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Clayton-El v. Fisher

September 12, 1996




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 86 C 2289 Harold A. Baker, Judge.

Before HARLINGTON WOOD, JR., CUDAHY and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.



While incarcerated in an Illinois prison, James Clayton-EL *fn1 had a fight with another prisoner. Prison officials conducted a disciplinary hearing and imposed sanctions for this conduct. The sanctions included the rescission of some of Clayton-EL's good-time credits, an action that could have affected the duration of his imprisonment. Believing that the sanctions were the result of a procedurally deficient hearing, Clayton-EL went to the district court seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 for the procedural deficiency and its consequences. Because some of Clayton-EL's claims for damages implicated issues cognizable in habeas corpus, the district court stayed its consideration of the damages claims while Clayton-EL exhausted his state-court remedies. The state proceedings resulted in a new disciplinary hearing, which reached the same result as the first. This eventuality led the district court to conclude that prison officials had properly disciplined Clayton-EL and that he was therefore not entitled to any damages, regardless of whether the procedures at his first hearing were as deficient as he alleged. It issued a summary judgment for the defendant, and Clayton-EL appeals. This appeal turns on the complex problems that arise at the intersection of sec. 1983 and habeas corpus law. These complexities have led to slow, convoluted proceedings in this case; Clayton-EL's fight and the alleged constitutional violation occurred more than ten years ago, and its legal consequences are still not clear. We reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for further proceedings, but we hope that this opinion will insure that the continuation of this case will not last long or become even more complex.


On June 14, 1986, while they were both prisoners at the Pontiac Correctional Center, Clayton-EL and Yuba LaSumba fought. Clayton-EL describes the altercation as a "one-on-one" fistfight, but two prison guards had a different view. They asserted that Clayton-EL had held LaSumba down so that other prisoners could strike him. In accordance with state administrative regulations, prison officials convened a hearing at which the prison's Adjustment Committee would make factual findings about the fight and decide what disciplinary measures, if any, to impose. As an essential element of the prison disciplinary process, both state regulations and federal constitutional law required that Clayton-EL receive advance written notice of the hearing and the charges against him. Ill. Admin. Code tit. 20, sec. 504.80(b); Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 563 (1974). Illinois prisons usually provide this notice by having a prison guard serve the prisoner with a form entitled "Inmate Disciplinary Report"--known informally as a "disciplinary ticket."

Clayton-EL claims that no guard ever served him with a disciplinary ticket. After his fight with LaSumba ended, he was taken to Pontiac's hospital and housed in its segregation unit. Within a few hours, a prison guard, Dwayne Fisher, was assigned to distribute disciplinary tickets to Clayton-EL and other prisoners who had been charged with unrelated violations. According to Clayton-EL, who relies on information from his fellow prisoners, Fisher arrived in the cell block where Clayton-EL was ordinarily housed and began calling Clayton-EL's name. Clayton-EL's cell-block neighbors tried to tell Fisher that Clayton-EL was then housed elsewhere, but Fisher apparently ignored them and placed the ticket between the bars of Clayton-EL's empty cell. One of Clayton-EL's fellow inmates retrieved the ticket and attempted to forward it, but it arrived too late to furnish proper notice of the hearing, which was scheduled for June 19, 1986. In an affidavit, Fisher denies this account. Although he has no memory of the specific events, he maintains that the face of the disciplinary ticket proves that Clayton-EL's story is incredible. The disciplinary ticket includes a line for the prisoner's signature, which acknowledges receipt of notice; if the prisoner refuses to sign, the guard who serves the notice can check off a box on the form indicating this refusal. Fisher points out that the box is checked on the disciplinary ticket in question here and that he signed the ticket in the space provided for his signature. He avers that, as an absolute rule, he would not check off the box and sign the ticket unless the inmate did, in fact, refuse to sign. From these documentary clues and his own habits, he deduces that he must have served Clayton-EL and that Clayton-EL must have refused to sign.

The hearing went forward. Clayton-EL was surprised by its timing and by the precise nature of the charges and evidence against him. His defense amounted to his own denial of the charges, unsupported by any other evidence. He claims that he would have called LaSumba as a witness if he had been given the opportunity to do so and that LaSumba would have confirmed his version of events (in this connection, the record before us contains an affidavit from LaSumba). With only the guards' testimony in the administrative record, the Adjustment Committee found that Clayton-EL had committed the infractions with which he was charged, and it decided that he should lose a year's worth of good-time credits, that he should be subjected to a reduction in grade and that he should spend a year in disciplinary segregation.

Believing that he had undergone an unfair process, Clayton-EL filed a lawsuit in the district court under sec. 1983, proceeding pro se. The nature of his claims is quite complicated and requires careful explication. In his amended complaint, filed on April 24, 1987, he claimed that, by not serving him with notice of the Adjustment Committee hearing, Fisher had violated his right to procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. As relief for this injury, he sought punitive damages in the amount of $150,000 and compensatory damages for the mental and emotional suffering occasioned by Fisher's alleged conduct. He also claimed this injury to his due process rights proximately caused injuries to other constitutional rights. In his view, the procedural deficiencies at his hearing ineluctably led the hearing officers to impose undeserved disciplinary sanctions. Clayton-EL alleged that one of these sanctions, his confinement in disciplinary segregation, prevented him from collecting prison wages and from doing research in the prison law library for an entirely different pro se suit in which he sought collateral relief from the conviction that had originally led to his imprisonment. He thus characterized this confinement as cruel and unusual punishment, and he believed that it deprived him of his constitutional right to have access to the courts because it prevented him from properly pursuing his other lawsuits. He sought actual and compensatory damages for these injuries, and he asked for a declaratory judgment that his confinement in segregation was illegal. He did not ask for the restoration of his good-time credits or for a change in his grade.

In an order issued in July 1988, the district court identified an obstacle to the immediate adjudication of these claims--the fact that some of the injuries that Clayton-EL alleged occurred as the result of the disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Adjustment Committee. To make a finding about these injuries, the district court would have also had to make a finding about the fairness of the entire process before the Adjustment Committee. But the district court noted that a finding about the fairness of this process could have a preclusive effect in a lawsuit in which Clayton-EL sought restoration of his good-time credits, a proceeding that could affect the duration of his imprisonment. The district court therefore ordered Clayton-EL to pursue state court remedies for the restoration of his good-time credits, and it stayed its adjudication of all of the sec. 1983 claims until the state proceedings concluded. It made this ruling in reliance on Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973), Crump v. Lane, 807 F.2d 1394, 1399-1402 (7th Cir. 1986) and Hanson v. Heckel, 791 F.2d 93, 95 (7th Cir. 1986).

In October 1989, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Illinois found that Fisher had violated Clayton-EL's right to receive notice of his disciplinary hearing, and it issued a writ of mandamus commanding prison officials to restore Clayton-EL's good-time credits or, in the alternative, to give him a new hearing before the Adjustment Committee. The officials at the Stateville Correctional Center, to which Clayton-EL had been transferred, chose the latter alternative, and scheduled a hearing for November 15, 1989.

Clayton-EL also had trouble with this hearing. A few days before it was to take place, he was stabbed by another prisoner and went to Stateville's hospital ward which is located in the same section of the prison as the disciplinary segregation unit. At the time appointed for the hearing, a guard, Lamar Hankins, came to the hospital ward to escort Clayton-EL to the Adjustment Committee, and ordered Clayton-EL to put on handcuffs. Hankins and Clayton-EL disagree about what happened next. Clayton-EL asserts that he merely asked a question about the necessity of handcuffs, a question inspired by his extensive knowledge of correctional regulations. Illinois administrative regulations provide that a prison guard may order a prisoner who is on disciplinary segregation status to wear handcuffs while being moved within the prison. Ill. Admin. Code tit. 20, sec. 501.110(a)(1). Clayton-EL says that he asked Hankins if handcuffs were necessary, given the fact that he was not on disciplinary segregation status, even though he was housed with other prisoners who were. Clayton-EL's concern arose from his fear that his recent assailants would renew their attacks as he passed through the prison without any means of self-defense. He also says that he asked Hankins to check with Hankins' supervisor about the answer to this question. Hankins offers a different description of Clayton-EL's response to his order to "cuff up," asserting that Clayton-EL simply refused to obey it.

Clayton-EL and Hankins do not disagree about what followed their encounter in the hospital ward. Hankins left the ward and went to the members of the Adjustment Committee, telling them that Clayton-EL had refused to wear handcuffs. The members of the committee construed this refusal as a waiver of his right to appear before them, and they proceeded with the hearing on the basis of what was before them--the evidence and findings from the first hearing. Because it had nothing else to go on, the Adjustment ...

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