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Massachusetts Appellate Court Reinstates Prisoner’s Lawsuit Over Food Substitution

by Matt Clarke

On September 20, 2021, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a prisoner challenging frequent food substitutions at Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Norfolk, as well as the lack of a food substitution policy in the Massachusetts prison system.

The prisoner, Timothy Braley, filed suit pro se in a state superior court alleging that William Bates, the prison’s former food service director, routinely substituted menu items with others of inferior nutritional value. Citing the food service policy of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), 103 DOC 760.00 (2016), Braley argued he was deprived of “nutritionally adequate meals” which follow DOC menus and recipes or “approved departmental substitution guidelines”—guidelines, he noted, that DOC had never issued.

The trial court dismissed Braley’s claim, both for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies and for his lack of standing to challenge DOC policy. Finding both reasons wrong, the appeals court reversed that decision. See: Braley v. Bates, 93 Mass. App. Ct. 1117, 104 N.E.3d 686 (2018).

On remand, the trial court then granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the grounds that Braley failed to allege violations of DOC policy that deprived him of “a protected liberty interest or a right conferred to him by regulation, statute, or under the state and federal constitutions.”

Braley again appealed. This time, the appeals court found support for his argument in the state’s General Law Chapter (G.L.c) 124, § l(q), which obligates DOC’s commissioner, currently Carol Mici, to “make and promulgate the necessary rules and regulations incident to the exercise of [her] powers and the performance of [her] duties including … rules and regulations regarding nutrition.”

With this, the Court held that the statutory basis of Braley’s claim was adequately raised. It also held that, without substitution guidelines in place to ensure that meals actually served are of equivalent nutritional value to those on the menu, the requirement that food service directors adhere to approved departmental substitution guidelines was rendered meaningless.

Thus, finding Braley’s allegations adequate “to raise an ‘uncertainty and insecurity’ as to the ‘rights [and] duties’ implicated by G. L. c. 124, § 1 (q) and the DOC food service policy … at this stage of the pleadings,” the Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case. See: Braley v. Bates, 100 Mass. App. Ct. 259, 176 N.E.3d 1028 (2021). 

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Related legal cases

Braley v. Bates

Braley v. Bates