.

          John K. Bodick and Matthias R. Cicotte, Assistant Attorneys General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Susan Orlansky, Reeves Amodio, LLC, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae ACLU of Alaska Foundation.

          Cynthia Strout, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices. [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]


          BOLGER, Justice.


         Federal law requires that a prison disciplinary decision must include a written statement of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the decision. In this case, the superior court affirmed a decision finding a prisoner "guilty" without any further explanation. The court reasoned that the prisoner was not prejudiced because the disciplinary hearing was recorded, and the prisoner was able to adequately explain his version of the evidence in his appeal. But we conclude that the written disciplinary decision or the audio recording must ordinarily include a specific statement satisfying federal law: a mere finding of "guilty" is generally insufficient. We therefore reverse the superior court's decision affirming the decision of the Department of Corrections.


         Bob Huber, a former prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center, was involved in an incident in the prison dining hall on October 11, 2014. The incident report states that Huber stared at a correctional officer in an intimidating manner, dropped food on the floor, yelled profanity at the officer, and refused to provide his inmate number when asked. The officer cited him under 22 Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) 05.400(c)(15), which prohibits prisoners from "[e]ngaging in a group or individual demonstration or activity that involves throwing of objects, loud yelling, loud verbal confrontation, or pushing, shoving, or other physical contact that disrupts or interferes with the orderly administration of the facility."[1]

         A disciplinary hearing was held on October 21. At the hearing, the hearing officer read the correctional officer's description of the incident aloud and asked Huber how he would like to plead. Huber pleaded not guilty. He testified that the incident report misrepresented what had occurred and that he had been attempting to defend an inmate who was being treated unfairly. After Huber finished testifying, the hearing officer stated that she was "going to find [Huber] guilty." She then imposed a penalty of 15 days of punitive segregation. Following the hearing, the hearing officer issued a written disciplinary decision on the standard decision form. The decision form includes a section for enumerating the "reasons, evidence considered and specific facts" upon which a guilty finding is based. The hearing officer left this portion of the form blank.

         Huber appealed the decision to the superintendent of Goose Creek Correctional Center, explaining his version of events and arguing that the cited offense in the correctional officer's original incident report had not been properly filled out. The superintendent affirmed the guilty finding and the penalty.

         Huber appealed to the superior court, raising the issue of a due process violation for the first time. Huber noted that Department of Corrections (DOC) regulations require a written disciplinary decision to include "a statement of the evidence relied upon and the specific facts found to support the disciplinary tribunal's decision."[2]He further argued that a hearing officer's failure to include this information in the report made it impossible for the superintendent to conduct meaningful review of the officer's findings. Accordingly, he concluded that the hearing officer's decision violated his right to due process.[3] The State countered that Huber had waived his due process argument by failing to assert it in his appeal to the superintendent. It further argued that even if Huber's due process claim was preserved, he had failed to demonstrate that the lack of written findings had prejudiced his ability to defend himself during the prison disciplinary process.[4]

         The superior court affirmed the disciplinary decision. The court first concluded that Huber had forfeited his due process argument by failing to raise the issue during the disciplinary appeal process. The court further held that even if Huber had not forfeited the issue, he had failed to show that he had been prejudiced as a result of the lack of written findings. Huber appeals.


         A. Huber Did Not Forfeit His Due Process Claim By Failing To Raise It During The Administrative Appeal.

         The superior court concluded that "[b]ecause Huber's due process argument was not raised during the administrative proceedings below, it is waived on appeal." Huber responds that he did not need to explicitly raise this issue during the administrative appeal process in order to preserve it. "We review de novo whether a party has waived a claim on appeal."[5]

         We recently addressed the effect of a prisoner's failure to raise constitutional claims during the DOC disciplinary appeals process in Walker v. State, Department of Corrections.[6] The appellant in Walker argued that DOC violated his right to due process by refusing to allow him to call witnesses during a disciplinary hearing.[7]The superior court concluded that the appellant had waived this argument by failing to raise it in his administrative appeal.[8] We reversed this decision and concluded that the appellant had not forfeited this argument.[9] We first noted that no statute or regulation mandates issue exhaustion in Alaska.[10] Then we concluded that several characteristics of the prison disciplinary process counseled against imposing a judicially created issue exhaustion requirement for disciplinary appeals.[11] Accordingly, we held that "prisoners who fail to raise their constitutional claims during the administrative appeal process do not necessarily forfeit those claims."[12]

         The forfeiture issue in Huber's appeal is not meaningfully distinct from that in Walker. Like the appellant in Walker, there is no evidence that Huber received notice that failure to raise an issue during the administrative appeal process would result in forfeiture.[13] And Huber was similarly required to file his administrative appeal "within three working days of receipt of the written disciplinary decision," and prepared his appeal without legal assistance.[14] Finally, prison superintendents possess no "special expertise to address [the] constitutional claim[]" that Huber raises on appeal.[15] Accordingly, we conclude that Huber did not forfeit his due process claim by failing to raise it during the disciplinary appeals process.[16]

         B. The Hearing Officer's Failure To Provide A Statement Of The Reasons For The Decision Or The Evidence Supporting It Was A Violation Of Huber's Right To Due Process.

         In Wolff v. McDonnell, the United States Supreme Court held that due process requires factfinders in a prison disciplinary proceeding to produce "a 'written statement... as to the evidence relied on and reasons' for the disciplinary action."[17] A year after Wolff, we accordingly stated in McGinnis v. Stevens that the Alaska Constitution entitles prisoners "to all due process rights enunciated in Wolff," including the written statement requirement.[18] And we went further and held that the Alaska Constitution provides greater due process protections than the U.S. Constitution. It entitles a prisoner not simply to a written summary statement, but "to have the entire hearing recorded for purposes of administrative appeal and potential further appeal to the superior court."[19]

         Huber first contends that simply providing a verbatim record of his disciplinary proceeding misconstrues our holding in McGinnis and cannot satisfy the Wolff written statement requirement. However, we recently rejected this same argument in Pease-Madore v. State, Department of Corrections.[20] In that case, a prisoner appealed from three disciplinary decisions in which the hearing officer did not produce a Wolff written statement.[21] We concluded that the McGinnis verbatim record requirement "serve[s] the same purposes as the [Wolff] written statement," and in fact "may furnish a more inclusive record of the proceedings" than a written statement.[22] Accordingly, we held that an audio recording of a disciplinary hearing can satisfy Wolff s requirement for a written statement.[23]

         But we also noted that, although an audio recording of a disciplinary proceeding may satisfy the Wolff requirement, it will not necessarily do so.[24] We reasoned that a verbatim record "fulfills th[e] purpose" of the Wolff requirement "if the recording includes information about the evidence relied on and the reasons for the decision."[25] However, we also stated that, "[i]f the evidence relied on and reasons for the disciplinary action are not identified in the recording, then there is indeed a qualitative difference between the information made available through a written statement as opposed to a recording."[26] We concluded that the audio recordings of the proceedings at issue provided sufficient information to satisfy the Wolff requirement only when considered in conjunction with the hearing officers' written reports.[27] Pease-Madore thus establishes that it is the substance of the explanation that matters, rather than the manner in which it is preserved. In other words, a prisoner's right to due process is satisfied when the written disciplinary decision, audio recording, or both in conjunction satisfy the Wolff requirement - that is, when they provide "information about the evidence relied on and the reasons for the decision."[28]

         Huber next contends that the hearing officer's decision in his disciplinary hearing did not satisfy the Wolff requirement, and thereby violated his right to due process. "Whether an inmate has received procedural due process is an issue of constitutional law that we review de novo."[29]

         "One question left open by the Wolff decision is how specific a Wolff statement should be."[30] In Pease-Madore, we concluded that verbatim records of a proceeding coupled with disciplinary decisions that incorporated detailed incident reports satisfied the Wolff requirement.[31] Thus, in at least some instances, it is ...

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