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Conover v. Blocker

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

April 5, 2019

JANET CONOVER, WARDEN OF THE KENTUCKY CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN; AND RODNEY BALLARD, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF THE KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS APPELLANTS
v.
JUNE BLOCKER APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM SHELBY CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE CHARLES R. HICKMAN, JUDGE ACTION NO. 17-CI-00249

          BRIEFS FOR APPELLANT: Angela E. Cordery Frankfort, Kentucky

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Kelsey Doren LaGrange, Kentucky

          BEFORE: JONES, NICKELL, AND TAYLOR, JUDGES.

          OPINION

          JONES, JUDGE

         Janet Conover, Warden of the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women, and Rodney Ballard, Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Corrections, appeal an order of the Shelby Circuit Court granting inmate June Blocker's petition for a declaration of rights. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse.

         I. BACKGROUND

         June Blocker is a Kentucky state inmate. At all relevant times, she has been housed at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women ("KCIW"). On November 7, 2016, Blocker was written up for three incidents that occurred on November 3, 2016. First, Blocker grabbed a security camera with her hands and pulled it from the wall, which resulted in Blocker being charged with destroying or tampering with safety/security locking devices. Later that day, Blocker hit and injured KCIW employee, Lisa Lewis, which resulted in Blocker being charged with physical action resulting in death or injury of an employee. When Lt. Marc Blanford arrived to help Ms. Lewis, he ordered Blocker to the ground, but Blocker did not comply and swung her arms at him. This resulted in Blocker being charged with physical action against an employee or non-inmate.

         On November 15, 2016, the Adjustment Committee conducted a hearing on each of the offenses charged. The Adjustment Committee was presented with descriptions of the incidents from prison employees, Lisa Lewis, Lt. Marc Blanford, and Jeff Hall; the reports of investigating officers, Sgt. Collett and Sgt. Dryden; statements from Blocker to the investigating officers that she was delusional but committed the acts as charged; video footage of the assault of Ms. Lewis and the security camera incident; and Blocker's medication records. The Adjustment Committee found Blocker guilty of all three offenses based on evidence that she committed the acts in question.

         Blocker submitted a warden's appeal, and the warden affirmed the Adjustment Committee. Blocker petitioned for a rehearing, which was conducted on December 9, 2016. An additional statement from the Department of Correction's Mental Health Department ("Mental Health") introduced during the rehearing provided "that inmate Blocker is able to be held accountable for her actions." All other evidence remained the same, and Blocker was again found guilty of all three offenses. In total, the record indicates that Blocker was sentenced to serve thirty days in disciplinary segregation and a loss of seven hundred and thirty (730) days of good-time credit following the rehearing.[1]Blocker again appealed to the warden, but her appeal was denied.

         On May 11, 2017, Blocker filed a petition for declaration of rights pursuant to KRS[2] 418.040 with the Shelby Circuit Court. In her petition, Blocker admitted that she committed the offenses, but asserted that the Adjustment Committee violated her due process rights when it failed to take into account her mental state at the time she committed the acts. She maintained that the Adjustment Committee failed to consider that she was in the midst of a psychotic episode brought on by the prison's failure to administer her bipolar prescription medication, Zyprexa, in the days leading up to and on the day of the incidents. On August 7, 2017, KCIW moved to dismiss Blocker's petition. KCIW argued Blocker received all due process rights required in the context of prison disciplinary proceedings. KCIW also argued there was "some evidence" to support Adjustment Commitment's determinations, and a statement from Mental Health provided Blocker could be held accountable for the charged behavior.

         On February 26, 2018, the trial court denied KCIW's motion to dismiss and granted Blocker's petition. In that order, the trial court concluded Blocker was not afforded the minimum due process rights required in prison disciplinary proceedings because the Adjustment Committee's findings of fact did not adequately address the issue of criminal responsibility and accountability. The trial court reasoned that the Adjustment Committee made an "implied finding of accountability" that was not supported by some evidence. Based on its conclusion, the trial court ordered all Blocker's good-time credit restored and rescinded all disciplinary segregation time. This appeal followed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "[P]rison disciplinary proceedings are not criminal prosecutions; and punishment is imposed as warranted by the severity of the offense in order to correct and control inmate behavior within the prison." Conover v. Lawless, 540 S.W.3d 766, 768 (Ky. 2017) (quoting Ramirez v. Nietzel, 424 S.W.3d 911, 916 (Ky. 2014)). Prison administrators are better suited than the courts to make that determination. Accordingly, the standard of review in prison disciplinary proceedings is highly deferential to prison administrators. Smith v. O'Dea, 939 S.W.2d 353, 357 (Ky. App. 1997). "The court seeks not to form its own judgment, but, with due deference, to ensure that the agency's judgment comports with the legal restrictions applicable to it." Id. at 355; Foley v. Haney, 345 S.W.3d 861, 863 (Ky. App. 2011). When there is some evidence to support the prison administrators' decision, we will not interfere with the disciplinary proceedings. Superintendent, Mass. Correctional Institution, Wapole v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 457, 105 S.Ct. 2768, 2775, 86 L.Ed.2d 356 (1985).

         III. ANALYSIS

         First, we will examine whether the Adjustment Committee afforded Blocker her procedural due process rights. Due process under the federal and Kentucky constitutions is implicated in prison disciplinary proceedings when, as in this case, the prisoner's good-time credit is at stake. O'Dea, 939 S.W.2d at 357. In the context of prison disciplinary proceedings, however, the prison is only required to afford the prisoner "minimal due process"; it does not have to afford the full panoply of rights due in a formal criminal prosecution by the State. See Ramirez, 424 S.W.3d at 916 (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 555-57, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2974-75, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974)). To satisfy the minimal due process requirement, the prison must provide: "(1) advance written notice of the disciplinary charges; (2) an opportunity, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals, to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in [the inmate's] defense; and (3) a written statement by the factfinder of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action." Hill, 472 U.S. at 454, 472 S.Ct. at 2773 (1985) (citing Wolff, 418 U.S. 563-67, 94 S.Ct. at 2978-80). Additionally, an inmate has a limited right to present exculpatory evidence. Ramirez, 424 S.W.3d at 919.

         Here, Blocker signed a document stating that she received on November 8, 2016, a copy of the Disciplinary Report Form Part I - Write-up and Investigation for each of the three offenses. By signing that document, Blocker also acknowledged she was advised of her right to call witnesses and have an inmate legal aid or a staff representative present at her hearing. Blocker received a copy of the Disciplinary Report Form Part II - Hearing/Appeal for each of the three offenses, which states the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action. Blocker acknowledged her receipt of the report by signature on November 15, 2016, following the first ...


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