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Muntaqim v. Kelley

Supreme Court of Arkansas

September 12, 2019

MALIK MUNTAQIM APPELLANT
v.
WENDY KELLEY, DIRECTOR, ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION; JADA LAWRENCE, EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT TO THE DIRECTOR OF ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION; RAYMOND NAYLOR, DISCIPLINARY HEARING ADMINISTRATOR; JUSTINE MINOR, DISCIPLINARY HEARING OFFICER; NURZUHAL FAUST, WARDEN, OUACHITA RIVER CORRECTIONAL UNIT; BARBARA HOLLIMAN, ADMINISTRATIVE REVIEW OFFICER; JACOB KING, EX-CAPTAIN, OUACHITA RIVER CORRECTIONAL REVIEW OFFICER; AND WINBURN MELUGIN, JR., LIEUTENANT, OUACHITA RIVER CORRECTIONAL UNIT APPELLEES

          PRO SE APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SEVENTEENTH DIVISION [NO. 60CV-18-738] HONORABLE MACKIE M. PIERCE, JUDGE

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Robert T. James, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          SHAWN A. WOMACK, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Malik Muntaqim, an inmate of the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC), appeals the denial of his petition to proceed in forma pauperis in a civil action requesting judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). He claims prison officials initiated and conducted a disciplinary proceeding against him in violation of his constitutional rights. Because we conclude Muntaqim failed to sufficiently raise a constitutional question, we affirm for reasons set forth below.

         I. Factual Background

         While incarcerated at the Ouachita River Unit of ADC, Muntaqim requested transfer to the Varner Unit. In that request, he wrote that he "will not do a year class 4 at [Ouachita River] before something crazy happens because staff here has no respect for black people." When asked whether that statement was a threat toward prison officials, Muntaqim replied he was "just letting the major know . . . something crazy will happen" if his transfer was not granted. He was subsequently charged with a major disciplinary violation for failure to obey staff orders, insolence towards staff, and assault. After a hearing, Muntaqim was found guilty of assault and insolence towards staff. He received twenty days in punitive isolation and a class reduction. He also lost commissary, phone, and visitation privileges for sixty days.

         Muntaqim appealed his disciplinary conviction and alleged that prison officials failed to comply with ADC disciplinary policy. His administrative appeal was rejected as untimely. He also filed multiple grievances stemming from the disciplinary process, accusing prison officials of engaging in retaliatory conduct motivated by racial animus and failing to comply with the disciplinary policy. Those grievances were found to be without merit.

         Muntaqim sought judicial review of his disciplinary charges under the APA and petitioned to proceed in forma pauperis. He named multiple ADC officials in their official and individual capacities, claiming they failed to adhere to ADC disciplinary policies. The circuit court denied that petition, concluding that Muntaqim failed to state a colorable cause of action and that ADC officials were entitled to sovereign immunity. This appeal followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         We review a decision denying a petition to proceed in forma pauperis for abuse of discretion. Muldrow v. Kelley, 2018 Ark. 126');">2018 Ark. 126, at 2, 542 S.W.3d 856, 858. The right to proceed in forma pauperis in a civil action turns on the petitioner's indigency and the circuit court's satisfaction that the alleged facts indicate a colorable cause of action. Ark. R. Civ. P. 72(c) (2017). The circuit court must make a specific finding of indigency before considering whether the underlying petition alleges a colorable cause of action. Gardner v. Kelley, 2018 Ark. 212, at 2, 549 S.W.3d 349, 350. Because the court below failed to make this finding, we must remand unless the record shows the underlying cause of action cannot proceed as a matter of law. Id. As to issues of law presented, our review is de novo. Ashby v. State, 2017 Ark. 233, at 2-3.

         Judicial review of administrative complaints is generally unavailable to ADC inmates. See Ark. Code Ann. § 25-15-212(a) (Repl. 2014). But this rule does not preclude review of an asserted constitutional violation. Clinton v. Bonds, 306 Ark. 554, 558, 816 S.W.2d 169, 172 (1991). This exception is not triggered by conclusory allegations of a constitutional violation. Smith v. Hobbs, 2014 Ark. 270, at 4 (per curiam). When an inmate challenges a disciplinary proceeding and prison officials' implementation of ADC policy, as Muntaqim does here, the petition must allege a constitutional question sufficient to raise a liberty interest. Id. Otherwise, the claim cannot fall within the classification of claims subject to judicial review. Id. Muntaqim contends that ADC officials violated due process, equal protection, and the First Amendment. Our de novo review of the record, however, reveals that Muntaqim's petition clearly failed to sufficiently raise a constitutional question.

         III. Due Process

         Muntaqim contends that ADC officials violated due process by failing to adhere to ADC disciplinary and grievance policies. In essence, Muntaqim claims a constitutional liberty interest in having prison officials follow ADC policy. But those policies do not create a liberty interest to which due process can attach. See Munson v. Ark. Dep't of Corr., 375 Ark. 549, 552, 294 S.W.3d 409, 411 (2009) (per curiam) (citing Kennedy v. Blankenship, 100 F.3d 640, 643 (8th Cir. 1996)). Rather, any alleged liberty interest must be an interest in the nature of the prisoner's confinement, "not an interest in the procedures by which the state believes it can best determine how he should be confined." Kennedy, 100 F.3d at 643.

         A liberty interest with respect to prison disciplinary actions is not created by the "language of a particular [prison] regulation" but is instead created by an evaluation of the nature of the deprivation "in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life." Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 481-84 (1995). Substantive due process is triggered only when prison discipline imposes an atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life. Id. at 484. Thus, in order for Muntaqim to assert a liberty interest, he must show an atypical and substantive deprivation that was a dramatic departure from the basic conditions of his confinement. Id. at 484-85.

         Muntaqim does not contend the punishment imposed as a result of his infractions was atypical. Nor can he. There is no liberty interest protecting against a twenty-day assignment to punitive isolation because it does not "present a dramatic departure from the basic conditions of [Muntaqim's] sentence." Id. at 485 (no liberty interest protecting against thirty days in segregation). Additionally, there is no liberty interest in good time, class status, or the restricted privileges. See Munson, ...


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