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Ninth Circuit Revives Former Nevada Prisoner’s Claim for Deprivation of Sentence Credit

by Douglas Ankney

On April 25, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said a lower court erred by ignoring a former state prisoner’s claim that the Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his due process rights by failing to apply earned credit deductions to his sentence.

While Philip Roy Galanti was incarcerated by DOC, he completed several education courses that entitled him to sentence credits under Nevada law. But because DOC officials did not apply the deductions to Galanti’s maximum term of imprisonment, his sentence did not expire until August 22, 2018. However, he was released on parole on June 1, 2018.

After his parole had ended, Galanti filed suit in federal court for the District of Nevada against DOC, the Clark County School District and several employees of both agencies. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he alleged that their failure to apply the earned credit-deductions to his sentence deprived him of liberty without due process of law. He argued that Nev. Rev. Stat. § 209.4465 created a liberty interest in the sentence credits, and had Defendants applied them to his maximum term of imprisonment, his sentence would have expired on June 1, 2018 instead of August 22, 2018.

Defendants moved for dismissal on several grounds, including that the suit was barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) – in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a prisoner could not succeed in any grievance that implicated the validity of his sentence. But the district court did not address that argument, focusing instead on Galanti’s claim that the sentence credits should have made him eligible for parole sooner. Noting that prisoners in Nevada have no protected liberty interest in parole, the district court dismissed the claim with prejudice.

Galanti appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where Defendants reasserted their argument that the suit was barred by Heck. The Court observed that under that ruling’s “favorable termination requirement,” a prisoner plaintiff cannot challenge any ruling that implicates the validity of his sentence without proving “that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such a determination, or called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.”

The holding also “applies to claims for unconstitutional deprivation of good-time credits, if a favorable judgment would imply the invalidity of” a prison sentence, the Court continued, citing Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 642 (1997). Except that in an ex-prisoner’s challenge to his parole revocation in Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1 (1998), he “could bring a claim under section 1983 without satisfying Heck’s favorable termination requirement, as ‘it would be impossible as a matter of law for him to satisfy’ that requirement due to the unavailability of habeas relief.”

In Nonnette v. Small, 316 F.3d 872 (9th Cir. 2002), Plaintiff had sued prison officials for allegedly miscalculating his sentence and unlawfully revoking his credits. The district court dismissed pursuant to Heck, after which Plaintiff was released. The Ninth Circuit then reversed because the release rendered habeas relief unavailable. So here the Court concluded that Galanti’s release made habeas relief unavailable to him, and his suit was not barred by Heck.

Turning to the merits of Galanti’s claim, the Court noted that “Nevada prisoners are generally sentenced to a minimum term, after which they are eligible for parole, and a maximum term, after which they are released if incarcerated or their parole expires,” citing Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 213.120(2), 213.1215. Also “[u]nder Nevada law, all prisoners are eligible for maximum-sentence deductions,” the Court continued – except those convicted of certain offenses “including felony sex crimes – like Galanti – are ineligible for minimum-sentence deductions,” per Nev. Rev. Stat. § 209.4465.

“Construed liberally,” the Court said, Galanti’s complaint “contains a claim for deprivation of maximum-sentence deductions.” Throughout Galanti’s complaint he referenced his maximum sentence and complained that his maximum sentence should have expired on June 1 instead of August 22, 2018. The Court concluded that “the district court erred by interpreting Galanti’s due process claim as asserting only a deprivation of minimum-sentence deductions and ignoring his claim for maximum-sentence deductions.”

Accordingly, the decision was reversed and the case remanded with respect to this claim. Galanti was represented on appeal by certified law students and supervising attorneys with the Hastings Appellate Project at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. See: Galanti v. Nevada Dep’t of Corr., 65 F.4th 1152 (9th Cir. 2023).  

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Related legal case

Galanti v. Nevada Dep’t of Corr.