On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 5, 2011
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Lihotz.
Sherron Robinson, an inmate at East Jersey State Prison, appeals from a final decision of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) upholding the decision of the hearing officer that found Robinson guilty of prohibited acts *.004, fighting with another person and *.306, conduct which disrupts or interferes with the security and orderly running of the correctional facility. For violation of *.004, sanctions of fifteen days of disciplinary detention and 210 days of administrative segregation were imposed. For violation of *.306, fifteen days of disciplinary detention, 365 days of administrative segregation, 365 days of loss of commutation credits and thirty days loss of recreational privileges were imposed. The sanctions are to be served consecutively.
In his appellate brief, Robinson argues that the evidence is insufficient to establish guilt because another inmate instigated the fight, that there was no protection provided by prison staff and, as such, he was acting in self-defense. Robinson also submits that the sanctions were excessive. We reject these arguments and affirm the final decision of the DOC.
In reviewing DOC decisions respecting discipline of inmates, we apply the standard of review applicable to final agency decisions in general. See, e.g., Blackwell v. Dep't of Corrs., 348 N.J. Super. 117 (App. Div. 2002); Williams v. Dep't of Corrs., 330 N.J. Super. 197 (App. Div. 2000). Thus, our review is limited to a determination of "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record, considering the proofs as a whole.'" Close v. Kordulak, 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)). "[A]n appellate court will reverse the decision of the administrative agency only if it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by the substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). The burden of demonstrating that the action of the agency was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable rests upon the individual challenging that action. McGowan v. N.J. State Parole Bd., 347 N.J. Super. 544, 563 (App. Div. 2002). In this matter, we find no basis to disturb the findings or the disciplinary action taken.
The critical facts are concisely stated as follows. On October 21, 2009, Robinson attended breakfast in the mess hall. After being approached by inmate Bright, Robinson and Bright reportedly engaged in an argument.*fn1 According to Sergeant Robert Baker, inmate Bright then struck Robinson twice in the face. Robinson appeared to fall to the floor at which point inmate Tolbert came from behind and hit Bright, also knocking him to the floor. Tolbert started kicking and stomping Bright, then Robinson stood up and joined in on the kicking and stomping. At this point, the fight was filmed by Senior Corrections Officer (SCO) Andrew Booker. Robinson was ordered to stop and report to the sergeant's cage, but Robinson continued stomping on Bright. Robinson and Tolbert were restrained and escorted to the institutional hospital. Bright was taken for medical treatment as well. As a result of the incident, mess was delayed by an hour and all shops and inmate yards were canceled.
Sergeant Baker's account was corroborated by SCO Booker's report and the video. The video entered into evidence confirms Robinson's contention that Bright threw the first punch and that Bright knocked Robinson to the floor. The video also shows that Bright was knocked down to the floor by inmate Tolbert and that Robinson subsequently stood up and started kicking and stomping on Bright until Bright was taken away.
Robinson's arguments on appeal rest upon our decision in
DeCamp v. New Jersey Department of Corrections, 386 N.J. Super. 631, 640 (App. Div. 2006) where we held that an inmate charged with prohibited act *.004, fighting, is entitled to assert the defense of self-defense. There, we reversed an inmate's adjudication of guilty of prohibited act *.004 because the hearing officer did not consider the impact of the admission of the other inmate that he had been the aggressor. Id. at 635, 640. We remanded for a new hearing, observing that "[w]hen 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. We explained the factors to be considered by a hearing officer when weighing an inmate's assertion that he acted in self-defense and found that the hearing officer should determine:
(1) who was the initial aggressor; (2) whether the force used to respond to the attack was reasonable; (3) whether the inmate claiming self-defense had a reasonable opportunity to avoid the confrontation by alerting prison authorities; and (4) any other factors that would make the use of force by the inmate claiming self-defense unreasonable, because it would interfere with or otherwise undermine the orderly administration of the prison. [Ibid.]
In 2007, the DOC promulgated regulations pertaining to self-defense, N.J.A.C. 10A:4-9.13(f), (g). Those regulations provide:
(f) The New Jersey Department of Corrections has a penological interest to ensure correctional facilities are operated in a safe, secure and orderly fashion; therefore the Department prohibits all forms of violence among inmates. The Disciplinary Hearing Officer or Adjustment Committee will allow an inmate to raise self-defense to a prohibited act involving the use of force among inmates; however, the inmate claiming ...