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Holloway v. Meyer

March 09, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lee County. Nos. 97--MR--38, 97--MR--52 Honorable David T. Fritts, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hutchinson

Plaintiffs, Larry Holloway, Wendell Dixon, Silas Fletcher, and Reuben Taylor, were inmates at the Dixon Correctional Center (the Center). Defendants, Wendy Meyer and Kurt Eubanks, were employees of the Illinois Department of Corrections (the Department). In two separate actions brought pursuant to section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C.A. §1983 (West 1994)), plaintiffs alleged that defendants had violated their civil rights when defendants inspected mail addressed to plaintiffs and seized as contraband copies of travel vouchers filed by members of the Prisoner Review Board (Review Board). The trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2--615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (the Code) (735 ILCS 5/2--615 (West 1998)). Plaintiffs appeal, contending that (1) the trial court applied the improper standard to defendants' motion to dismiss, (2) the Department's mail regulations are in conflict with the Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq. (West 1998)), and (3) the Department's mail regulations and the seizure of the travel vouchers infringe on plaintiffs' constitutional rights. We affirm.

This matter was originally brought as two separate actions. However, after hearing arguments on defendants' motions, the trial court sua sponte consolidated the cases and issued a single memorandum opinion and order dismissing both cases. The individual complaints contained substantially similar allegations; therefore we find it unnecessary to distinguish between them in this opinion.

Each plaintiff alleged that he was incarcerated at the Center. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant Meyer was the mail room supervisor at the Center and that defendant Eubanks was the assistant to the warden. Each plaintiff alleged that he was either a plaintiff in, or anticipated joining as a plaintiff in, a suit filed in federal district court that alleged that the Review Board was not meeting as required by law when deciding parole cases. Plaintiffs alleged that relatives had obtained travel vouchers of Review Board members through Freedom of Information Act requests. Plaintiffs alleged that the travel vouchers were needed as evidence in the federal suit and would establish that, despite the presence of their signatures on Review Board orders, individual Review Board members were not present at Review Board meetings as required by law. Each plaintiff had received a "shakedown record," which indicated that defendant Meyer had confiscated travel vouchers from mail sent to plaintiffs by their relatives. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant Eubanks instructed defendant Meyer to confiscate the travel vouchers and that defendants had acted under the color of state law. Plaintiffs alleged that the confiscations violated their civil rights.

Defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to section 2--615 (735 ILCS 5/2--615 (West 1998)). In their motions, defendants alleged that Department regulations permitted them to inspect incoming mail and withhold from delivery any letter containing information that might result in physical harm to another. Defendants argued that the travel vouchers identified hotels and contained arrival and departure information with dates and times that illustrated a habitual pattern. Defendants argued that the disclosure of this information to inmates created risks to the safety and security of Review Board members.

On August 14, 1998, the trial court heard arguments on defendants' motions to dismiss. On November 23, 1998, the trial court issued its memorandum opinion and order. The trial court held that the Department regulations were facially valid, found that the travel vouchers were contraband, and concluded that the travel vouchers were properly seized. The trial court concluded that plaintiffs's constitutional rights had not been violated by the seizure and dismissed their complaints. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

A motion to dismiss that attacks the sufficiency of a complaint raises only legal issues, and our review of an order granting or denying such a motion is de novo. Grund v. Donegan, 298 Ill. App. 3d 1034, 1037 (1998). To prevail in a section 1983 (42 U.S.C.A. §1983 (West 1994)) claim, a plaintiff must prove two elements: (1) that the defendant's actions deprived her or him of a federal constitutional right, and (2) that the defendant acted under the color of state law. Doe v. Calumet City, 161 Ill. 2d 374, 397 (1994). Defendants do not dispute that they acted under the color of state law. Therefore, the only issue presented is whether defendants' actions deprived plaintiffs of a federal constitutional right.

Plaintiffs first contend that the trial court applied an improper standard to defendants' motions to dismiss. Plaintiffs argue that, because their action was brought pursuant to federal law, federal rules of procedure govern. Defendants counter that, because the action was brought in an Illinois court, Illinois procedural rules apply. Because our review is de novo, resolution of this issue also determines the standard by which we will judge the sufficiency of plaintiffs' complaints on appeal.

State courts must treat federal law as the law of the land and must remain open to litigants with federal claims on the same basis that they are open to other causes of action. Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 372, 110 L. Ed. 2d 332, 350-51, 110 S. Ct. 2430, 2440-41 (1990). However, "[s]tates may apply their own neutral procedural rules to federal claims, unless those rules are pre-empted by federal law." Howlett, 496 U.S. at 372, 110 L. Ed. 2d at 351, 110 S. Ct. at 2441. State rules affecting a section 1983 claim are preempted by federal law only if the state rules affect the ultimate disposition of the case. Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911, 921, 138 L. Ed. 2d 108, 118, 117 S. Ct. 1800, 1806 (1997).

A motion to dismiss admits as true all well-pleaded facts whether such motion is brought pursuant to section 2--615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2--615 (West 1998)) in the Illinois courts or Rule 12(b)(6) (Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6)) in the federal system. See People ex rel. Peters v. Murphy-Knight, 248 Ill. App. 3d 382, 386 (1993); Jones v. General Electric Co., 87 F.3d 209, 211 (1996). A section 2--615 motion to dismiss should be granted "only if it appears that [the] plaintiff can prove no set of facts under the pleadings which would entitle [her or] him to the relief sought." Murphy-Knight, 248 Ill. App. 3d at 386. A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss should be granted "only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations in the complaint." Jones, 87 F.3d at 211. The difference, if any, between these two standards is not outcome determinative. To prevail in the present case, plaintiffs must present evidence supporting their claims of a constitutional violation. Pleading requirements affect only the timing of this presentation; they do not change the fundamental nature of the evidence required. Accordingly, we determine that the trial court did not err when it considered plaintiffs' claims under the standards of section 2--615.

Similarly, we will apply the standards applicable to Illinois civil procedure in our review of the trial court's order granting defendants' motion to dismiss. When a reviewing court examines a motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2--615, the question is whether, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the facts alleged in the complaint adequately state a cause of action. Murphy-Knight, 248 Ill. App. 3d at 386; see also Doe, 161 Ill. 2d at 399 (applying the section 2--615 standard to a section 1983 claim).

Plaintiffs next contend that the Department's mail regulations are invalid because they conflict with the Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq. (West 1998)). Plaintiffs argue that the Department acted outside its statutory authority when it restricted inmates' access to documents received in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Plaintiffs' complaints allege only violations of their "due process claims" and "civil rights" and do not clearly identify which federal right is implicated by the Department's alleged failure to follow Illinois statutory law. However, the record below and plaintiffs' arguments on appeal suggest that they base this argument on the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment (U.S. Const., amend. XIV). An administrative agency is a statutory creation and may not act outside the scope of its statutory authority. Ogle County Board ex rel. County of Ogle v. Pollution Control Board, 272 Ill. App. 3d 184, 192 (1995). Any action taken outside of that authority is void. Ogle County, 272 Ill. App. 3d at 194.

The Freedom of Information Act allows any person access to public records for inspection or copying, subject to certain limitations. 5 ILCS 140/3(a) (West 1998). Section 3--7--2(e) of the Unified Code of Corrections (the Corrections Code) (730 ILCS 5/3--7--2(e) (West 1998)) provides "that the Director [of Corrections] may order that mail be inspected and read for reasons of the security, safety[,] or morale of the institution or facility." 730 ILCS 5/3--7--2(e) (West 1998). Where there is an alleged conflict between two statutes, a court has a duty to construe those statutes in a manner that avoids an inconsistency and gives effect to both statutes. McNamee v. Federated Equipment & Supply Co., 181 Ill. 2d 415, 427 (1998). Where both specific and general provisions relating to the same subject exist, whether contained in a single act or in separate acts, the specific provision controls and should be applied. People v. Villarreal, 152 Ill. 2d 368, 379 (1992).

Plaintiffs argue that, because the Freedom of Information Act allows "any person" access to public records, the Department may not limit their access to any record received as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request. We disagree. There is no patent conflict between the plain language of these statutory provisions. The Freedom of Information Act creates a general right of access to public records and includes no specific limitation on an inmate's ability to exercise this right. See 5 ILCS 140/3 (West 1998). The Corrections Code authorizes the Department to inspect inmate ...

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