Submitted On Briefs: September 26, 2018
Sweeney, appellant pro se
T. Mills, Attorney General, and James E. Fortin, Asst. Atty.
Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee
Department of Corrections
SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and
Gary Sweeney appeals from a judgment of the Superior Court
(Knox County, Mallonee, J.) dismissing as untimely
his petition seeking review of a rule promulgated by the
Department of Corrections (DOC), which Sweeney asserts is in
violation of a Maine statute and several provisions of the
federal and state constitutions. We agree with Sweeney's
contention on appeal that, given the clear import of his
challenge to the DOC rule, the court should have treated his
petition as a complaint for declaratory judgment and allowed
him to amend his petition to that effect. Accordingly, we
vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.
On April 4, 2017, Sweeney, a prisoner at the Maine State
Prison, brought a petition for judicial review of final
agency action citing M.R. Civ. P. 80B in the Superior Court,
claiming that DOC had promulgated and enforced a rule that
violated 34-AM.R.S. § 3039 (2017) and several
provisions of the United States and Maine Constitutions. The
rule, with some exceptions not applicable to Sweeney,
required any prisoner who earned money for work to have ten
percent of his earnings, up to $1, 000, collected and
deposited into a "personal savings escrow account,"
to be returned to the prisoner upon his release. 1A C.M.R. 03
201 011-5 § 2.12(VI)(F) (2017) (effective Oct. 12,
Sweeney's petition alleged that a letter he wrote to the
Commissioner asking that the rule be rescinded and that the
Commissioner "return all funds" collected pursuant
to the policy had gone unanswered. The petition sought as
relief "to have the policy in question, the forced
savings to be declared unconstitutional as it exceeds the
statutory authority of the agency," and "[t]hat the
[DOC] be ordered to return the assets to the ...
prisoners." In moving to dismiss the petition pursuant
to M.R. Civ. P. 12(b), DOC recognized that Sweeney was
challenging enforcement of the rule as being in violation of
constitutional and statutory provisions, but asserted that
Sweeney had written directly to the Commissioner instead of
filing a formal grievance and had therefore failed to exhaust
his administrative remedies. Sweeney's opposition to the
motion established that DOC was incorrect in its assertions.
He had filed a grievance-before he wrote to the
Commissioner-that had been dismissed as untimely by a
grievance review officer at the prison.
The court held a hearing on October 3, 2017, at which Sweeney
appeared without counsel. DOC acknowledged that Sweeney had
in fact filed a grievance, characterizing its dismissal by
the grievance review officer as a "final agency
action." DOC argued that the court lacked jurisdiction
because, whether or not the dismissal of the grievance was
proper, Sweeney's petition, filed on April 4, 2017, was
untimely given the dismissal of the grievance on January 18,
2017. When addressing another prisoner who had
filed a similar petition, which was addressed simultaneously
with Sweeney's petition at the hearing, the court framed
what it viewed as the threshold timeliness issue in the same
way. It dismissed Sweeney's petition without reaching the
merits of his statutory and constitutional arguments, ruling:
"The grievance was denied. And then you didn't
timely take action to challenge that. And that's where
the door closes for me."
Sweeney filed motions to reconsider, for M.R. Civ. P. 60(b)
relief, and to amend his action. The Rule 60(b) motion and
motion to amend stated explicitly that Sweeney sought to
convert his action into a complaint for declaratory judgment.
See 14 M.R.S. §§ 5951-5963 (2017); M.R.
Civ. P. 57. DOC opposed the motions, arguing in part that a
declaratory judgment action would be "futile"
because Sweeney's failure to raise a timely challenge to
the dismissal of his grievance constituted a failure to
exhaust his administrative remedies and deprived the Superior
Court of jurisdiction, thus subjecting a prospective
declaratory judgment complaint to dismissal. Sweeney's
response directed the court to 5 M.R.S. § 8058 (2017),
which provides that "[j]udicial review of an agency rule
... may be had by any person who is aggrieved in an action
for declaratory judgment in the Superior Court."
The court denied the motions, and Sweeney timely appealed.
DOC subsequently moved us to vacate the trial court's
judgment and remand on the ground that the record did not
indicate the date that Sweeney received notice of the
dismissal of his grievance by the grievance review officer,
and therefore, on the authority of Mutty v. Department of
Corrections, 2017 ME 7, 153 A.3d 775, "[t]he
Superior Court's decision to dismiss the petition was not
supported by the record." We denied the motion,
indicating that it was clear Sweeney was challenging the
legality of the DOC rule itself, not DOC's action in
denying his grievance.
We consider in turn whether the trial court should have (1)
taken Sweeney's initial pleading as a complaint for
declaratory judgment challenging the legality of the DOC rule
or (2) granted Sweeney's motion ...