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Medina v. New Jersey Dep't of Corrections

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


December 17, 2009

VICTOR M. MEDINA, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT.

On appeal from a Final Agency Decision of the Department of Corrections.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted December 8, 2009

Before Judges Skillman and Gilroy.

Appellant Victor M. Medina appeals from the August 4, 2008 final decision of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) finding him guilty of committing prohibited acts *.004 (fighting with another person), and *.306 (conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly running of the correctional facility), in violation of N.J.A.C. 10A:4-4.1(a). We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

On July 24, 2008, Sergeant Tennet and Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) R. Johnson observed appellant participating in a fight with inmate Jose Martinez in the East Jersey State Prison mess hall. Using a bullhorn, Sergeant Tennet directed the inmates on three separate occasions to cease fighting. Notwithstanding, the inmates continued to fight. SCO F. Gutierrez sounded the riot alarm and videotaped the fight. Shortly thereafter, the inmates ceased fighting. A prison nurse examined the two inmates and observed that each had suffered minor injuries. Because of the fight, institutional movements were halted, and civilian movement was delayed.

On the following day, Sergeant Solsky served appellant with the charges and conducted an investigation of the infractions. During Solsky's interview of appellant, appellant stated: "It wasn't my fault. I was defending myself." Upon completion of his investigation, Solsky referred the charges to courtline.

On July 28, 2008, the DOC conducted the courtline hearing during which appellant was provided assistance of counsel substitute and pled not guilty to the charges. At the hearing, appellant told the hearing officer that: "We had an argument.

I stepped off. [Martinez] came at me again. He hit me. We started fighting." Appellant was offered the opportunity to call witnesses, confront adverse witnesses, and to view the videotape made of the fight. Appellant declined.

The hearing officer found appellant guilty of committing both prohibited acts. As to prohibited act *.004, the hearing officer noted in Paragraph 18 of her report: "Inmate pleaded not guilty to charge. Inmate was offered the opportunity to review video and declined. He stated he wanted to proceed. Inmate admitted he fought with Martinez after Martinez hit him first. Based on response and both [inmates'] statements, charges upheld." As to prohibited act *.306, the hearing officer wrote in her report.

Inmate pleaded not guilty to charge. Inmate admitted he fought Martinez after Martinez hit him. Based on reports, this fight caused a delay in movement because it took place in the mess hall which had many inmates in one area. A code had to be called and all movement stopped. Charge upheld.

The hearing officer found appellant guilty of both prohibited acts. On prohibited act *.004, appellant was sanctioned ten days of detention, 125 days of administrative segregation, 125 days loss of commutation time, and 15 days loss of recreational privileges. On prohibited act *.306, appellant was sanctioned ten days of detention, 95 days of administrative segregation, 95 days loss of commutation time, and 15 days loss of recreational privileges. On administrative appeal, Assistant Superintendent Davis affirmed. However, he modified the sanctions on prohibited act *.004 by suspending them for 60 days. The sanctions imposed on prohibited act *.306 were upheld.

On appeal, appellant argues that: the hearing officer improperly rejected his claim of self-defense; the imposition of sanctions violated his Eighth Amendment rights; and he was otherwise denied due process at the hearing.

Our role in reviewing the decision of an administrative agency is limited. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999); Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). We will not disturb the determination of an administrative agency absent a showing that it was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable; that it lacked fair support in the evidence; or that it violated legislative policies. In re Musick, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996); Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). Further, decisions of administrative agencies carry with them a presumption of reasonableness. City of Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L.Ed. 2d 245 (1980).

Nonetheless, "'[a]lthough the determination of an administrative agency is entitled to deference, our appellate obligation requires more than a perfunctory review.'" DeCamp v. Dep't. of Corr., 386 N.J. Super. 631, 636 (App. Div. 2006) (quoting Blackwell v. Dep't. of Corr., 348 N.J. Super. 117, 123 (App. Div. 2002)). Accordingly, on appellate review, our function "is to engage in a 'careful and principled consideration of the agency record and findings.'" Ibid. (quoting Williams v. Dep't. of Corr., 330 N.J. Super. 197, 204 (App. Div. 2000)).

In DeCamp, we held, that in cases charging an inmate with the prohibited act of fighting with another person, the hearing officer adjudicating the matter must carefully consider a proffer of self-defense, and if established, exonerate the individual charged with the infraction. When an inmate raises self-defense as an issue, the hearing officer must consider this defense, and make specific findings in support of his/her ultimate decision. [Id. at 640.]

Following DeCamp, the DOC adopted N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.13(f), which recognizes a claim of self-defense in the context of prison disciplinary proceedings involving use of force among inmates. Pursuant to that regulation, to prove self-defense, the inmate must present evidence establishing the following six factors:

1. The inmate was not the initial aggressor;

2. The inmate did not provoke the attacker;

3. The use of force was not by mutual agreement;

4. The use of force was used to defend against personal harm, not to defend property or honor;

5. The inmate had no reasonable opportunity or alternative to avoid the use of force, such as, by retreat or alerting correctional facility staff; and

6. Whether the force used by the inmate to respond to the attacker was reasonably necessary for self-defense and did not exceed the amount of force used against the inmate.

[N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.13(f).]

The record establishes that appellant claimed that he only engaged in fighting in self-defense, after being struck by Martinez. Although the record establishes that prison corrections officers observed the fight, the record does not indicate whether the officers witnessed which inmate had initiated the fight. With the issue having been raised, the hearing officer was obligated to consider the claim of self-defense, "and make specific findings in support of [her] ultimate decision." DeCamp, supra, 386 N.J. Super. at 640.

Here, contrary to DeCamp, the hearing officer's summary findings as to each charge are devoid of evidence that the officer considered the claim of self-defense. Because we cannot determine whether the officer considered the claim, we are constrained to reverse the adjudications of guilty on each of the prohibited acts and remand to the DOC for a new hearing at which the hearing officer is to consider appellant's claim of self-defense in accordance with DeCamp and N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.13(f). The remainder of appellant's arguments are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).

Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.

20091217

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