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McElrath v. Stirling

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

October 24, 2016

Andrew Marshall McElrath, Plaintiff,
Bryan P. Stirling; Michael McCall; Anderson County Detention Center, and Sgt. Goolsby, Defendants.


          Kaymani D. West Florence, South Carolina United States Magistrate Judge

         This is a civil action filed pro se by a state prison inmate. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.), this magistrate judge is authorized to review all pretrial matters in such pro se cases and to submit findings and recommendations to the district court. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e); 1915A (as soon as possible after docketing, district courts should review prisoner cases to determine whether they are subject to summary dismissal).

         I. Factual Background

         Andrew Marshall McElrath (“Plaintiff”) alleges the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) has not properly calculated his sentence on a conviction for escape. Plaintiff asserts that the judge who accepted his plea on the escape charge ordered that Plaintiff receive credit for time served in detention after his escape, but SCDC did not award that credit. Compl. 5, ECF No. 1. Plaintiff asks this court to order SCDC to award him credit for time served while awaiting trial on other charges in a different county and to recalculate his sentence. Plaintiff also asks the court to award him $1000.00 for each day he is held beyond his “correct release date.” Id. at 17.

         Plaintiff also asserts that he was subjected to retaliation because he escaped from SCDC custody and because of his “legal filings in . . . case 5:14-00743-BHH-KDW, ” Compl. 5, and that he was charged by someone with an excessive fine “in the amount of $16, 226.83. . . without a hearing as SCDC policy requires[, ]” Suppl. Compl 1, ECF No. 1-5. He asks this court for injunctive relief in the form of an order directing “SCDC to remove this $16, 226.83 unlawful restitution” from his inmate financial account and “to clear out any and all remaining outstanding debts pending against” his inmate financial account. Id. at 2.

          II. Standard of Review

         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of Plaintiff's pro se Complaint filed in this case. This review has been conducted pursuant to the procedural provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915, 1915A, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, and in light of the following precedents: Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324-25 (1989); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972); Nasim v. Warden, Md. House of Corr., 64 F.3d 951 (4th Cir. 1995); Todd v. Baskerville, 712 F.2d 70 (4th Cir. 1983); Boyce v. Alizaduh, 595 F.2d 948 (4th Cir. 1979).

         Pro se complaints are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), and a federal district court is charged with liberally construing a complaint filed by a pro se litigant to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). When a federal court is evaluating a pro se complaint, the Plaintiff's allegations are assumed to be true. De'Lonta v. Angelone, 330 F.3d 630, 630 n.1 (4th Cir. 2003). Nevertheless, the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that this court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim currently cognizable in a federal district court. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). Even under this less stringent standard, the Complaint filed in this case is subject to summary dismissal under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff's claim relating to the calculation of his sentence for escape is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), because, if the claim were successful, it would necessarily call into question the validity of Plaintiff's continued confinement after a certain date. In other words, it calls into question the validity of his escape sentence. In Heck, the United States Supreme Court stated,

We hold that, in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.

Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87 (emphasis added) (footnote omitted).

         Although Heck was decided in the context of a plaintiff who was essentially attacking a conviction, the Court's reasoning has been extended to prisoners who are attacking sentence calculations and loss of good-time credits. Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 644-46 (1997). As the Court explained in Edwards, a “claim for declaratory relief and money damages, based on allegations of deceit and bias on the part of the decisionmaker that necessarily imply the invalidity of the punishment imposed, is not cognizable under § 1983.” Id.; see Pierce v. Freeman, 121 F.3d 699 (4th Cir. 1997); Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 542 (3d Cir. 2002) (“When read together, there is a logical and coherent progression of Supreme Court jurisprudence clarifying when § 1983 is unavailable: whenever the challenge ultimately attacks the ‘core of habeas' - the validity of the continued conviction or the fact or length of the sentence - a challenge, however denominated and regardless of the relief sought, must be brought by way of a habeas corpus petition against his immediate custodian.”). The reasoning of Heck v. Humphrey and its progeny is that a prisoner should not be able to use a suit for damages to get around the procedures that have been established for challenging the lawfulness of continued confinement. It is irrelevant whether the challenged confinement is pursuant to a judgment imposing a sentence or an administrative refusal to shorten the sentence by applying credits to the sentence. See, e.g., Miller v. Ind. Dep't of Corr., 75 F.3d 330, 331 (7th Cir. 1996); Joe v. Ozmint, No. 2:08-cv-585-PMD-RSC, 2009 WL 3124425, at *12-13 (D.S.C. Sept. 29, 2009); Stevens v. S. C. Dep't of Corrs., No. 0:05-3237-PMD, 2006 WL 1074996, at * (D.S.C. April 20, 2006); see also Clemente v. Allen, 120 F.3d 703, 705 (7th Cir. 1997) (Bivens suit seeking damages for alleged miscalculation of federal prisoner's sentence barred by Heck ); Rooding v. Peters, 92 F.3d 578, 580-81 (7th Cir. 1996) (suit for damages under § 1983 for miscalculation of sentence credits did not accrue until plaintiff prevailed in state mandamus action). Thus, while § 1983 is unavailable to Plaintiff, he can seek the recalculation of his state sentence in federal court by way of a writ of habeas corpus once he has fully exhausted his state court remedies. See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973).

         Plaintiff does not allege that any state or federal court has ever found that his sentence was improperly calculated, nor does he present any exhibits indicating that he has prevailed in a legal action regarding the calculation of the length of his sentence. To the contrary, Plaintiff presents documents showing that he filed an appeal in the South Carolina Administrative Law Court (“ALC”) claiming that his sentence was miscalculated and, on May 26, 2016, that case was remanded to SCDC for 60 days to obtain records needed for the court to determine the propriety of the calculation of Plaintiff's sentence for his escape conviction. ECF No. 1-3 at 22-23. The requested records were submitted to the ALC on June 16, 2016. Id. at 25. The current status of the ALC appeal is unclear, but it appears clear through Plaintiff's prosecution of this case that no decision has yet been rendered finding that the sentence was miscalculated. Therefore, in light of the ...

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