Yeager v. Precythe

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Western District of Missouri
PartiesJOSPEH J. YEAGER, Plaintiff, v. ANNE L. PRECYTHE, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 2:17-cv-04093-NKL,2:17-cv-04093-NKL
Decision Date20 September 2017

JOSPEH J. YEAGER, Plaintiff,
ANNE L. PRECYTHE, et al., Defendants.

No. 2:17-cv-04093-NKL


September 20, 2017


Plaintiff Joseph J. Yeager, who is serving a Missouri prison sentence of life plus 13 years, alleges that the procedures used by the Defendant State of Missouri officials1 in denying his parole requests violate the United States and Missouri Constitutions. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. The Defendants move to dismiss. Doc. 14. The motion is granted.

I. Background2

In 1993, Yeager was convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action, and given consecutive sentences of life imprisonment plus 13 years. He was denied parole in 2006, 2011, and 2016. Yeager alleges that he is a model inmate who has made tremendous strides to improve himself and to prepare to rejoin society during his 24 years of imprisonment.

When Yeager was denied parole in 2006, the written reason provided to him stated:

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Release at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense based upon the following:

A. Circumstances Surrounding Present Offense.

Doc. 1, p. 10; and Doc. 1-6. At the 2006 parole hearing, then-Board member Fannie Gaw, who is not a Defendant to this lawsuit, remarked that Yeager's crime was "first degree murder" and he "should be down at Potosi," and recommended his next parole hearing be in 10 years, as requested by a victim's family member. Doc. 1, p. 14. After receiving a complaint from Yeager's mother, Dana Thompson, then Chair of the Board, wrote Yeager's mother a letter, acknowledging that Gaw's statement was inappropriate and that the Board did not have a formal system for auditing the content of the approximately 1,000 parole hearings that it held monthly. Doc. 1-10. However, Thompson said, the outcome of the parole hearing was not affected because a majority of the Board members had decided to set the next hearing in five years, or 2011. He also said that Gaw's term had expired after Yeager's 2006 hearing.

When Yeager was denied parole in 2011 and 2016, the written reasons provided to him both times stated:

Release at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense based upon:

A. Circumstances surrounding the present offense,
B. Use of a weapon,
C. Use of excessive force or violence,
D. Community Opposition.

Doc. 1, p. 10; Doc. 10-7; and Doc. 10-8. Yeager alleges that the Board "arbitrarily" added reasons B, C, and D, which are "clearly related to the category of 'seriousness of the present offense,'" and is overly focused on static factors of the offense. Id. Further, Yeager alleges, the Board in 2011 and 2016 improperly applied the law and regulations as modified after the date of his offense.

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Yeager also generally complains that he was not given access to the evidence against him before any of his hearings; the Board is not adequately explaining the bases for its denials or the reason why it scheduled his parole hearings the maximum amount of time apart; and he was not permitted to appeal from any of the three denials of parole.

He further alleges that the "high level of secrecy and lack of oversight the Board enjoys has created a dysfunctional and disrespectful atmosphere." Doc. 1, p. 16. "For example," Defendant Ruzicka, a Board member who "contributed to the Parole Board's decision to deny" Yeager parole on June 2, 2016, was investigated by the Missouri Department of Corrections, Office of Inspector General for playing games during parole hearings. Ruzicka and a parole analyst would compete against each other to see how many times each could use a particular word or refer to a song lyric during a proceeding, and on occasion dressed identically. Id. Yeager alleges upon information and belief that "the entire Parole Board and much of its staff were aware of these practices and condoned them," and Ruzicka continues to sit on the Board and conduct hearings. Id., p. 17. The investigation report attached to the complaint refers to "Incident Date[s]" after the date of Yeager's 2016 hearing: 6/21/21/2016, 6/22/2016, 6/23/2016, 7/18/2016, and 7/20/216. Doc. 1-11, p. 1.

Further, victim impact evidence was permitted at all three of Yeager's parole hearings. Yeager alleges that victims' representatives were permitted to provide "inflammatory" and "inaccurate" statements about him and the crime. Doc. 1, pp. 13-14. Yeager and his mother were permitted to speak only for a short amount of time and Board members asked them very few questions. In contrast, Board members encouraged the victim's representatives to share information.

In Counts I and IV of the Complaint, Yeager alleges that that his right to due process of

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law under the United States and Missouri Constitutions was violated because, even if he does not have a liberty interest in parole hearings, the hearings are the functional equivalent of sentencing, and due process protections apply at sentencing. Doc. 1, pp. 18-19, 21-22. He alleges that the Defendants' actions in denying him parole were erroneous and arbitrary, including the changing bases for denial, refusal to permit him to review and rebut evidence presented against him, and denying him notice of and explanation for the parole determination while citing seriousness of the offense. Yeager further states that he is making "'a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law, or establishing new law. FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b)(2).'" Id., p. 18, n. 5, and p. 21, n.7.

In Counts II and V, Yeager alleges that his parole denials violate his right to be free from ex post facto laws under the United States and Missouri Constitutions. Id. at 19-20, 22-23. He alleges that the Board implemented new parole regulations and imposed new procedures with retroactive effect, and applied them to his 2016 parole denial, rather than applying the regulations and procedures that were in effect at the time of his offense. He further alleges that "it appears the Board is holding" him "to the 85% rule," which went into effect only after the date of his underlying offenses. Id., p. 19. Yeager alleges that as a result, there is a real risk of increasing the measure of punishment for his offenses, from the dates of the offenses, and that he has in fact already served more than the 15-year, deterrent and retributive portion of his sentence as defined in parole regulations. Id., p. 20.

Finally, in Counts III and VI, Yeager alleges that his parole denials amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the United States and Missouri Constitutions, because of the broad and inflammatory nature of the victim impact evidence permitted at his parole hearings. Id., pp. 20-21, and 23-24. He alleges that because there are limitations on victim impact evidence

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that may be presented at a criminal sentencing, and a parole hearing is like a sentencing, such evidence should not be permitted at a parole hearing. Id. Yeager further states that he is making "'a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law, or establishing new law. FED. R. CIV. P. 11(b)(2).'" Id., p. 21, n. 8, and p. 24, n.10.

Yeager requests declaratory and injunctive relief.

II. Discussion

"To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is "plausible on its face" when the allegations allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendants are liable for the misconduct alleged, which is more than "a sheer possibility" that the defendants acted unlawfully. Id. (citation omitted). A plaintiff merely alleging facts that are "consistent with" liability is insufficient. Id. (citation omitted).

In considering whether a complaint meets the plausibility standard, a court must accept all factual allegations as true, but "is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Carton v. General Motor Acceptance Corp., 611 F.3d 451, 454 (8th Cir. 2010) (citing McAdams v. McCord, 584 F.3d 1111, 1113 (8th Cir. 2009)). Speculative, conclusory, or nonspecific allegations are insufficient. Cooper v. Schriro, 189 F.3d 781, 784-85 (8th Cir. 1999).

To succeed on his § 1983 claims, Yeager must prove: (1) that Defendants deprived him of a right secured by the United States Constitution or laws, and (2) that Defendants acted under color of state law. Gonzales-Perez v. Harper, 241 F.3d 633, 637 (8th Cir. 2001). Analysis of Yeager's claims under the Missouri Constitution is the same as under the United States

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Constitution, because Missouri interprets its corresponding constitutional provisions similarly. See Jamison v. State Dept. of Social Services, Div. of Family Services, 218 S.W.3d 399, 405 n.7 (Mo. 2007) ("Missouri's due process clause parallels its federal counterpart"); State v. Harris, 414 S.W.3d 447, 449 (Mo. 2013) (Missouri's ban on ex post facto laws is "coextensive" with the federal ban and the Missouri Supreme Court analyzes it "in lockstep" with the federal ban); and Burnett v. State, 311 S.W.3d 810, 814 n.3 (Mo. App. 2009) (Missouri courts "apply the "same standard in determining whether a punishment violates the United States Constitution or Missouri Constitution" because both provide the "same protection" against cruel and unusual punishment).

A. The due process claims, Counts I and IV, fail as a matter of law.

"There is no constitutional or inherent right of a convicted person to be conditionally released before expiration of a valid sentence." Greenholtz v. Inmates of the Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex, 442 U.S. 1, 7 (1979). This is because the conviction has extinguished any liberty interest in release until the sentence has been served. Id.; McKown v. Mitchell, 869 S.W.2d 765, 768 (Mo....

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