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Massachusetts: Fact Issues Regarding Gender-Based Punitive Segregation Preclude Summary Judgment

Massachusetts: Fact Issues Regarding Gender-Based Punitive Segregation
Preclude Summary Judgment

In this case brought by a state prisoner challenging the application of
rules governing the Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU), the Appeals Court
of Massachusetts held that material fact issues precluded summary judgment
of his equal protection claim.

The DDU is punitive segregation. Under DOC policy, a prisoner can be
confined in the DDU for up to 10 years based on the seriousness of the
violation and the prisoner's disciplinary record. On July 10, 1995,
prisoner John T. Todd was sentenced to four years in DDU for writing a
threatening letter to a Department of Corrections (DOC) official. While
serving that DDU sentence, Todd spat in a guard's face and received an
additional year in DDU.

After exhausting his administrative remedies Todd filed a pro se action
seeking declatory relief. Todd claimed that, as applied to him, the
regulation's vague language and gender-based application of the
departmental regulations governing confinement to the DDU violate the
equal protection and the due process guarantees" of the federal and state
constitutions and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Massachusetts
Constitution. The Superior Court, Suffolk County, granted summary judgment
in favor of the DOC and Todd appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment of Todd's due process
claim, holding that although the regulations governing placement in the
DDU (103 Code Mass. Regs. §§ 430.09(2) and 430.25(3)) provide no
sentencing guidelines, other relevant regulations furnished the details,
thus preventing arbitrary and capricious application [of the rules] by
prison officials.

However, the Court vacated the summary judgment of Todd's equal protection
claim. Todd had argued that because DDU sanctions were applied to male but
not female prisoners, male prisoners were subjected to harsher punishment.
The DOC Commissioner submitted a single affidavit to rebut Todd's claim
which said, in effect, that women were less likely to commit serious
offenses and therefore required less severe sanctions. The Court held
that, "Nothing in Commissioner Maloney's affidavit provides factual
support for his stereotypical assertion," nor did it "explain why the DDU
regulations were not selectively applied to Todd, or all males, with a
discriminatory purpose...." Based on this, the Court concluded that the
affidavit was an insufficient basis for summary judgment of Todd's equal
protection claim. See: Todd v. Commissioner of Correction, 54 Mass.App.Ct.
31, 763 N.E.2d 1112 (Mass.App.Ct. 2002).

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Related legal case

Todd v. Commissioner of Correction

Todd v. Commissioner of Correction, 54 Mass.App.Ct. 31, 763 N.E.2d 1112 (Mass.App. 02/25/2002)

[1] Massachusetts Appeals Court

[2] No. 98-P-2007

[3] 54 Mass.App.Ct. 31, 763 N.E.2d 1112, 2002

[4] February 25, 2002


[6] John T. Todd, pro se. Joel J. Berner for Commissioner of Correction.

[7] Present: Greenberg, Beck, & Duffly, JJ.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Greenberg, J.

[9] Suffolk.

[10] March 16, 2001.

[11] Constitutional Law, Equal protection of laws. Due Process of Law, Prison disciplinary proceedings, Prison regulation, Vagueness of regulation. Imprisonment, Department disciplinary unit. Commissioner of Correction.

[12] Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on October 27, 1997.

[13] A motion to dismiss was heard by Barbara J. Rouse, J.

[14] Underlying this dispute are certain regulations, specifically 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2) and 430.25(3)(d) (1993), promulgated by the defendant Department of Correction, which established the Department Disciplinary Unit (DDU).*fn2 We shall refer to all defendants collectively as the "department" for convenience of reference.

[15] On January 23, 1992, the department published a memorandum introducing the regulations at issue. Pertinent portions of the memorandum are reprinted in the margin.*fn3 The uncontroverted facts show that the regulations apply to all prisoners at "all correctional institutions within the Department of Correction," 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.04 (1993), and that, since 1992, the department has enforced the DDU sanctions solely against male prisoners at all custody levels, including some male prisoners who are held at lower security levels than female prisoners.

[16] On July 10, 1995, the plaintiff, John T. Todd, a prisoner with an extensive history of violent behavior while incarcerated at MCI-Walpole and other correctional facilities, commenced a four-year term of confinement in the DDU for writing a threatening letter to a correctional officer. On June 26, 1997, while serving his DDU sentence, Todd spat in the face of a DDU correctional officer. For that infraction, after a hearing before a special hearing officer, he was found guilty and given a one-year "from and after" sentence to the DDU unit. After an unsuccessful pro se appeal to the Commissioner of Correction, Todd brought this pro se action, seeking relief in the nature of certiorari under G. L. c. 249, 4, and a declaratory judgment under G. L. c. 231A.*fn4 Attached to his pro se complaint was a copy of the department's memorandum and relevant regulations, as well as a copy of his 1997 disciplinary report, and the records from his original appeal to the Commissioner.

[17] Todd contends that, as applied to him, the departmental regulations governing confinement to the DDU violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution. He also claims that the regulations as applied contravene his rights under the Equal Rights Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution. See art. 106 of the Amendments to the Constitution of the Commonwealth. The department filed a motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment. Todd opposed the department's motion and filed an affidavit. A Superior Court judge allowed the department's motion.*fn5 Todd timely moved for reconsideration; that motion was denied on July 30, 1998. On August 10, 1998, Todd appealed.

[18] 1. Due process claim.

[19] We address first Todd's argument that the regulations governing confinement to the DDU, specifically 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2) and 430.25(3)(d), are unconstitutionally vague and applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. It is settled that "[a]n inmate is entitled to the protection of procedural due process under the Federal and State Constitutions only if there is an existing liberty or property interest at stake. Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995). Torres v. Commissioner of Correction, 427 Mass. 611, 617, cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1017 (1998)." Drayton v. Commissioner of Correction, 52 Mass. App. Ct. 135, 138 (2001).*fn6

[20] The decisional law has settled the "fundamental principle that regulations promulgated pursuant to statutory authority have a presumption of constitutionality." Commonwealth v. B & W Transp. Inc., 388 Mass. 799, 803 (1983), and cases cited. Regulations are treated by the court with the same deference as statutes. Massachusetts State Pharmaceutical Assn. v. Rate Setting Commn., 387 Mass. 122, 127 (1982).

[21] The DDU regulations here place additional restrictions on a prisoner's confinement once it has been determined that he has committed a major offense that warrants transfer to the DDU. Todd concedes that it is within the department's authority to do so, as long as the regulations apply to male and female prisoners alike. He argues, however, that the regulations are unconstitutionally vague because they contain no guidelines for prison officials to use when deciding what offenses could result in a sentence to the DDU. He also argues that the regulations provide no sentencing guidelines to insure that the length of a sentence is commensurate with the offense and the offender's record.

[22] In Grayned v. Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-109 (1972), the Supreme Court set forth three factors to consider in determining whether regulations, as here, survive the vagueness challenge.*fn7 Commonwealth v. Gallant, 373 Mass. 577, 579-580 (1977). We deal with the second factor as it appears to be the only argument put forward by Todd. Specifically, the issue is whether the DDU regulations set forth sufficient standards to prevent their arbitrary and capricious application by prison officials. Id. at 580. We conclude that the regulatory scheme contains adequate specificity to rebut Todd's vagueness challenge. Although 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2) and 430.25(3)(d) do not themselves have standards by which a correctional officer determines whether an infraction warrants a referral to a special hearing officer (SHO) and do not contain sentencing guidelines for the SHO to follow, other relevant regulations furnish these details. Hence, the motion judge was correct in allowing the department's motion as to Todd's due process claim.

[23] A brief summary of the pertinent regulations follows. When a correctional officer believes that a disciplinary offense has been committed, he must write a disciplinary report (D-report) and file it with a shift commander or other person designated by the superintendent. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.08(2) (1993). The shift commander must then investigate the complaint and decide whether to forward the D-report to a disciplinary officer or to handle the matter informally. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.08(3) (1993). At that stage, the disciplinary officer designates the complaint as a major or minor offense. See 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.08(1) (1993) (noting that "[i]nformal handling of minor offenses in accordance with existing practices is not precluded or discouraged by [these regulations]"); 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.10 (1993) ("Proceedings in Minor Matters"). In those instances where the disciplinary officer decides that a sentence to the DDU may be warranted, he or she forwards a copy of the complaint to an SHO. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2). A certain amount of discretion, similar to that of a prosecutor, is granted to the disciplinary officer in making this decision. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(1) (1993). Such a referral is mandatory when there is even a remote possibility that a DDU sanction may be involved. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2). Therefore, although a disciplinary officer has some discretion, once the prospect appears that a DDU sanction may be imposed, he or she must forward the complaint to an SHO. Ibid.

[24] After the prisoner learns of the potential for a DDU sanction, a hearing takes place before an SHO, who serves as an adjudicator. 103 Code Mass Reg. 430.11 (1993). In determining the prisoner's sanction, the SHO may consider the offender's disciplinary chronology and the seriousness of the offense, so long as the punishment does not exceed the maximum time for commitment. 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(4) & (5), 430.16, 430.25 (1993). These factors provide sufficient limitations on the SHO's exercise of discretion.

[25] In his materials submitted in opposition to the defendants' motion for summary judgment, Todd provides several disciplinary reports of other prisoners referred for DDU sentencing and argues that disparities exist with respect to the lengths of sentences imposed for offenses similar to his. To reproduce all of them would unduly prolong this opinion. Seven of these D-reports reveal consistent application of the factors discussed above. Cf. Commonwealth v. Bianco, 390 Mass. 254, 259 (1983) (a judge may consider a broad range of factors in making sentence determinations); Commonwealth v. Knight, 392 Mass. 192, 196-197 (1984). Disparities may legitimately exist because of the variables involved in an offender's past history. We see no reason why these principles do not apply here. Enumerated in the regulations outlining whether to classify an offense as minor or major, 103 Code Mass Regs. 430.09(4), and no doubt applied in Todd's case, are the same factors referenced in determining a proper sanction -- the inmate's disciplinary history, the threat he poses to institutional security, and the extent of the harm done to the correctional officer. See 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.16 (1993). When supplemented by these factors, the regulations and the undisputed facts form a sufficient basis for granting summary judgment on Todd's due process claim.

[26] 2. Equal protection challenge.

[27] The Superior Court judge also granted the department's motion on Todd's equal protection challenge. See note 5, supra, and accompanying text. Todd argues that the department violated his right to equal protection under arts. 1, 10, 11, and 12 of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution, the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and G. L. c. 93, 102,*fn8 by applying 103 Code Mass. Regs. 430.09(2) and 430.25(3)(d) to male prisoners in the correctional system, but not to female prisoners incarcerated at MCI-Framingham, the sole MCI facility for female prisoners.

[28] Equal protection claims are divided into different categories. Nowak & Rotunda, Constitutional Law 597 (5th ed. 1995). The type of claim that Todd is making is predicated on the government's unequal application of a facially neutral statute or regulation on an unjustifiable basis such as race or gender.*fn9 See Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 373-374 (1886); United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456, 464-465 (1996). Todd specifically argues that the department has selectively applied DDU sanctions against male prisoners and not against female prisoners who commit the same or similar offenses, and that selective enforcement has resulted in the imposition of more severe sanctions on male prisoners.

[29] We analyze Todd's equal protection challenge in the summary judgment context, as the judge did in granting the department's motion and considering its affidavit. See note 5, supra, and accompanying text. While we ultimately defer to the department as to its purposes in promulgating and applying the regulations governing confinement to the DDU, the department here possessed the initial burden to demonstrate that summary judgment was warranted as a matter of law. We are therefore handicapped -and, so far as appears from the record, the motion judge was, as well - by not having been furnished with materials indicating why the regulations here, which are facially neutral, do not apply to female prisoners. Contrast Chavez v. Illinois State Police, 251 F.3d 612 (7th Cir. 2001) (granting defendant's motion for summary judgment in selective prosecution case dealing with racial profiling in traffic stops).