544 U.S. 74 (2005), 03-287, Wilkinson v. Dotson

Docket Nº:No. 03-287
Citation:544 U.S. 74, 125 S.Ct. 1242, 161 L.Ed.2d 253, 73 U.S.L.W. 4204
Party Name:REGINALD A. WILKINSON, DIRECTOR, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF REHABILITATION AND CORRECTION, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. WILLIAM DWIGHT DOTSON ET AL.
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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544 U.S. 74 (2005)

125 S.Ct. 1242, 161 L.Ed.2d 253, 73 U.S.L.W. 4204

REGINALD A. WILKINSON, DIRECTOR, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF REHABILITATION AND CORRECTION, ET AL., PETITIONERS

v.

WILLIAM DWIGHT DOTSON ET AL.

No. 03-287

United States Supreme Court

March 7, 2005

Argued December 6, 2004

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondents Dotson and Johnson are Ohio state prisoners. After parole officials determined that Dotson was not eligible for parole and that Johnson was not suitable for parole, they brought separate actions for declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming that Ohio's parole procedures violate the Federal Constitution. In each case, the Federal District Court concluded that a §1983 action does not lie and that the prisoner would have to seek relief through a habeas corpus suit. The Sixth Circuit ultimately consolidated the cases and reversed, finding that the actions could proceed under §1983.

Held:

State prisoners may bring a §1983 action for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of state parole procedures; they need not seek relief exclusively under the federal habeas corpus statutes. Pp. 78-85.

(a) Ohio argues unsuccessfully that respondents' claims may only be brought in federal habeas (or similar state) proceedings because a state prisoner cannot use a §1983 action to challenge "the fact or duration of his confinement," e.g., Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 489, and respondents' lawsuits, in effect, collaterally attack their confinements' duration. That argument jumps from a true premise (that in all likelihood the prisoners hope their suits will help bring about earlier release) to a faulty conclusion (that habeas is their sole avenue for relief). This Court's case law makes clear that the connection between the constitutionality of the prisoners' parole proceedings and release from confinement is too tenuous here to achieve Ohio's legal door-closing objective. From Preiser to Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, this Court has developed an exception from §1983's otherwise broad scope for actions that lie "within the core of habeas corpus," Preiser, supra, at 487, i.e., where a state prisoner requests present or future release. Section 1983 remains available for procedural challenges where success would not necessarily spell immediate or speedier release for the prisoner, e.g., Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, but the prisoner cannot use §1983 to obtain relief where success would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of

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confinement or its duration, e.g., Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477. Here, respondents' claims are cognizable under §1983, i.e., they do not fall within the implicit habeas exception. They seek relief that will render invalid the state procedures used to deny parole eligibility (Dotson) and parole suitability (Johnson). See Wolff, supra, at 554-555. Neither prisoner seeks an injunction ordering his immediate or speedier release into the community. See, e.g., Preiser, supra, at 500. And as in Wolff, a favorable judgment will not "necessarily imply the invalidity of [their] conviction[s] or sentence[s]." Heck, supra, at 487. Success for Dotson does not mean immediate release or a shorter stay in prison; it means at most new eligibility review, which may speed consideration of a new parole application. Success for Johnson means at most a new parole hearing at which parole authorities may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term. Because neither prisoner's claim would necessarily spell speedier release, neither lies at "the core of habeas corpus." Preiser, supra, at 489. Finally, the prisoners' claims for future relief (which, if successful, will not necessarily imply the invalidity of confinement or shorten its duration) are yet more distant from that core. See Balisok, supra, at 648. Pp. 78-83.

(b) Ohio's additional arguments—(1) that respondents' §1983 actions cannot lie because a favorable judgment would "necessarily imply the invalidity of [their] sentence[s]," Heck, supra, at 487 (emphasis added), which sentences include particular state parole procedures; and (2) that a decision for them would violate principles of federal/state comity by opening the door to federal court without prior exhaustion of state-court remedies—are not persuasive. Pp. 83-84.

329 F.3d 463, affirmed and remanded.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST,C. J., and STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCAUA, SOUTER, THOMAS, and GINSBURG,JJ., joined. SCAUA, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which THOMAS, J.,joined, post, p. 85. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 88.

Douglas R. Cole, State Solicitor of Ohio, argued the causefor petitioners. With him on the briefs were Jim Petro, AttorneyGeneral, Stephen P. Carney, Senior Deputy Solicitor,and Todd R. Marti, Assistant Solicitor.

John Q. Lewis argued the cause for respondent Johnson.With him on the brief were Donald B. Ayer, William K. Shirey II, and David L. Shapiro.

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Alan E. Untereiner argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent Dotson.[*]

OPINION

BREYER, JUSTICE

Two state prisoners brought an action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 claiming that Ohio's state parole procedures violate the Federal Constitution. The prisoners seek declaratory and injunctive relief. The question before us is whether they may bring such an action under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, or whether they must instead seek relief exclusively under the federal habeas corpus statutes. We conclude that these actions may be brought under §1983.

I

The two respondents, William Dotson and Rogerico Johnson, are currently serving lengthy terms in Ohio prisons. Dotson began to serve a life sentence in 1981. The parole board rejected his first parole request in 1995; and a parole officer, after reviewing Dotson's records in the year 2000, determined that he should not receive further consideration for parole for at least five more years. In reaching this conclusion about Dotson's parole eligibility, the officer used parole guidelines first adopted in 1998, after Dotson

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began to serve his term. Dotson claims that the retroactive application of these new, harsher guidelines to his preguidelines case violates the Constitution's Ex Post Facto and Due Process Clauses. He seeks a federal-court declaration to that effect as well as a permanent injunction ordering prison officials to grant him an "immediate parole hearing in accordance with the statutory laws and administrative rules in place when [he] committed his crimes." App. 20 (Dotson Complaint, Prospective Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, 13).

Johnson began to serve a 10- to 30-year prison term in 1992. The parole board considered and rejected his first parole request in 1999, finding him unsuitable for release. In making this determination, the board applied the new 1998 guidelines. Johnson too claims that the application of these new, harsher guidelines to his preguidelines case violated the Constitution's Ex Post Facto Clause. He also alleges that the parole board's proceedings (by having too few members present and by denying him an adequate opportunity to speak) violated the Constitution's Due Process Clause. Johnson's complaint seeks a new parole hearing conducted under constitutionally proper procedures and an injunction ordering the State to comply with constitutional due process and ex post facto requirements in the future.

Both prisoners brought §1983 actions in federal court. In each case, the Federal District Court concluded that a §1983 action does not lie and that the prisoner would have to seek relief through a habeas corpus suit. Dotson v. Wilkinson, No. 3:00 CV 7303 (ND Ohio, Aug. 7, 2000); Johnson v. Ghee, No. 4:00 CV 1075 (ND Ohio, July 16, 2000). Each prisoner appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ultimately consolidated the two appeals and heard both cases en banc. The court found that the actions could proceed under §1983, and it reversed the lower courts. 329 F.3d 463, 472 (2003). Ohio parole officials then petitioned for certiorari, and we granted review.

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II

This Court has held that a prisoner in state custody cannot use a §1983 action to challenge "the fact or duration of his confinement." Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 489 (1973); see also Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 554 (1974); Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 481 (1994); Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997). He must seek federal habeas corpus relief (or appropriate state relief) instead.

Ohio points out that the inmates in these cases attack their parole-eligibility proceedings (Dotson) and parole-suitability proceedings (Johnson) only because they believe that victory on their claims will lead to speedier release from prison. Consequently, Ohio argues, the prisoners' lawsuits, in effect, collaterally attack the duration of their confinement; hence, such a claim may only be brought through a habeas corpus action, not through §1983.

The problem with Ohio's argument lies in its jump from a true premise (that in all likelihood the prisoners hope these actions will help bring about earlier release) to a faulty conclusion (that habeas is their sole avenue for relief). A consideration of this Court's case law makes clear that the connection between the constitutionality of the prisoners' parole proceedings and release from confinement is too tenuous here to achieve Ohio's legal door-closing objective.

The Court initially addressed the relationship between §1983 and the federal habeas statutes in Preiser v. Rodriguez, supra. In that case, state prisoners brought civil rights actions attacking the constitutionality of prison disciplinary proceedings that had led to the deprivation of their good-time credits. Id....

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