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Reese v. Department of Corrections

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

October 30, 2014

GEOFFREY D. REESE, Petitioner,


Michaela Murphy, Justice Maine Superior Court

Petitioner Geoffrey Reese, a prisoner at the Maine State Prison ("Prison"), appeals from the denial by the Department of Corrections ("Department"] of a grievance regarding the Prison's refusal to allow Petitioner to receive a pair of sneakers with a purchase price of more than $100. Petitioner's appeal centers on the Department's revision to Policy No. 10.1 prohibiting sneakers, shoes, or boots with a purchase price of more than $100 after Petitioner initiated an exchange to receive new sneakers, but before the sneakers arrived at the Prison. For the reasons discussed below, the Court affirms the Department's decision and denies Petitioner's appeal.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Petitioner contends that in May of 2013, he initiated a claim through Nike to exchange "defective" sneakers manufactured by Nike for new replacement sneakers, using a return process created by Nike. R. at 9. Petitioner contends that his replacement sneakers arrived at the Prison on June 12, 2013. Id.

On June 10, 2013, the Department Commissioner approved a revision to Policy Number 10.1 entitled "Prisoner Allowable Property." The Policy provided, in pertinent part, that the "maximum allowable amount for replacement / reimbursement for a single item is $100.00" and that the "[p]urchase price" of sneakers, shoes, and boots "may not exceed $100." Me. Dep't of Corr., Policy No. 10.1, § F(2); Attachment A to Policy No. 10.1, the Allowable Property List. The Policy also provides that a "property item considered non-allowable or contraband shall be confiscated immediately and handled as set out in Procedure F." Policy No. 10.1 § A. 21. Property is considered non-allowable property or contraband if it does not meet the description of an item on the Allowable Property List. Id. at § A(19)(a). Procedure F provides, in pertinent part, that "non-allowable personal property that is not contraband must be disposed of by the prisoner within thirty [30] days of when the prisoner is notified that it is not allowable." Id. at § F(7).

In his grievance, Petitioner contends he faced "discriminatory scrutiny" that resulted in the Prison denying his reception of the sneakers even though there was no written policy or stipulation regarding the value of sneakers at the time he initiated his claim for replacement sneakers. See R. at 9.[1] The version of Policy No. 10.1 in effect at the time Petitioner initiated his claim for new sneakers from Nike in May of 2013 did not contain a value limitation on sneakers. See Former Policy No. 10.1 (revised Jan. 22, 2010).

Petitioner brought his grievance to the Prison's property department for an attempt at informal resolution. R. at 7; see Me. Dep't of Corr., Policy No. 29.01 § B (requiring attempt at informal resolution prior to filing formal grievance). The informal grievance review officer noted that Petitioner had used additional money from a third party to upgrade the new sneakers received during the exchange to a value exceeding $100. Id. He also noted that Petitioner had been given the option to return the sneakers to the manufacturer for a less expensive pair and partial refund or to send the sneakers home. Id. Based on this information, the formal grievance review officer subsequently denied Petitioner's grievance. R. at 6.

Petitioner appealed the decision to the Prison's warden. In his appeal, Petitioner alleged that Nike would not exchange the new sneakers beyond thirty days. R at 5. The Warden summarily denied the appeal. R. at 4. The Department Commissioner also summarily denied Petitioner's subsequent appeal. R. at 2.

II. Discussion

Petitioner contends the Department's decision prohibiting his Nike sneakers was based on an improperly adopted rule and violated violates his due process rights.[2] In particular, Petitioner argues: 1) the Nike claims process he utilized was authorized by the Department; 2) Petitioner commenced the claims process in May of 2013, before the revisions to Policy No. 10.1 prohibiting sneakers worth more than $100.00 went into effect; 3) the June 10, 2013 revisions to Policy No. 10.1 were improper because they were not adopted through the rule making process in Maine's Administrative Procedures Act ("APA"); and 4) as a result, the Department's modification to Policy No. 10.1 and prohibition against Petitioner's sneakers violated his right to due process and the APA.[3]

The Department responds that the decision to classify Petitioner's sneakers as non-allowable property and prohibit Petitioner from receiving them is supported by the evidence and the Department's reasonable interpretation of its own policy. The Department explains that the $100 limitation on the purchase price of sneakers bears a rational relationship to a legitimate security interest because such high-value footwear is "coveted among the inmates and could become the subject of barter, theft or extortion." Respondent's Brief, 4. Furthermore, the Department argues Policy No. 10.1 need not be formally adopted under the APA because it is intended solely as advice to assist persons in determining, exercising, or complying with legal rights, duties, or privileges. In particular, the Policy helps inmates determine what personal property or effects the Commissioner of the Department, in the broad discretion given to him by the Legislature, determines inmates may possess while incarcerated.

A. Standard of Review

The Department's decision is reviewed for errors of law, abuse of discretion, or findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Beauchesne v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 2009 ME 24, ¶ 11, 965 A.2d 866. The Court gives considerable deference to the agency's interpretation of its own rules, regulations, and procedures, and will not set aside the agency's findings "unless the rule or regulation plainly compels a contrary result." Id. (citation and quotations omitted). The Court will not "attempt to second-guess the agency on matters falling within its realm of expertised.)" Id. (citation and quotation omitted).

The Court will only vacate agency factual findings when they are clearly erroneous and will uphold findings if the agency "could have fairly and reasonably found the facts as it did." Suzman v. Comm'r, Dep't of ...

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