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Maine Prisoner’s Challenge to Confiscation of Funds States Declaratory Judgment Claim

by David Reutter

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court held on October 16, 2018 that a trial court erred by dismissing a petition challenging a prison rule that requires any prisoner who earns money for work to have 10 percent of his wages, up to $1,000, deposited into a “personal escrow account” to be returned upon his or her release. Rather than dismiss the case as an untimely review of an agency action proceeding, the trial court should have treated the petition as a declaratory judgment action.

Gary Sweeney, incarcerated at the Maine State Prison, filed a complaint in April 2017 that sought to have the rule rescinded and the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections to “return all funds” collected pursuant to the policy.

The petition was filed under M.R.Civ.P. 80C(b), which governs cases for “review of final agency action.” The trial court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction because it was filed beyond Rule 80’s time limitation that requires an action be filed within 30 days after denial of a grievance challenging the agency action.

The Supreme Judicial Court noted its precedents held that persons challenging an agency rule may do so through a declaratory judgment action, and Sweeney’s allegations made clear that he was doing so. The Court concluded it was error to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction rather than treating it as a complaint for declaratory judgment.

Many petitioners filing under Rule 80 cannot redeem their petition to state a claim for declaratory judgment, but that was not the case here “given Sweeney’s clear challenge to the legality of the DOC rule itself and not its application to his individual circumstances.” The Supreme Court held the trial court had abused its discretion in declining to allow amendment to seek relief via a declaratory judgment action. Therefore, the judgment was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Sweeney v. Dept. of Corrections, 195 A.3d 502, 2018 ME 141 (Maine 2018). 

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Related legal case

Sweeney v. Dept. of Corrections