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Whitfield v. Howard

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 28, 2017

Benyehudah Whitfield II, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Erika R. Howard, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued October 27, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 3:13-cv-03192 - Richard Mills, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Manion, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, Chief Judge.

         Benyehudah Whitfield spent nearly 17 years in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections. He contends that he would have been released earlier had it not been for the retaliatory revocation of good-time credits; he lost those credits in three prison disciplinary proceedings. Whitfield filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit after his release in 2011, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated by his improperly postponed release. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, reasoning that Whitfield's claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997), and Burd v. Sessler, 702 F.3d 429 (7th Cir. 2012). We conclude, to the contrary, that those cases do not bar his action, and so we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I

         The three prison disciplinary proceedings against Whitfield at issue here took place in 2002, 2003, and 2007. Combined, they resulted in the revocation of a total of 16 months of good-conduct credit Whitfield had earned. While incarcerated, Whitfield diligently filed administrative grievances regarding all three disciplinary reports and actions; the Administrative Review Board denied each one. In January 2003 and June 2004, Whitfield also filed separate section 1983 actions challenging the 2002 and 2003 disciplinary proceedings, each of which included a claim of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. The district courts dismissed the First Amendment retaliation claims in both of those actions as barred by Heck. Such a dismissal is without prejudice. See Moore v. Burge, 771 F.3d 444, 446 (7th Cir. 2014) (if barred by Heck, plaintiff sued too early, not too late, because statute of limitations does not begin to run until Heck bar lifted); Polzin v. Gage, 636 F.3d 834, 839 (7th Cir. 2011) ("If the district court decides that dismissal on the Heck doctrine alone is appropriate, it should dismiss that part of [plaintiff's] complaint without prejudice.").

         Whitfield also embarked on a spirited, if procedurally flawed, effort to vindicate his rights in state court. In March 2004, he filed a complaint for mandamus relief in the Livingston County (Illinois) circuit court alleging due process violations in the 2003 disciplinary proceeding. The circuit court denied the claim and held that Whitfield had received whatever process was due. He appealed that denial, but the state appellate court affirmed. Whitfield did not petition for leave to appeal that decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.

         In August 2009 Whitfield attempted to challenge all three revocations of his good-conduct credit through a state-law petition for habeas corpus filed in the Randolph County circuit court. The circuit court dismissed the complaint without prejudice, because under Illinois law it failed to state a cognizable theory. Whitfield moved for reconsideration and argued that the court should recharacterize his complaint as one seeking mandamus, but the court refused to do so. Whitfield appealed, but he failed to include a copy of the record (because he did not have one). Claiming indigence, he requested a free record on appeal, but the court denied his motion because state law conferred no right to a free record in a civil action. He moved for and was granted two extensions of time to file the record. Although he still did not have the official record, he sought leave to file his personal documents as the record. The court rejected that motion and dismissed the appeal in June 2010 for want of prosecution (meaning only for lack of a record). Whitfield petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for leave to appeal, but it denied his petition in September 2010.

         On March 2, 2011, Whitfield filed a federal petition for habeas corpus, in which he again tried to challenge the three disciplinary actions. The state argued that Whitfield's petition would be rendered moot in July 2011, when he was scheduled for release, and that Whitfield had failed to exhaust his state remedies. The district court dismissed the action as moot on July 25, 2011, because by that time Whitfield was no longer in custody.

         This string of failures did not stop Whitfield, who filed the present section 1983 action just short of two years later, on July 8, 2013. Upon a preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), the district court found that Whitfield stated claims against the adjustment committee members for due process violations and for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. Nonetheless, it granted summary judgment for the defendants on the basis that Whitfield's suit was barred by Heck and Balisok, as interpreted in Bur A v. Sessler. The latter case requires a plaintiff to pursue timely collateral relief while in custody, and the district court concluded that Whitfield had not done so. Whitfield moved for reconsideration twice; the district court denied both requests. This appeal followed.

         II

         Pointing to a procedural hiccup surrounding Whitfield's motions for reconsideration and notices of appeal, the state begins with a challenge to our appellate jurisdiction. That argument takes precedence, and so we address it first.

         The district court issued its order granting summary judgment for the defendants on January 7, 2015. Relying on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, Whitfield filed a timely motion for reconsideration of that order on January 21, 2015; the district court denied that motion on June 5, 2015. Complicating matters, Whitfield filed a second motion for reconsideration that purported to rely on both Rule 59 and Rule 60(b) on June 29, 2015. The district court denied that motion on July 8, 2015, and properly advised Whitfield that the June 29 motion had not reset the clock on his time to appeal from the January 7 order. Whitfield first responded with a notice of appeal limited to the July 8 order; he filed that notice on ...


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