United States District Court, District of Columbia
JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge
Pro se Plaintiff Jason Thompson brings this lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons and various correctional officers and administrators. He alleges that at the Federal Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, South Carolina, where he was previously incarcerated, officers failed to provide him with the process he was due at a disciplinary hearing, which resulted in, among other things, a loss of good-time credits. Although he styled his action as a civil-rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Defendants contend it is more properly considered a petition for habeas corpus. The Court concurs, but because Thompson was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary Lee in Jonesville, Virginia, when he filed this action, his suit cannot be maintained in this district. Rather than dismiss the case, the Court will transfer it to the appropriate venue - viz., the Western District of Virginia. There, Defendants are free to raise the array of merits defenses that they sought to proffer to this Court.
According to Thompson, on July 13, 2014, while he was housed at FCI Bennettsville, he received an incident report charging him with various disciplinary infractions, including “[r]efusing to breath[e] into a breathalyzer” and “[t]hreatening another with bodily harm.” ECF No. 1 (Complaint) at 6 (Statement of Claims). The following day he appeared before the prison’s disciplinary committee and was advised of his rights related to those charges. Id.; Opp. at 1. Specifically, Thompson alleges that he was told, “You may request the staff representative of your choice” at the hearing before the Discipline Hearing Officer (DHO) “so long as that person was not a victim, witness, investigator, or otherwise significantly involved it [sic] the incident.” Compl. at 6. Thompson requested that Lieutenant “N. Bates” serve as his representative. Id.
On July 21, Lieutenant Bates came to the Special Housing Unit, where Plaintiff was then held, and informed him that he “had no desire to assist inmates at DHO hearings.” Id. Later that day, Thompson was brought to his hearing, which was presided over by DHO “E. Negron-Oliver” - a Defendant in this case - who was not physically present but “appeared via camera.” Opp. at 1; see also Compl. at 7. Plaintiff informed Negron-Oliver that his requested staff representative was not present, but he was nonetheless “forced to proceed without staff representation against [his] objections.” Compl. at 7; see also Opp. at 1 (stating that DHO “informed [Thompson] that she would not conduct such hearing without [his] requested staff representative and then went on to do so, without my staff representative present”). At the hearing, he was found guilty of two disciplinary violations and sentenced to 45 days of disciplinary segregation, 6 months of commissary and telephone restrictions, 3 months of email restrictions, and - critical for this suit - “68 days loss of good conduct time.” Id.
Thompson believes this proceeding before the DHO violated his due-process rights in multiple ways, including the deprivation of a staff representative to assist him and the failure to provide him with a report of the hearing. See id. at 7-8 (citing BOP rules set forth in Program Statement 541.8). Shortly after the hearing, Thompson filed a grievance detailing his procedural objections. See id. at 12 (July 24, 2014, Grievance Form). Although he does not directly mention it in his Complaint, Plaintiff’s Opposition reveals that, a few days later, he was afforded a re-hearing on his disciplinary infractions. See Opp. at 2-3. Thompson maintains, however, that the re-hearing was also procedurally deficient; he complains that his due-process rights were violated because he did not receive 24 hours’ advance notice of the hearing and did not have an opportunity to request a representative of his choosing. See id. at 2. He ultimately refused to participate in the hearing and was returned to his cell. Id. at 3; see also id. at 18 (July 30, 2014, Hearing Report) (noting that Plaintiff was “insolent and belligerent” and asked to be returned to his cell despite being “informed that the hearing would continue in [his] absence since [he was] refusing to attend”). In his absence, Plaintiff was again found guilty of the two disciplinary infractions and again received the same sanctions. Id. at 19.
Plaintiff next filed various administrative appeals of the DHO’s decision. See, e.g., id. at 23 (“Regional Administrative Remedy Appeal”). On February 3, 2015, he was transferred to USP Lee in Jonesville, Virginia, see id. at 27, and on July 23, 2015, he filed this lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, three unnamed Administrative Remedy Coordinators, and DHOs E. Negron-Oliver and Lee Green. See Compl. at 1-2. At some point during the pendency of this suit, Plaintiff was again transferred, this time to USP Lompoc in Lompoc, California, where he is currently housed. See Opp. at 6. In his Complaint, he requests that the sanctions imposed by the DHO be vacated, that the incident report be expunged from his record, and that his court filing fee be reimbursed by Defendants. See Compl. at 9. He later moved to amend his Complaint to seek additional relief - namely, $5, 000 in punitive damages from each Defendant. See ECF No. 9; Minute Order of September 11, 2015 (granting Plaintiff’s Motion to Amend).
Defendants now move to transfer or, in the alternative, dismiss the suit. See ECF No. 16 (Mot.). They first argue that because Plaintiff’s case falls under the federal habeas statute, this federal court in the District of Columbia does not have jurisdiction over it. See id. at 1-2. They maintain, alternatively, that the Court should dismiss the suit on the ground of sovereign immunity. See id. Finally, they contend that Plaintiff’s failure to properly exhaust his administrative remedies prevents him from stating a claim for relief. Id. at 19. Because the Court finds for Defendants on their first theory, it will not address the legal standard or merits of the remaining defenses.
II. Legal Standard
In evaluating Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, the Court must “treat the complaint’s factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.’” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (internal citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm’n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the Court has jurisdiction to hear his claims. See DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 342 & n.3 (2006); Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). A court has an “affirmative obligation to ensure that it is acting within the scope of its jurisdictional authority.” Grand Lodge of Fraternal Order of Police v. Ashcroft, 185 F.Supp.2d 9, 13 (D.D.C. 2001). For this reason, “‘the [p]laintiff’s factual allegations in the complaint . . . will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion’ than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Id. at 13-14 (quoting 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350 (2d ed. 1987)). Additionally, unlike with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court “may consider materials outside the pleadings in deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. . . .” Jerome Stevens Pharm., 402 F.3d at 1253.
Should the Court find that jurisdiction is lacking, transfer may be appropriate. “Whenever a civil action is filed in a court . . . and that court finds that there is a want of jurisdiction, the court shall, if it is in the interest of justice, transfer such action or appeal to any other such court in which the action or appeal could have been brought at the time it was filed . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1631; see also 28 U.S.C. 1406(a) (“A district court of a district in which is filed a case laying venue in the wrong division or district shall dismiss, or if it be in the interest of justice, transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.”).
Defendants’ principal argument is that Plaintiff’s Complaint sounds in habeas because it raises questions about the fact or duration of his incarceration; consequently, they contend, the only court that could have jurisdiction over the suit is the district in which he lived at the time of filing - namely, the Western District of Virginia. See Mot. at 6. Plaintiff, on the other hand, believes that his case is a § 1983 action and thus properly belongs in this district. The Court first explains why transfer would be ...