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United States v. Weidenhamer

United States District Court, D. Arizona

November 8, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Deborah Ann Weidenhamer, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable Roslyn O. Silver Senior United States District Judge.

         Defendant Deborah Ann Weidenhamer is serving an 84-month sentence after pleading guilty to bank fraud. Defendant believes she is entitled to compassionate release because of “two serious life-threatening conditions from which she is not expected to recover.” (Doc. 64 at 1). According to the government, the Court must deny this request because Defendant did not exhaust her administrative remedies prior to seeking relief from the Court. The government likely is correct that Defendant should have administratively exhausted before filing her request but even if the Court overlooks that failure, Defendant is not entitled to release. Therefore, the motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Sometime in July 2019 Defendant submitted a request for compassionate release to the warden of her facility. The warden received that request on July 19, 2019. On August 19, 2019, the warden issued a written denial. (Doc. 64-1 at 65). The warden concluded Defendant did not “meet the criteria” for compassionate release but stated Defendant could appeal the denial “through the Administrative Remedy Program.” (Doc. 64-1 at 65). Instead of pursuing such an appeal, Defendant filed her motion with the Court on August 29, 2019. The government responded that Defendant's motion “should be denied on procedural grounds because [Defendant] has not exhausted all of her administrative appeal rights.” (Doc. 65 at 1). According to the government, Defendant filed a proper request for compassionate relief with the warden but, upon receiving the warden's denial, Defendant was required to pursue an administrative appeal. Defendant disagrees that she was required to pursue an administrative appeal after receiving the warden's denial. Instead, Defendant argues she was entitled to file a motion with the Court 30 days after the warden received her request, regardless of what action the warden took on that request.

         Assuming the Court can reach the merits of Defendant's motion, she alleges she “suffers from two serious diseases from which she is not expected to recover.” (Doc. 64 at 3). Those two “diseases” are an abdominal aortic aneurysm and “primary immunodeficiency disorders.” Defendant complains she is not receiving adequate medical treatment and her situation presents “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to grant compassionate release. The government did not respond on the merits because it believed Defendant's alleged failure to exhaust her administrative remedies precludes reaching the merits of Defendant's request.

         ANALYSIS

         In 2018, Congress amended 18 U.S.C. § 3582 to allow a convicted defendant to file a motion for compassionate release. Previously, that statute allowed only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons to file such a motion. United States v. Shields, No. 12-CR-00410-BLF-1, 2019 WL 2359231, at *1 (N.D. Cal. June 4, 2019). In authorizing defendants to file motions on their own behalf, the statute imposed an administrative exhaustion requirement. As explained below, however, the precise contours of that requirement are not clear.

         A. Defendant Did Not Exhaust Her Administrative Remedies

         The amended statute allows a defendant to file a motion for compassionate release upon the earlier of two dates. First, a defendant can file a motion “after the defendant has fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the defendant's behalf.” Id. Second, a defendant can file a motion upon “the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of [a defendant's request to bring a motion] by the warden of the defendant's facility.” Id. Courts have recognized these two options impose a mandatory requirement that a defendant submit a request to the warden of her facility before filing in court. See, e.g., United States v. Solis, No. CR 16-015-CG-MU, 2019 WL 2518452, at *2 (S.D. Ala. June 18, 2019) (denying request because defendant did not request compassionate release from Bureau of Prisons); United States v. Dowlings, No. CR413-171, 2019 WL 4803280, at *1 (S.D. Ga. Sept. 30, 2019). But courts have disagreed on what, if anything, a defendant must do beyond that initial request and before filing in court.

         The disagreement appears to stem from the wording of the second option authorizing a defendant to file a motion in court upon “the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of [a defendant's request to bring a motion] by the warden of the defendant's facility.” Courts have concluded this language allows a defendant to file a motion with the court if a defendant makes a request to the warden but the warden does not act on the request within 30 days of receiving it. See, e.g., United States v. Early, No. 7:02-CR-10125-002, 2019 WL 4576281, at *1 (W.D. Va. Sept. 20, 2019) (defendant was entitled to file motion because warden did not act on request within 30 days). Courts have also concluded a defendant can file a motion with the court if the warden takes longer than 30 days to act on a request, even if the warden's denial is issued before the defendant files his motion in court. See, e.g., United States of America v. Gray, No. 202CR00018JMSCMM13, 2019 WL 4572816, at *3 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 20, 2019) (defendant was entitled to file motion because warden denied request more than 30 days after receiving request). But there is very limited authority explaining the options for a defnedant who submits a request to the warden and the warden denies that request within 30 days.

         There are two ways to read the statutory phrase “the lapse of 30 days.” The first reading is that a “lapse of 30 days” refers simply to the passage of 30 days, regardless of what happens in the interim. Under this reading, a warden would be given an initial opportunity to act on a request for compassionate release but a defendant would not be required to pursue an administrative appeal should the warden deny the request. Instead, a defendant would be allowed to file a motion in court 30 days after the warden received the request. Given that some defendants seeking compassionate release are doing so because of imminent death, Congress might have decided against requiring every defendant pursue a potentially lengthy administrative appeal process.

         In at least two other districts, the government has adopted this first reading and argued a defendant need not do more than wait 30 days before proceeding to court. United States v. Spears, 98-cr-208 (D. Ore. Sept. 30, 2019) (filing by government); United States v. Robinson, 16-cr-5307 (W.D. Wash. July 8, 2019) (filing by government). And judges in the Western District of Washington and the Eastern District of Tennessee have agreed defendants are entitled to proceed to court once 30 days pass, regardless of any action taken by the wardens. United States v. Robinson, 2019 WL 2567356 (W.D. Wash. June 21, 2019) (staying case for exactly 30 days after date warden received her request); United States v. York, No. 3:11-CR-76, 2019 WL 3241166, at *5 (E.D. Tenn. July 18, 2019) (defendant entitled to file motion with court after warden denied request even though defendant did not pursue administrative appeal). But this reading urged by the government elsewhere and adopted in other courts is not the only possible reading.

         The second way to read the language referencing a “lapse of 30 days” is that it applies only if the warden does not grant or deny the request during those 30 days. “Lapse” often carries with it a connotation of a failure to act. For example, Black's Law Dictionary defines “lapse” as “[t]he termination of a right or privilege because of a failure to exercise it within some time limit or because a contingency has occurred or not occurred.” Black's Law Dictionary 885 (7th ed. 1999). Thus, “lapse of 30 days” might be referring to the situation of a warden receiving a request but not acting on that request within 30 days. This reading would allow a defendant to go directly to court if a warden is not responsive to a request but, if a warden does act within 30 days, the defendant would be required to pursue an administrative appeal. At least one court appears to have adopted this view, albeit without explanation. See, e.g., United States v. Koch, No. 201CR083JMHEBA2, 2019 WL 3837727, at *2 (E.D. Ky. Aug. 14, 2019) (noting statutory amendment “did not alter the requirement that prisoners must first exhaust administrative remedies before seeking judicial relief”).

         In sum, the statutory language is not clear. With two ways of reading the language, the Court must look to other sources of information for guidance on what the language means. See Moran v. Screening Pros, LLC, 923 F.3d 1208, 1215 (9th Cir. 2019) (“If the language is ambiguous, we look to canons of construction, legislative history, and the statute's overall purpose to illuminate Congress's intent.”). Looking to guidance by the agency involved in administration of the statute can be especially helpful. Cf. Tablada v. Thomas, 533 F.3d 800, 806 (9th Cir. 2008) (looking to interpretation promulgated by Bureau of Prisons in a ...


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