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Sweeney v. Department of Corrections

Supreme Court of Maine

October 16, 2018

GARY SWEENEY
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

          Submitted On Briefs: September 26, 2018

          Gary Sweeney, appellant pro se

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and James E. Fortin, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of Corrections

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          MEAD, J.

         [¶1] 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] 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)[1] 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, 2016).

         [¶3] Sweeney's petition alleged that a letter he wrote to the Commissioner asking that the rule be rescinded and that the Commissioner "return all funds" collected pursuant to the policy had gone unanswered.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.

         [¶4] 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.[2] 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."

         [¶5] 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."

         [¶6] 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.

         II. DISCUSSION

         [¶7] 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 ...


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