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Administrative Law Court
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SC Administrative Law Court Decisions

Rahmeil Sutton #257025 vs. SCDOC

South Carolina Department of Corrections

Rahmeil Sutton #257025

South Carolina Department of Corrections





This matter is before the Administrative Law Court (ALC or Court) pursuant to the appeal of Rahmeil Sutton, an inmate incarcerated with the Department of Corrections (Department). Sutton was convicted of violating SCDC Disciplinary Code § 822, Sexual Misconduct. As a result of his conviction, Sutton lost thirty (30) days of “good-time” credit. Sutton filed a grievance with the Department and received the Department’s final decision on December 29, 2004. On January 18, 2005, Sutton filed this appeal.


On July 14, 2004, the Appellant was in a sally port in the Stono Building at Lieber Correctional Institution. Officer Vandross, a DOC employee, was sitting at the desk on B-side. She noticed the Appellant standing in the sally port looking at her. When she stood up to see why he was standing there, she observed that the Appellant had his hand in his pants “moving in an up and down motion.” After the incident, Officer Vandross completed an Incident Report detailing the incident. The Appellant was subsequently charged with violating SCDC Disciplinary Code § 822, Sexual Misconduct. He received written notice of the charge on July 20, 2004.

On July 29, 2004, a Major Disciplinary Hearing was held before a Department Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) concerning the Sexual Misconduct charge. At the Appellant’s request, Officer Vandross was present at the hearing. Additionally, he was provided a counsel substitute. During the hearing, the DHO read a narrative of Officer Vandross’s Incident Report into the Record and received testimony from the Appellant and Officer Vandross as evidence. At the conclusion of the hearing, the DHO found the Appellant guilty of Sexual Misconduct and sanctioned him with the loss of thirty (30) days of good-time credit. After the hearing, the DHO completed a Major Disciplinary Report and Hearing Record which documented the DHO’s findings.

The Appellant filed a grievance appealing his conviction of violating SCDC Disciplinary Code § 822. After reviewing his allegation, the Warden denied the Appellant’s grievance. He appealed the Warden’s decision asking that the Department reverse his loss of “good-time” credits. The Department denied his grievance, stating that the evidence supported the conviction and that the sanction imposed was appropriate for the violation the Appellant committed. This appeal followed. In his Appeal Brief, the Appellant argues that:

1. The sentence imposed was excessive and not proportionate to the violation;[1]

2. The DHO was biased against him;

3. His due process rights were violated because the DHO did not consult a mental health care professional;[2] and

4. The Department’s provision of a counsel substitute violated his due process right because he was not allowed to question the Department’s witness himself.[3]




The Court’s jurisdiction to hear this matter is derived entirely from the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court in Al-Shabazz v. State, 338 S.C. 354, 527 S.E.2d 742 (2000). The Court’s appellate jurisdiction in inmate appeals is limited to state created liberty interests typically involving: (1) cases in which an inmate contends that prison officials have erroneously calculated his sentence, sentence-related credits, or custody status; and (2) cases in which an inmate has received punishment in a major disciplinary hearing as a result of a serious rule violation. Id.[4]

When reviewing the Department’s decisions in inmate grievance matters, the Court sits in an appellate capacity. Id. at 756. Consequently, the review in these inmate grievance cases is limited to the Record presented. An Administrative Law Judge may not substitute his judgment for that of an agency “as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact.” S.C. Code Ann. § 1‑23‑380(A)(6) (Supp. 2003). Furthermore, an Administrative Law Judge may not reverse or modify an agency’s decision unless substantial rights of the Appellant have been prejudiced because the decision is clearly erroneous in view of the substantial evidence on the whole Record, arbitrary or affected by an error of law. See Section 1-23-380(A)(6); See also Marietta Garage, Inc. v. South Carolina Dept. of Public Safety, 337 S.C. 133, 522 S.E.2d 605 (Ct. App. 1999); South Carolina Dept. of Labor, Licensing and Regulation v. Girgis, 332 S.C. 162, 503 S.E.2d 490 (Ct. App. 1998). “‘Substantial evidence’ is not a mere scintilla of evidence nor the evidence viewed blindly from one side of the case, but is evidence which, considering the Record as a whole, would allow reasonable minds to reach the conclusion that the administrative agency reached or must have reached in order to justify its action.” Lark v. Bi‑Lo, 276 S.C. 130, 135, 276 S.E.2d 304, 306 (1981). Accordingly, the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence. Grant v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 319 S.C. 348, 461 S.E.2d 388 (1995).

Additionally, in Superintendent, Massachusetts Correctional Institution, Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 456, 105 S.Ct. 2768 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the relevant question is whether there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the disciplinary board.” Moreover, in Al-Shabazz, the Court underscored that since prison officials are in the best position to decide inmate disciplinary matters, the Courts and therefore this tribunal adhere to a “hands off” approach to internal prison disciplinary policies and procedures when reviewing inmate appeals under the APA. Al-Shabazz at 757; See also Pruitt v. State, 274 S.C. 565, 266 S.E.2d 779 (1980) (stating the traditional “hands off” approach of South Carolina courts regarding internal prison discipline and policy).

In this case, the Appellant alleges that the Department should not have revoked his accrued good time. Inmates have a protected liberty interest in their earned statutory good-time credits under the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, when, as here, the Department revokes an inmate’s good-time credits as punishment in a “major disciplinary hearing” involving “more serious rule violations,” prison officials must provide that inmate with “minimal due process.” Al-Shabazz at 750. Consequently, specific administrative procedures must be followed before depriving an inmate of statutorily granted earned credit, including adequate advance notice of the charges, adequate opportunity for a hearing in which the inmate can present witnesses and documentary evidence, and an impartial hearing officer who prepares a written statement of all the evidence presented and the reasons for his decision. Id. at 751 (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 563-72, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2978-82 (1974)).


Due Process

I find that the Appellant was afforded all process due him pursuant to Al-Shabazz. The Record indicates that the Appellant received written notice of the charges against him in excess of twenty-four (24) hours prior to a hearing that was held before an impartial Disciplinary Hearing Officer. At the hearing, the Appellant was given the opportunity to offer evidence, call witnesses, and confront his accuser. In addition, although not constitutionally required, the Appellant was afforded a counsel substitute who assisted him in his defense. After the DHO determined that the Appellant was guilty of the charged offense, he prepared a written report stating the evidence he relied upon and the penalty assessed in finding the Appellant guilty of the disciplinary infraction. Finally, as evinced here, the Appellant was permitted to appeal the DHO’s decision through the inmate grievance process.

Impartial Hearing Officer

The Appellant contends that his hearing was not held before an impartial hearing officer as reflected by the DHO’s statements on the Record. More specifically, the Appellant was told by the DHO that he didn’t need to present his medical records concerning his need to scratch himself because that evidence was “not going to work.” An impartial hearing officer is required in inmate disciplinary proceedings involving state created liberty interest. See Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 570-71, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2981-82 (1974). See also, Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 117 S.Ct. 1584 (1997) (“The due process requirements for a prison disciplinary hearing are in many respects less demanding than those for criminal prosecution, but they are not so lax as to let stand the decision of a biased hearing officer who dishonestly suppresses evidence of innocence.”). Furthermore, though the Record may contain ample evidence to support the Department’s judgment, when considering whether the DHO was biased the sufficiency of the evidence is irrelevant. Id.

However, the mere possibility of institutional bias is not enough to violate due process. Allen v. Cuomo, 100 F.3d 253 (2nd Cir. 1996). Rather, “[a]dministrators serving as adjudicators are presumed to be unbiased.” Id. at 259. Additionally, “the degree of impartiality required of prison hearing officials does not rise to the level of that required of judges generally. Because of the special characteristics of the prison environment, it is permissible for the impartiality of such officials to be encumbered by various conflicts of interest that, in other contexts, would be adjudged of sufficient magnitude to violate due process.” Francis v. Coughlin, 891 F.2d 43, 46 (2nd Cir. 1989). An impartial DHO has been defined as “one who, inter alia, does not prejudge the evidence and who cannot say, with the utter certainty advanced by these defendants, how he would assess evidence he has not yet seen.” Patterson v. Coughlin, 905 F.2d 564, 570 (2nd Cir. 1990). In Merritt v. De Los Santos, 721 F.2d 598 (7th Cir. 1983), the Seventh Circuit discussed what constitutes impartiality in inmate disciplinary proceedings. The Court held that “the requirement of impartiality mandates the disqualification of an official who is directly involved in the incident or is otherwise substantially involved in the incident but does not require the disqualification of someone tangentially involved.” Id. at 601. Likewise, the Court in Bennett v. King, 19 F.3d 1428 (4th Cir.1994) addressed the issue of a prisoner's right to have disciplinary charges against him considered by an impartial tribunal. The Court held that the fact that King was the Defendant in a lawsuit filed by the hearing officer was insufficient to raise a genuine issue regarding his ability to act as a “neutral decisionmaker.” However, the Court held that “this fact, together with the fact that King was the subject of the profane comments [the hearing officer] allegedly made, require further consideration of this issue.” Id.

Therefore, proof of a due process violation based upon lack of impartiality requires specific acts reflecting a lack of neutrality. That scenario is not present here. The DHO’s demeanor toward the Appellant was brusque. However, the Appellant was ultimately allowed to fully present his defense as to his actions.[5] Moreover, there is no indication that DHO witnessed or investigated the incident that was the subject of this disciplinary proceeding against the Appellant. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the DHO prejudged the evidence in this matter. Rather, the Record shows that evidence was presented at the hearing and that the hearing officer relied upon that evidence in reaching a decision. Accordingly, I find that he failed to establish that his hearing officer was impartial.

Substantial Evidence

The Appellant contends that he was merely scratching himself rather than committing a “sexual act.” I find that there is substantial evidence to support the Appellant's conviction of violating SCDC Disciplinary Code § 822, Sexual Misconduct. A Code Section 822 violation is: “(1) Engaging in sexual acts or intimate physical contact of a sexual nature alone or with others; or (2) indecent and/or unnecessary exposure of private body parts; or (3) soliciting sexual acts from others.”  In evaluating the evidence presented at the hearing, “[t]he fact finder is imbued with broad discretion in determining credibility or believability of witnesses.” Small v. Pioneer Machinery, Inc., 329 S.C. 448, 465, 494 S.E.2d 835, 843 (Ct. App. 1997).

Here, the Record clearly supports the facts recited in the “Background” portion of this Order. Those facts sufficiently establish that though the Appellant’s penis was not exposed, he was nevertheless engaging in a sexual act in front of Officer Vandross. Consequently, the Record establishes substantial evidence that the Appellant violated Code Section 822.


IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the appeal of the Appellant is DISMISSED and the Final Decision of the Department is AFFIRMED;




Ralph King Anderson, III

Administrative Law Judge



April 27, 2005

Columbia, South Carolina

Brown Bldg.






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