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Butler v. Haslam

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 31, 2019

DR. ROBERT C. BUTLER, Plaintiff,
GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Dr. Robert C. Butler filed this pro se action against former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and the Executive Director and six members of the Tennessee Board of Parole, asserting claims based on the handling of a hearing on Dr. Butler's petition for exoneration and the subsequent denial of that petition. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will dismiss the Complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).

         I. Standard of Review

         Because Plaintiff proceeds in forma pauperis, the Court is required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) to conduct an initial review of the Complaint and to dismiss it if it is facially frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim for which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 604 (6th Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199 (2007). The Sixth Circuit has confirmed that the dismissal standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), “governs dismissals for failure to state a claim under [Section 1915(e)(2)] because the relevant statutory language tracks the language in Rule 12(b)(6).” Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010).

         Thus, in reviewing the complaint to determine whether it states a plausible claim, “a district court must (1) view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and (2) take all well-pleaded factual allegations as true.” Tackett v. M & G Polymers, USA, LLC, 561F.3d 478, 488 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted)). The court must then consider whether those factual allegations, accepted as true, “plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.” Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681). The court “need not accept as true legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences.” DirectTV, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007). (quoting Gregory v. Shelby Cty., 220 F.3d 433, 446 (6th Cir. 2000)). “[L]egal conclusions masquerading as factual allegations will not suffice.” Eidson v. State of Tenn. Dep't of Children's Servs., 510 F.3d 631, 634 (6th Cir. 2007).

         A “pro se complaint . . . must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Even under this lenient standard, however, pro se plaintiffs must meet basic pleading requirements. Martin v. Overton, 391 F.3d 710, 714 (6th Cir. 2004).

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff names as defendants Jim Purviance, Executive Director, Tennessee Board of Parole; Richard Montgomery, Chair, Tennessee Board of Parole; and six members of the Board of Parole, including Zane Duncan, Gary M. Faulcon, Tim Gobble, Gay Gregson, Roberta Nevil Kustoff, and Barrett Rich (collectively, the “parole board Defendants”); and former Governor Bill Haslam. Governor Haslam is sued in his individual capacity only; the parole board Defendants are sued in both their individual and official capacities.

         The Complaint itself is not a model of clarity, but the Court takes judicial notice that Dr. Butler, an African-American man, was tried for the rape of a white female student in 1977, when Dr. Butler was a sociology instructor and doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee. That trial ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Dr. Butler was retried within the year, and the second trial resulted in his conviction. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and the Tennessee Supreme Court denied review. Dr. Butler's first habeas petition filed in this Court in 1980 was granted and his conviction and sentence were vacated. The Sixth Circuit, however, reversed and reinstated the conviction. Butler v. Rose, 686 F.2d 1163 (6th Cir. 1982) (en banc).

         Dr. Butler then sought post-conviction relief in the Tennessee state courts. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel and remanded for a new trial. Butler v. State, C.C.A. No. 1163, 1988 WL 63526 (Tenn. Crim. App. June 23, 1988), aff'd on reh'g, 1988 WL 93001 (Sept. 8, 1988). In yet another twist, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed and reinstated Butler's conviction. Butler v. State, 789 S.W.2d 898 (Tenn. 1990).

         Dr. Butler again sought habeas relief from this Court. In 1993, Judge Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr., granted the petition, finding that trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the granting of the writ. Butler v. Hosking, No. 93-5976, 47 F.3d 1167 (Table) (6th Cir. Feb. 22, 1995). Thereafter, Judge Wiseman denied the State's Rule 60(b) motion for clarification or relief from the order granting the writ, and the Sixth Circuit again affirmed. Butler v. Hosking, No. 96-6092, 1995 WL 435604 (6th Cir. Aug. 1, 1996).

         As the Sixth Circuit explained in the latter opinion, Judge Wiseman's original order granting the writ gave the State of Tennessee “60 days in which to schedule a new trial, failing which, all charges against the petitioner will be dismissed.” Id. at *1. The State sought to stay execution of the judgment while it appealed, but its various requests for a stay were denied. Nonetheless, it did not attempt to retry Dr. Butler within the sixty-day deadline. In May 1995, the State sought permission to retry Dr. Butler, but the state trial court concluded that the time for trying him had expired and granted his motion to dismiss, thus barring his reprosecution. The trial court declined to rule on whether the state was barred from reindicting Dr. Butler. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. Id. at *2; see also State v. Butler, 955 S.W.2d 78 (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. 1996). The Tennessee court likewise affirmatively concluded that the district court's order “permanently barred re-prosecution of the appellee's indictment stemming from the 1977 rape charges” and noted that, “[o]nce the appellee's charges were dismissed, there were no longer charges upon which to base re-indictment.” 955 S.W.2d at 80 & n.2. In any event, Dr. Butler was never reindicted or retried. He was released from prison in 1993 at the time his habeas petition was granted. Documents attached to the Complaint reflect that his criminal record was formally expunged in 2000, pursuant an Order for Expungement of Record issued by the state trial court under Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-32-101. (See Doc. No. 1-1, at 33-34 (Dec. 18, 2000 letter from counsel referencing enclosed Order of Expungement).)

         Despite the fact that all charges against Dr. Butler ultimately were dismissed and never refiled, effectively exonerating him in at least one sense of the word, Dr. Butler apparently sought formal exoneration from the State of Tennessee in 2018. Although Dr. Butler does not expressly explain as much in the Complaint itself, it appears from the exhibits attached thereto that he first sought compensation from Tennessee Board of Claims for his “wrongful incarceration” of sixteen and one-half years in April 2018. (See Doc. No. 1-1, at 9 (Claim for Damages, State of Tennessee Division of Claims Administration).) That body denied his application (id. at 11-12 (appeal of decision of Board of Claims)), after notifying him, even before meeting to consider his application, that a claimant must first be exonerated by the governor in order to receive compensation for a wrongful conviction (see Id. at 35 (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-108(a)(7))). Dr. Butler thereafter filed an application for exoneration. (Id. at 15 (Nov. 9, 2018 Letter to R. Butler from Board of Parole, Executive Clemency Unit, providing notice of hearing date on application for exoneration).)

         An “exoneration hearing” was conducted on December 12, 2018 before the Tennessee Board of Parole. According to Dr. Butler, even though the Department of Treasury knew it was “not supposed to conduct a hearing on Plaintiff's behalf, they went forward with a malicious and relentless ‘double jeopardy' hearing against Plaintiff, that is, Plaintiff was retried all over again.” (Doc. No. 1, at 3.) Plaintiff complains that the all-white parole board Defendants “operated from the premise that Plaintiff was guilty as found[] by the jury at his second trial.” (Id.) Plaintiff claims that “[a]ll of the Defendants . . . clearly violated Plaintiff's double jeopardy rights, ” as well as his rights under the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment during his exoneration hearing “by telling him that he was guilty of a crime that he had been exonerated of almost 27 years ago.” (Id. at 4.) The parole board Defendants informed him that they would vote to recommend that his petition for exoneration be denied, but they also assured him that then-Governor Haslam would make his final decision before leaving office on January 18, 2019. Plaintiff did not “hear[] anything from the Governor before he left office.” (Id.) He also claims, however, that he was informed when he called the Governor's office that none of his exoneration paperwork had reached Governor Haslam's desk. (Id.)

         Plaintiff asserts that Governor Haslam was responsible for appointing to the Board of Parole individuals “of high moral character . . . who would vow to follow the dictates of both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions.” (Id. at 5.) Plaintiff claims that he repeatedly informed Governor Haslam by mail that his constitutional rights were being violated, but the “Governor stood by and did nothing.” (Id.) Plaintiff claims that each of the parole board Defendants was responsible for assuring that Plaintiff received a just and fair ...

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