State ex rel. Staples v. Department of Health and Social Services

Decision Date22 January 1987
Docket NumberNo. 85-0878,85-0878
Citation136 Wis.2d 487,402 N.W.2d 369
PartiesSTATE ex rel. William STAPLES, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL SERVICES, Resident Complaint System, Linda Reivitz and Walter Dickey, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

Sue E. Kanner and Lee, Johnson, Kilkelly & Nichol, S.C., Madison, for defendants-respondents.


GARTZKE, Presiding Judge.

Appellant William Staples is an inmate in the Wisconsin Correctional Institution at Waupun. The Department of Health and Social Services and others are respondents. 1. Staples appeals from an order dismissing his certiorari petition challenging the respondents' refusal to grant relief on the grievances he filed under the Inmate Complaint Review System (ICRS), Wis.Adm.Code We deem the principal issue to be whether Staples's grievances are reviewable under ICRS. To the extent that respondents refused to grant relief or failed to review Staples's grievances which are not reviewable under the ICRS, we affirm. We conclude, however, that respondents failed adequately to deal with certain of Staples's grievances which are reviewable under the ICRS. We therefore affirm in part and reverse in part and remand with directions.

                sec. HSS 310.  The purpose of the ICRS is "to afford inmates in adult institutions a process by which grievances may be expeditiously raised, investigated, and decided."   Sec. HSS 310.01(1)

This case began with a prison disciplinary proceeding against Staples when he was an inmate at Kettle Moraine Corrections Institution. He was charged with battery, a violation of a disciplinary rule. The disciplinary committee found him guilty.

As a result of the disciplinary proceeding, Staples received 360 days program segregation, 2. he lost "good time credits" against his sentence, he lost his security rating, and he was returned to the prison at Waupun. While he was in program segregation he was unable to continue schooling or work in the institution. Staples sought certiorari review in the circuit court for Sheboygan county. That court dismissed his petition without reviewing the record made by the disciplinary committee. The Wisconsin supreme court reversed and directed the circuit court to review the record. State ex rel. Staples v. DHSS, 115 Wis.2d 363, 340 N.W.2d 194 (1983). On remand, the circuit court ordered that the disciplinary committee's decision be "vacated" and that the disciplinary action against Staples be expunged from the records.

Staples again petitioned the Sheboygan county circuit court. He contended that the court should have ordered that he receive his former security rating, backpay for hours he lost from prison work and his court expenses, and that he be returned to Kettle Moraine Corrections Institution. The circuit court dismissed Staples's petition, and the court of appeals affirmed.

Staples then filed a complaint in the prison for administrative relief under the ICRS. He requested reinstatement of his good time credits and security rating, his return to Kettle Moraine, and compensation, apparently for "mental stress, anguish [and] discomfort" and for the period in which he was denied the opportunity to work and could not continue prison school. He cited Wis.Adm.Code sec. 313.08(9), pertaining to compensation in prison industry shops and providing that an employee found not guilty of a violation of a disciplinary rule "shall be paid for all hours absent from work due to the disciplinary proceedings." He alleged that another inmate had received backpay and reinstatement at his old prison job after the circuit court vacated a disciplinary committee's finding of guilt from violation of a disciplinary rule.

An inmate complaint investigator recommended that Staples's complaint be dismissed. 4. The grounds for dismissal are ambiguously stated but appear to be that Staples was not entitled to backpay for work in the prison because he had been attending school and was not working, the After the investigator's recommendation was administratively accepted and affirmed, Staples petitioned the Dane county circuit court for certiorari review. The gravamen of Staples's petition is that action on his complaint was not taken within the time limits provided in the ICRS regulations, 5. and respondents should have granted the relief he seeks because respondents had granted the same relief to another inmate. The trial court dismissed Staples's petition.

circuit court had not ordered Staples's return to Kettle Moraine, and Staples's grievances are not reviewable under the ICRS because they pertain to his inmate record. 4.

We need not describe the trial court's reasons for dismissing Staples's petition. Judicial review on certiorari is limited to whether the agency's decision was within its jurisdiction, the agency acted according to law, its decision was arbitrary or oppressive and the evidence of record substantiates the decision. Van Ermen v. H & SS Department, 84 Wis.2d 57, 63, 267 N.W.2d 17, 20 (1978). The scope of our review is identical to that of the trial court on certiorari. We decide the merits of the matter independently of the trial court's decision, State ex rel. Hippler v. Baraboo, 47 Wis.2d 603, 616, 178 N.W.2d 1, 8 (1970), and reviewing the trial court's analysis is therefore unnecessary.


Because the prison officials ruled that the ICRS system is unavailable, Staples never obtained rulings on the merits of his grievances, except in part as to his backpay grievance and as to his return to Kettle Moraine. The apparent reason for withholding those rulings is that the ICRS does not apply to his grievances. We conclude that respondents partly erred by withholding rulings.

We held in State ex rel. Meeks v. Gagnon, 95 Wis.2d 115, 119, 289 N.W.2d 357, 361 (Ct.App.1980), that an agency is bound by its own procedural rules, and its failure to follow its own regulations is reviewable on certiorari. The same principles cover judicial review of decisions by prison officials under the Inmate Complaint Review System, since that system is part of the administrative fabric of the Division of Corrections.

The ICRS exists to afford inmates in adult correctional institutions a process by which their grievances may be expeditiously raised, investigated and decided. Wis.Adm.Code sec. HSS 310.01(1). The scope of the ICRS system is stated in sec. HSS 310.04(2), which provides:

The ICRS may be used to seek a change of any institutional policy or practice except:

(a) A finding of guilt or a penalty imposed by an adjustment committee or a disciplinary hearing officer as the result of a disciplinary hearing under ch. HSS 303;

(b) A program review committee's decision under ch. HSS 308 to place a person in administrative confinement;

(c) A decision of the parole board acting in any capacity;

(d) The denial of a request for an authorized leave as provided in ch. HSS 326; or

(e) A decision on a challenge to an inmate record.

The ruling that the relief Staples sought is unavailable under the ICRS is an interpretation of Wis.Adm.Code sec. HSS 310.04(2). The interpretation of an administrative regulation is a question of law. Huff & Morse, Inc. v. Riordon, 118 Wis.2d 1, 4, 345 N.W.2d 504, 506 (Ct.App.1984). We usually defer, however, to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations. "It is black-letter law that the interpretation by an administrative agency of its own regulation is entitled to controlling weight unless inconsistent with the language of the regulation or clearly erroneous." Beal v. First Fed.Sav. & Loan Asso. of Madison, 90 Wis.2d 171, 183, 279 N.W.2d 693, 698 (1979).

Wisconsin Adm.Code sec. HSS 310.04(2)(e), which excepts ICRS review of a requested change in an "institutional policy or practice" pertaining to a "decision on a challenge to an inmate record," is ambiguous. It is ambiguous because reasonable persons can understand it differently. St. John Vianney Sch. v. Janesville Ed. Bd., 114 Wis.2d 140, 150, 336 N.W.2d 387, 391 (Ct.App.1983).

The ambiguity is two-fold. First, an "institutional policy or practice" connotes rules, regulations and customs of general application throughout the institution rather than actions affecting only the individual interests of inmates. Second, it is unclear whether "a decision on a challenge to an inmate record" pertains to an administrative decision which affects an inmate's record but is not reviewable under a procedure other than the ICRS.

Because the regulation is ambiguous, we may look beyond its words to other sources in an effort to determine the department's intent. We may do so because the construction of administrative rules is governed by the same rules as apply to statutory construction. Basinas v. State, 104 Wis.2d 539, 546, 312 N.W.2d 483, 486 (1981). The department has added to Wis.Adm.Code ch. 310 a lengthy Appendix containing explanatory material pertaining to the ICRS. Because sec. HSS 310.04(2)(e) is ambiguous, we may look to that Appendix for clarification of the department's intent when it adopted ch. 310. Compare State v. Williquette, 129 Wis.2d 239, 254, 385 N.W.2d 145, 152 (1986) (articles by principal draftsman of statute are persuasive authority when construing the statute).

According to Wis.Adm.Code note 310.01 Appendix,

Experience with the Wisconsin complaint system has shown that most complaints relate to personal property, the application of rules, and disagreements with staff. ... Although most of those grievances relate to matters which appear minor to people unfamiliar with the correctional system, many are critical to inmates because of the profound personal effect.

We conclude that the ICRS embraces individual grievances, as well as those having an...

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