On March 22, students from Harvard PLAP won a ruling from the Massachusetts Appeals Court that will improve access to courts for incarcerated people challenging the discipline that is meted out against them. The Appeals Court held that the sixty-day statute of limitations for such challenges runs from the date that the Department of Correction (DOC) serves its final decision on a prisoner, not an earlier date of its choosing. Richard Brooks v. Department of Correction.
Plaintiff Richard Brooks appealed to the Superior Court from a guilty finding in a prison disciplinary hearing under a Massachusetts statute that permits judicial review of such proceedings. The statute calls for an “action in the nature of certiorari” to be filed “within sixty days next after the proceeding complained of.” M.G.L. c. 249 s. 4. The Massachusetts Department of Correction sought dismissal of the complaint, arguing that the sixty-day clock started to run not when it issued notice of the disciplinary decision, but three days earlier, when the prison superintendent dated her decision. The Superior Court agreed, even though the DOC had taken no action on that day to inform anyone of the decision, and even though the agency’s own decision form prominently featured the date of service, in its headings and in a final line confirming the date of service.
PLAP students Madeleine DeMeules (‘21), Lena Melillo (‘22), and Matthew Disler (‘21) took charge of the appeal on Mr. Brooks’s behalf, supervised by Managing Attorney Joel Thompson. They developed the arguments and prepared the brief as a team in the spring of 2020, despite having to work remotely during the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matthew Disler argued the appeal, after preparing with his fellow team members and with the generous assistance of the Honorable John Cratsley (Ret.), Director of the HLS Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic, who led a moot argument.
The PLAP team’s efforts paid off, as the Appeals Court found its arguments persuasive. The court saw no basis for the notion that the statute of limitations should begin to run before the Department of Correction issues notice of its decision to the prisoner. “Indeed, under the department’s rationale, agencies could deprive parties of all opportunity to seek certiorari review through the expedient of waiting for the sixty days to expire before issuing notice,” an outcome that the court found “illogical.” The court also noted that the DOC’s own regulation governing disciplinary proceedings calls for the prison superintendent not only to decide the disciplinary appeal but also to notify the prisoner in writing. 103 CMR § 430.18.
Mr. Brooks will now finally be heard on the merits of his complaint in the Superior Court. DeMeules, Melillo, and Disler look forward to presenting his claim: a challenge to the DOC’s punishment of Mr. Brooks for wearing dark slacks and a white button-down shirt to his religious group’s services, an outfit the DOC contends is a threat to prison security.