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Pinson v. Warden, FMC Rochester

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 24, 2019


          JaneAnne Murray, MURRAY LAW LLC, for petitioner.

          Erin M. Secord, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY’S OFFICE, for respondent.


          Patrick J. Schiltz United States District Judge

         Jeremy Pinson is a federal prisoner who lost 109 days of good-time credit after a hearing officer found that she[1] was responsible for striking a guard and engaging in acts of self-mutilation. Pinson filed this habeas action under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 challenging her loss of good-time credit on the basis of various alleged due-process violations. The Court previously found that Pinson was not entitled to relief on most of her claims. But there was one claim-a claim that the hearing officer was biased-that the Court could not decide based on the record before it. The Court thus granted Pinson’s request for an evidentiary hearing on that claim.

         Based on the evidence presented at that hearing, the Court now finds that Pinson’s hearing officer was not biased and thus that Pinson was not denied due process. The Court therefore denies Pinson’s § 2241 petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On back-to-back days in October 2016, Pinson was involved in two different incidents that eventually led to two different prison-disciplinary hearings. First, on October 2, Pinson engaged in acts of self-mutilation and struck a prison guard in the head with handcuffs. See ECF No. 1-1 at 2-5. Based on her conduct, the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) charged Pinson with possession of a weapon, serious assault, and self-mutilation. Id. at 2; ECF No. 12-3 at 8, 12. Second, on the morning of October 3, after Pinson was taken to a local hospital for treatment of her self-mutilation injuries, she allegedly kicked and broke the bottom portion of a hospital bed, and she allegedly spat at and attempted to bite a prison official. The BOP charged Pinson with damaging property and minor assault. See Joint Ex. 26 at 00164-65; ECF No. 12-3 at 11-12.

         Because of concerns about Pinson’s mental health, [2] the BOP had Pinson evaluated before deciding whether to commence formal disciplinary proceedings against her. Specifically, the BOP had Pinson evaluated to determine (1) whether Pinson was competent to participate in the disciplinary proceedings and (2) whether Pinson could be found responsible for her conduct (i.e., whether, at the time of the incidents, she would have been able “to appreciate the nature and quality, or wrongfulness of the act[s], ” ECF No. 12-2 at 5). ECF No. 12 at ¶ 17.

         Pinson was evaluated by Dr. Randy Brandt, the Chief of Psychology at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Dr. Brandt conducted two evaluations of Pinson and issued two reports-one relating to the prison incident on October 2 and the other relating to the hospital incident on October 3. The two reports indicate that Dr. Brandt took into account Pinson’s mental-health history (including her alleged schizoaffective disorder) and all of the circumstances of the two incidents (including Pinson’s alleged use of K2 and PCP on October 2). See ECF No. 13- 2 at 10-12; ECF No. 14 at 3-5. Dr. Brandt concluded that Pinson was competent and responsible.

         Based on Dr. Brandt’s reports, the BOP decided to go forward with disciplinary proceedings against Pinson. Hearing officer Kevin Nikes was assigned to preside over both hearings. Pinson’s first hearing was held on January 17, 2017, and it related to the October 3 hospital incident. See Joint Ex. 26 at 00164-65. Nikes was provided with Dr. Brandt’s psychological evaluation finding Pinson competent and responsible (ECF No. 14 at 3-5), as well as with statements from various prison officials who claimed to witness Pinson bite and spit at a prison staffer at the hospital (Joint Ex. 26 at 00131-46). Pinson also submitted her own evidence. Specifically, Pinson submitted a “clinical encounter” form that had been completed by her psychiatrist, Dr. Shawn Rice. In that form, Dr. Rice indicated that, at Pinson’s request, he had prescribed medication “for agitation” in December 2016. Joint Ex. 26 at 00116-17. Pinson also submitted a personal statement in which she denied that she spat at or bit any member of the prison staff at the hospital, and in which she noted that “[t]he psychological assessment [i.e., Dr. Brandt’s report, which found Pinson responsible for her conduct] is in conflict with the psychiatric assessment [i.e., Dr. Rice’s “clinical encounter” form indicating that he had prescribed Pinson medication “for agitation”] which diagnoses me as schizoaffective.” Id. at 00115, 00164. At the conclusion of the hearing, Nikes decided to expunge Pinson’s October 3 incident report because of “conflicting evidence.” Id. at 00165. In other words, Pinson prevailed.

         About two weeks later, on January 31, 2017, Nikes held the second disciplinary hearing-this one related to the October 2 prison incident. See ECF No. 1-1 at 2-5. Once again, Nikes was provided with a psychological evaluation from Dr. Brandt finding Pinson competent and responsible, as well as with statements from various prison officials who witnessed the incident. Id. And once again, Pinson provided Nikes with her own evidence. Specifically, Pinson again submitted the December 2016 “clinical encounter” form from Dr. Rice, and Pinson also submitted a summary of her past mental-health diagnoses and prescribed medications. Id. at 3; see also Joint Ex. 13 at 00008-09, 00011, 00013, and 00015. In addition, Pinson submitted a personal statement about the incident, in which Pinson admitted to engaging in self-mutilation and striking a prison official in the head while flailing her arms. See ECF No. 1-1 at 2. But Pinson alleged that she was high on K2 and PCP at the time of the incident, and she noted that “Dr. Brandt disagrees with the psychiatrist[’s] [Dr. Rice’s] diagnosis [and] that is why he finds me responsible.” Id.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, Nikes found that Pinson had committed the charged acts and was responsible for her behavior. Id. at 2, 5. Two of the charged acts were 100-level violations-the most severe level of BOP violations. ECF No. 12-3 at 8. Nikes sanctioned Pinson by taking away 109 days of her good-time credit. ECF No. 1-1 at 5. Moreover, the two 100-level violations will have a significant (adverse) impact on Pinson’s eligibility for lower-security housing. See ECF No. 69 at 115.

         After exhausting her administrative remedies, Pinson filed this action under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 challenging her loss of good-time credit. See ECF No. 1.[3] Pinson’s § 2241 petition contained a long list of alleged due-process violations. ECF No. 1-1 at 8, 10-12. The Court dismissed most of Pinson’s allegations as vague, conclusory, or contradicted by the record. See ECF No. 33 at 6-10. There was one allegation, however, that the Court could not decide based on the record before it: Pinson’s allegation that Nikes was a biased decision maker.

         Specifically, Pinson alleged in an affidavit that at her January 31, 2017 disciplinary hearing, Nikes told her that, although he personally believed that she was “clearly mentally ill, ” he “[couldn’t] hold [her] not responsible on this one” because of pressure that he was receiving from “people above [his] pay grade.” ECF No. 1-1 at p. 11, ¶ 15. Pinson also alleged that Nikes told her that, although he would accept any documentary evidence that she submitted, he would not consider that evidence in making his decision, as he had no choice but to find her responsible. Id. Finally, Pinson alleged that Nikes refused her request to call her psychiatrist (Dr. Rice) to testify, but instead merely accepted (but did not consider) documentary evidence regarding Dr. Rice’s treatment of her. Id. In a responsive affidavit, Nikes denied making the comments attributed to him by Pinson, denied being pressured by anybody to hold Pinson responsible for the October 2 incident, and swore that he was “completely impartial and open-minded” at the January 31, 2017 hearing. See ECF No. 12 at ¶¶ 29-37.

         The Court found that if Pinson’s allegations were true, then Pinson was deprived of her constitutional right to an impartial decision maker. ECF No. 33 at 9. But the Court found that it could not resolve the direct conflict between Pinson’s and Nikes’s affidavits without an evidentiary hearing. Id. at 9-10. The Court thus ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held on the issue of Nikes’s impartiality and appointed counsel to represent Pinson. The evidentiary hearing took place on April 17, 2019. Both Pinson and Nikes testified, [4] and, approximately two months later, both parties submitted post- hearing briefing. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Pinson did not carry her burden of establishing that Nikes was a biased hearing officer.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Administrative hearing officers are entitled to “a presumption of honesty and integrity.” See Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 46-47 (1975). As the petitioner in this habeas proceeding, Pinson must overcome that presumption and prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Nikes was biased. See, e.g., Walker v. ...

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