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6th Circuit: Court Must Accept Facts Found By Michigan Prison Hearing Officer

6th Circuit: Court Must Accept Facts Found By Michigan Prison Hearing Officer

On April 2013, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that preclusive effect must be given to fact finding that is made by a Michigan prison hearing officer.

In a §1983 complaint, Michigan prisoner Toran Peterson alleged that Officers Richard Johnson and Larry Lindy used excessive force against him, in violation of the Eight Amendment, when they returned him to his cell.

According to the complaint, as Peterson’s cell door was closing, Johnson pulled Peterson out of his cell and then, together with Lindy, assaulted him.

The officers moved for summary judgment, noting that Peterson had been found guilty of major misconduct after Johnson charged him with assault and battery. The district court agreed, holding that it could not accept Peterson’s factual allegation (that Johnson grabbed him) because that allegation conflicted with the prison hearing officer’s finding of fact (that Peterson grabbed Johnson).

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit noted that, ordinarily, the existence of a disputed issue of material fact such as whether Johnson grabbed Peterson or vice-versa would preclude summary judgment. Addressing a question of first impression (in the Sixth Circuit), however, the Court held that it must give preclusive effect to a factual finding made by a Michigan prison hearing officer.

The court reasoned (1) that Michigan major misconduct hearings constitute “judicial proceedings”; (2) that Michigan prison hearing officers – who are actually attorneys—“resolve disputed issues of fact” that are “properly before” them; (3) that, given the “plethora of statutory protections” available to them, Michigan prisoners are given “an adequate opportunity to litigate” relevant factual disputes; and (4) that Michigan State Courts would give preclusive effect to a factual determination made by a prison hearing officer. (significantly, with respect to the letter, the court noted that, under Michigan State Law, factual determinations made at major misconduct hearings are judicially reviewed on direct appeal, for substantial evidence”- - the same standard of review applicable to any other agency’s finding of fact).

Accordingly, relying on a framework established by the Supreme Court in Univ. of Tennessee v. Elliott, 478 U.S. 788,799 (1986), the Sixth Circuit concluded that it was bound to accept the finding of the Michigan prison hearing officer that Peterson grabbed Johnson (and not vice-versa).

The Court noted that its holding applied only to factual findings, not legal conclusions. See: Peterson v. Johnson, 714 F.3d 905 (6th Cir. 2013).

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Related legal case

Peterson v. Johnson