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Seventh Circuit Holds Heck May Not be Circumvented by Waiving Claims Related to Prison Disciplinary Punishment

by Matt Clarke 

On February 5, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner cannot waive challenges to portions of his prison discipline to circumvent the requirements of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) and Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997). Rather, an underlying prison disciplinary case must be terminated in the prisoner’s favor before a civil rights action with claims related to the disciplinary case can be brought.

Illinois state prisoner Jeryme Morgan received a disciplinary infraction due to an attack on other prisoners at the Menard Correctional Center. In the space on the disciplinary form for requesting witnesses at the hearing, he wrote “James Lewis” and “where abouts.” Prison rules required that the potential witness be identified and a description of the witness’ testimony be provided. Prison officials were unable to locate a “James Lewis” at the facility, thus he was not called as a witness. Morgan was punished with loss of three months good-time credits, an additional year in segregation, one year on lowered status and multiple other restrictions. 

He unsuccessfully grieved the failure to call his witness, then filed a § 1983 civil rights complaint in federal court alleging excessive force, deliberate indifference and due process violations. The due process claims were severed and, in an attempt to avoid the Heck rule, Morgan filed an affidavit abandoning “any and all present and future challenges” and waiving “for all time all claims” related to the portion of his disciplinary punishment that impacted the length of his confinement. The district court rejected his attempt to circumvent Heck and entered summary judgment for the defendants, dismissing the case with prejudice.

Morgan appealed. The Seventh Circuit noted that his affidavit was based on Peralta v. Vasquez, 467 F.3d 98 (2d Cir. 2006). However, it had already rejected the Peralta strategic-waiver strategy in Haywood v. Hathaway, 842 F.3d 1026 (7th Cir. 2016). “Prisoners cannot make an end run around Heck by filing an affidavit waiving challenges to the portion of their punishment that revokes good-time credits,” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The Court explained that “The favorable-termination rule is more than a procedural hurdle that plaintiffs can skirt with artful complaint drafting or opportunistic affidavits. Rather, it is grounded in substantive concerns about allowing conflicting judgments,” and is “a version of issue preclusion (collateral estoppel), under which the outstanding criminal judgment or disciplinary sanction, as long as it stands, blocks any inconsistent civil judgment.”

The appellate court noted that Morgan could have challenged the disciplinary action in state court and still might be able to do so. Should he be successful, the Heck rule would no longer apply. Therefore, it altered the judgment to reflect a dismissal without prejudice and affirmed the judgment as modified. See: Morgan v. Schott, 914 F.3d 1115 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Morgan v. Schott