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Morris v. Tennessee Board of Probation & Parole

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

July 15, 2019

JAMES M. MORRIS
v.
TENNESSEE BOARD OF PROBATION & PAROLE

          Assigned on Briefs May 1, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 16-1018-I Claudia Bonnyman, Chancellor

         This appeal involves a petition for writ of certiorari filed in chancery court by a prisoner after he was denied parole. The chancery court concluded that the petition was timely filed but found that the issues presented were moot and lacked substantive merit. The prisoner appeals. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court's order of dismissal on other grounds.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          James M. Morris, Mountain City, Tennessee, Pro Se.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée Sophia Blumstein, Solicitor General; and Pamela S. Lorch, Senior Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole.

          Carma D. McGee, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins, and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          CARMA D. MCGEE, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         James M. Morris is an inmate currently incarcerated at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tennessee. In 1988, he pled guilty to the offenses of second degree murder and robbery armed with a deadly weapon. Morris was sentenced to thirty-five years for the offense of second degree murder and fifteen years for the offense of robbery armed with a deadly weapon, to be served consecutively, for an effective sentence of fifty years.

         Over the course of his incarceration, Morris has been denied parole on numerous occasions. He had another parole hearing on June 2, 2016. On June 7, 2016, the Board of Probation and Parole provided Morris with a document entitled "Offender Hearing Decision Notification" officially notifying him of its decision to decline parole based on the seriousness of his offense. His next parole review date was set for December 2017. The notification informed Morris of his appeal rights and stated,

In order to be considered for an appellate review, a written request must be received within forty-five (45) days from the date this decision is signed. The request must be mailed to: Board of Parole, Attn: Appeals Unit, 404 James Robertson Parkway, Suite 1300 Nashville, TN[.]

         Morris signed the notification on June 7, 2016.

         The forty-five day period for appeal ended on July 22, 2016. Morris submitted a "Request for Appeal Hearing" to the Board, but it was not received by the July 22 deadline. On July 28, 2016, the Board sent Morris a letter stating that it had received his request for an appeal but that it was deemed null and void because it was not received by the Board within forty-five days after he signed the notification. Accordingly, the Board informed Morris that the time period for an administrative appeal had lapsed, and he had no further appeal recourse through the Board.

         On September 16, 2016, Morris filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the chancery court of Davidson County, seeking review of the Board's decision from the June 2016 hearing. Morris argued that his administrative appeal to the Board was timely because, according to Morris, he delivered his administrative appeal to the prison post office on July 19, 2016, three days prior to the expiration of the forty-five day appeal period. Morris argued that his administrative appeal should have been deemed timely pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 5.06 and/or Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 20(g), commonly known as the prison mailbox rule. Morris also argued that the Board committed two procedural errors in the conduct of his parole hearing. First, he argued that the Board erred in allowing family members of the victim of his crimes to attend the parole hearing "by satellite." Additionally, Morris argued that the Board acted illegally by finalizing its parole hearing decision based on the concurrence of three members of the Board. Morris argued that four votes were required pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 40-28-105(d). Morris asked the chancery court to review the record of the parole hearing and to order the Board to conduct another parole hearing in accordance with the governing policies and law. Morris attached numerous documents to his petition.

         On December 20, 2017, while the petition was still pending, Morris filed a motion for stay in the chancery court. His motion stated that the Board had held another parole hearing on or about November 28, 2017, and the Board had again denied him parole. Morris asserted that he intended to appeal the decision of the Board within forty-five days and was in the process of preparing his administrative appeal. He asked the chancery court to stay its decision pending the outcome of the administrative appeal process before the Board with respect to his most recent hearing.

         On October 11, 2018, the chancery court entered a memorandum opinion and final order dismissing the petition filed by Morris. The chancery court concluded that the entire case should be dismissed as moot because the remedy sought by Morris - another parole hearing - had already taken place. Thus, the chancery court reasoned that Morris had already received the remedy he sought, and the court could no longer grant him a remedy. Despite this finding regarding mootness, the chancery court went on to address the substantive merit of the arguments presented by Morris and make alternative rulings regarding each of those grounds. The trial court concluded that the Board erred in deeming his administrative appeal as untimely. The trial court found that the appeal was "timely filed" on the date when it was submitted to the prison mailroom. Regarding the merits, the trial court found that the Board acted properly by allowing the victim's family to attend the parole hearing via videoconference because victims' families are given the right to participate by statute. Finally, the chancery court found that the Board properly used the three-vote rule to decide whether Morris should be paroled based on the type of sentence that Morris was serving at the time. Morris timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

         II. ...


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