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Conover v. Lawless

Supreme Court of Kentucky

November 2, 2017



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: Angela Turner Dunham Justice and Public Safety Cabinet

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Heather Hodgson Assistant Public Advocate



         This is a prison discipline case involving a fight between two inmates in which a Corrections officer was injured. One of the inmates involved in the altercation, Appellee, Kristy Lawless, was disciplined as a result of the officer's injury. She appealed that disciplinary determination through the appropriate channels and eventually exhausted her appeals as a matter of right resulting in a decision by the Court of Appeals ruling in her favor. For the forgoing reasons, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the trial court's order denying Lawless' petition.


         In 2014, Appellee, Kristy Lawless, and Remonia Mills were inmates at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women (KCIW). Mills had previously assaulted Lawless and was labeled as "maximum assaultive status." On February 24, 2014; Mills violently attacked Lawless during recreation time. Two Corrections officers, Officer Jessica Evans and Sergeant Timothy Schmid, intervened to break up the altercation. Officer Evans was injured.

         Officer Evans subsequently filed a disciplinary report claiming that Lawless kicked her in the knee during the fight. As a result of the report, an investigation commenced and Lawless was charged with a disciplinary violation-physical actions resulting in death or injury to an employee. Adjustment Officer (AO), Kristine Goetzinger, conducted a hearing in March 2014. At the hearing, Lawless denied kicking Officer Evans and stated that she was merely trying to defend herself from Mills. Lawless requested that AO Goetzinger review the security video that documented the fight. She also presented statements from two witnesses. One statement was from the other Corrections officer who responded to the altercation. That officer confirmed that Lawless was attempting to defend herself and was cooperative once Mills was separated from her. The officer made no mention of Officer Evans' injury. The second statement was from another inmate claiming that she did not witness Lawless strike Officer Evans and that Lawless was as compliant as possible.

         After considering the evidence, AO Goetzinger found Lawless guilty of the charged disciplinary offense and sentenced her to 365 days in segregation and 1, 321 days of lost good-time credit. AO Gbetzinger's findings state in pertinent part as follows:

Inmate stated that Officer Evans was in the middle of breaking up the fight and is questioning how the officer could determine who caused the injury to her. Inmate states that she was compliant, just like [Sergeant Schmid's] statement is saying, but that the other inmate was not compliant. . . . Due to this report from [Officer Evans] that injury was caused from this inmate while trying to separate a physical altercation, I am going to find her guilty of this charge.

         Lawless appealed to the Warden, who affirmed but reduced her punishment to 180 days in segregation and 199 days of lost good-time credit.

         Lawless then filed a pro se declaration of rights action against Warden Conover and AO Goetzinger in Shelby Circuit Court wherein she argued that the disciplinary proceeding violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. Approximately two weeks later, AO Goetzinger executed an affidavit stating: 1) she reviewed the surveillance video per Lawless' request; 2) nothing t in the camera footage altered her determination that Lawless was guilty; and 3) that her determination was not based on the camera footage but rather on the statement of the officer (victim) regarding who injured her.

         Two days later, the circuit court dismissed Lawless' petition finding that she had "received due process and there is some evidence in the record to support the finding of the adjustment officer." The court did not discuss the surveillance video which apparently was not in the record. Lawless appealed the court's decision to the Court of Appeals which, in a spilt opinion, reversed the trial court's order dismissing Lawless'petition. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court and ordered the court review and consider the surveillance video. Warden Conover and AO Goetzinger (Appellants), appealed to this Court.[1]

         Standard ...

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