United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
March 19, 2004.
KEDRON JONES, JR., Plaintiff,
MICHAEL SHEAHAN, ERNESTO VELASCO, B. GOODWIN & JOHN DOE, Mailroom employees, Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAMUEL DER-YEGHIAYAN, District Judge
This matter is before the court on Defendants' motion for summary
judgment. For the reasons stated below we grant the motion.
Plaintiff Kendron Jones, Jr. ("Jones") has been charged with murder and
is a pre-trial detainee at the Cook County Department of Corrections
("CCDOC"). According to Jones, between July of 2000 and April of 2001 he
was seeking pro bono legal assistance in his case and during the period
he mailed and received
hundreds of letters relating to his case. Jones claims that some of
his correspondence with counsel relating to legal matters were opened by
mail room employees outside his presence and he claims that he sometimes
received mail weeks after the postmark. Jones claims that when he
received letters, magazines, and letters weeks after their arrival at the
prison they were "soiled" and had pages torn out. Jones also claims that
he did not receive some of his letters because they were opened, read,
and stamped "return to sender, detainee discharged." Jones brought the
instant suit pursuant to 42 U, S.C. § 1983. Discovery was conducted
and Jones sat for a deposition although he complains to the court about
having to sit for the deposition and claims that he "was under the
impression from earlier conversations with ASA Wiedhuner that [they]
would settle this case out of court for an agreed upon sum of money."
(P's Mem. Opp. SJ 5).
On May 9, 2002 Judge Plunkett, the prior judge in this case, granted
Defendants' motion to dismiss in part and denied it in part. Judge
Plunkett held that Jones had alleged a First Amendment right of free
speech and association claim based on the alleged tampering with incoming
and outgoing mail and thus denied the motion to dismiss that claim. Judge
Plunkett also stated that it was premature to dismiss Jones' Sixth
Amendment right of access to the courts claim and his Sixth Amendment
right to seek counsel of one's choice claim. Judge Plunkett granted
Defendant's motion to dismiss Jones' loss of property claim based upon
alleged damaged and missing mail. Judge Plunkett denied the motion to
dismiss the official capacity claims and denied the motion to dismiss the
individual capacity claims. This matter is now before us on Defendants'
motion for summary judgment.
Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals that there is
no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled
to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In seeking a grant of
summary judgment the moving party must identify "those portions of `the
pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on
file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes
demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex
Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)).
This initial burden may be satisfied by presenting specific evidence on a
particular issue or by pointing out "an absence of evidence to support the
non-moving party's case." Id. at 325. Once the movant has met this
burden, the non-moving party cannot simply rest on the allegations or
denials in the pleadings, but, "by affidavits or as otherwise provided
for in [Rule 56], must set forth specific facts showing that there is a
genuine issue for trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). A "genuine issue" in the
context of a
motion for summary judgment is not simply a "metaphysical doubt as to the
material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd, v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact
exists when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a
verdict for the nonmoving party," Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Insolia v, Philip Morris, Inc., 216 F.3d 596,
599 (7th Cir. 2000). The court must consider the record as a whole, in a
light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable
inferences that favor the non-moving party, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Bay
v. Cassens Transport Co., 212 F.3d 969, 972 (7th Cir. 2000).
The United States Supreme Court "has recognized that prisoners have
protected First Amendment interests in both sending and receiving mail
. . . [and that] [p]rison regulations or practices that affect a prisoner's
legal mail are of particular concern because of the potential for
interference with a prisoner's right of access to the courts." Rowe v.
Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 782 (7th Cir. 1999). Prison officials are permitted
to open and inspect a prisoner's legal mail as long as it is done in the
prisoner's presence and the mail is not read by the prison inspector.
Wolff v. McDonnell 418 U.S. 539, 577 (1974). An inmate's right to free
speech and free
association may be violated if prison officials open privileged mail to
or from an attorney or mail is delayed for an inordinate amount of time.
Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1431-32 (7th Cir. 1996).
I. Individual Capacity Claims
A. Sheahan and Velasco
In regards to the individual capacity claims against Defendants Michael
Sheahan ("Sheahan") and Ernesto Velasco. ("Velasco") summary judgment is
appropriate. The doctrine of respondeat superior is, not applicable in a
Section 1983 action. Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724, 740 (7th Cir.
2001). Therefore, in order to hold a defendant liable in his individual
capacity the individual defendant must be "personally responsible for the
deprivation of a constitutional right," which can be illustrated by the
fact that the defendant "directed the conduct causing the constitutional
violation," the violation "occurred with his knowledge or consent," or
the defendant acted with `"deliberate, reckless indifference' to the
conduct of subordinates," Id. In this case Jones has not shown that
Sheahan or Velsasco. had the necessary involvement in the alleged letter
opening or that they turned a blind eye to the opening of the letters.
Therefore we grant summary judgment on all claims against Sheahan and
B. Mail Opened Outside the Presence of Jones
There are four groups of Jones' mall at issue in this case and we shall
address each group in turn. Jones alleges that he had thirty-two pieces
of incoming mail that were opened outside his presence. He claims that
some of the thirty-two letters were legal mail. According to Jones, he is
unable to produce the letters because they were taken from his cell by
officers during a raid of his cell, Jones has not pointed to sufficient
evidence to substantiate this allegation and he has not shown that there
is sufficient evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to conclude that
the alleged thirty-two letters contained legal matters and were
improperly opened outside the presence of Jones.
Jones also claims that there were twenty other pieces of mail that were
improperly opened outside of his presence. Jones claims that he gave the
twenty pieces of mail to his aunt. Jones also admits that some of the
twenty pieces of mail were copies of some of the thirty-two pieces of
mail that were allegedly taken from his cell. Jones has not produced the
alleged pieces of mail and we find that he has not pointed to sufficient
evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to conclude that the alleged
twenty pieces of mail were opened outside his presence. Were it so simple
to prove such a claim all an inmate would need to do is assert that he
piles of legal correspondence that was improperly opened and he would be
afforded a trial.
Jones claims that his outgoing mail was being opened. However, he has
not pointed to sufficient evidence to support his allegations. Jones
complains that he called some of the law firms and the Defendants and
they were unable to confirm whether or not they received his mail. There
could be any number of explanations for this occurrence. Jones has
provided no basis for his assertion that the outgoing mail was opened
outside his presence and no evidence that there was a scheme of
Defendants to censor his outgoing mail. Therefore, no reasonable trier of
fact could find that his outgoing mail was being opened or that it was
The final group of mail at issue concerns seventeen pieces of mail.
Jones attached nine pieces of mail to his response to the motion to
dismiss that Jones claims were opened outside his presence. The
government does not contest that the mail was opened outside his
presence, but argues that only four of the nine pieces of mail contain
privileged matters. In response to Defendants' document production request
Jones produced eight more pieces of mail. Defendants acknowledge that
seven of the eight pieces of mail were legal mail. Jones admits pursuant
to Local Rule 56.1 that four of the nine pieces of mail were legal mail
and that seven of the eight pieces of mail were legal mail. (RSF 9, 11).
Thus, of the seventeen a
reasonable trier of fact could not conclude that more than eleven
pieces of the group of seventeen pieces of mail were privileged legal
C. Mail Room Negligence
Although Jones alleges and in some instances Defendants admits that
some of his legal mail was opened outside the presence of Jones, such
facts in and of themselves are not sufficient to warrant proceeding to
trial. Defendants argue that, based on the evidence, a reasonable trier
of fact cannot conclude that Defendants' conduct, if improper, was
anything other than negligent conduct. To establish liability under
Section 1983 a plaintiff must show that the defendant's conduct was more
than merely the result of the defendant's negligence. See Lewis v.
Anderson, 308 F.3d 768, 773 (7th Cir. 2002)(stating that [n]egligence or
even gross negligence does not suffice to give rise to liability under §
1983."); Kincaid v. Vail, 969 F.2d 594, 602 (7th Cir. 1992)(holding that
there was evidence that the complaint of the plaintiff was not properly
processed but also stating: "Nevertheless, it is possible, and we assume
it for purposes of this review, that a mistake was made or the complaint
mislaid at the clerk's office by the clerks . . . [and] [i]f so, this
lapse was a mere isolated incident of negligence and, under the facts set
forth here, does not rise
to the level of a constitutional violation actionable under section
1983."); Brown v. Hardiman, 1986 WL 8371, at *3 (N.D. Ill. 1986)(stating
that "[g]iven the large volume of mail flowing through an institution the
size of Cook County Jail, occasional deviations from standard practice
are to be expected [and] . . . [s]uch negligent oversights cannot form
the basis for liability under Section 1983.").
In this case Jones has failed to point to sufficient evidence for a
reasonable trier of fact to conclude that the opening of his mail outside
of his presence was anything other than the result of negligence if in
fact his mail was improperly opened. In "Defendants' Answer to Plaintiffs
Request for Admission and Production of Documents" Defendant Beatrice
Goodwin ("Goodwin"), a mail room supervisor for the CCDOC, responded to
Jones' questions. Goodwin stated that she had never been disciplined for
improprieties in the mail room. She also explained the procedures used in
the mail room. She explained that the incoming mail is sorted through by
hand and letters that appear to be from an attorney are stamped "legal
mail open in the presence of inmate." If a piece of legal mail is opened
by mistake it is taped shut and stamped "opened in error." Jones asks why
his mail is being opened outside of his presence and why is it taking ten
to thirty days for him to get his mail, Goodwin responds by stating the
Your privileged mail as stated before is not being
opened, read or censored on purpose. Occasionally
privileged mail is inadvertently opened due to
errors. It is not our intent to open your legal mail.
With the volume of incoming mail every day we often
work through lunch and breaks to get the mall
delivered to you daily. We can only deliver the mail
we receive and have no control of the mail once it is
delivered to the Division Security Office.
Jones has failed to point to any evidence that would suggest that the
opening of his mail was the result of anything other than a reasonable
mistake or at worst negligence, it is inevitable that, considering the
large amount of mail processed at the jail, that mail room employees will
eventually make some errors in the hand sorting of the mail and that some
legal mail will be opened by accident. Jones claims to have sent 180 to
360 letters in the pertinent period and received 180 to 216 letters
during that period. As indicated above there is only sufficient evidence
for a reasonable trier of fact to conclude that eleven incoming letters
of Jones' were legal mail that were opened outside of his presence. The
fact that only eleven of 180 to 216 letters were opened suggests that the
openings were inadvertent errors and not part of a planned scheme to read
and censor Jones' mail. Jones' personal belief that Defendants were
engaging in such a scheme is based on nothing more than his own
speculation and is insufficient to warrant a trial on the issue.
We acknowledge that in Castillo v. Cook County Mail Room Dept.
the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court's dismissal of a prisoner's
claim based on the alleged improper opening of legal mail outside the
presence of the prisoner.
990 F.2d 304, 307 (7h Cir. 1993). However, in Castillo the district court
dismissed the claim as frivolous stating that the "complaint had no
arguable legal basis." Id. at 306. Unlike with the instant motion, where
we are required to look at the evidence produced during discovery, the
district court in Castillo merely addressed whether or not the plaintiff
prisoner had stated a claim. The Seventh Circuit merely held that the
allegations presented before the district court were sufficient to state
a claim. Id. at 306. Therefore, we grant summary judgment on all of the
remaining individual liability claims. II. Official Capacity Claims
To the extent that Jones filed claims against the Defendants in their
official capacities Jones is filing suit against Cook County. A suit
against an individual defendant in his official capacity is the
equivalent of a suit against the governmental entity that the individual
represents. Gossmeyer v, McDonald, 128 F.3d 481, 494 (7th Cir. 1997).
Local governmental units cannot be held liable for Section 1983
violations under the doctrine of respondeat superior "unless the
deprivation of constitutional rights is caused by a municipal policy or
custom." Kujawski v. Board of Comm'rs. of Bartholomew County, Indiana,
183 F.3d 734, 737 (7th Cir.
1999)(stating that county could not be held liable unless violation was
caused by county policy); Gassmeyer, 128 F.3d at 494, Although Judge
Plunkett denied the motion to dismiss the official capacity claims as
premature, discovery is completed and there is not sufficient evidence
that would enable a reasonable trier of fact to conclude that the opening
of his letters was part of a CCDOC policy, custom, or practice. In fact
the evidence produced supports the notion that the CCDOC policies were
designed specifically to reduce the likelihood that privileged mail would
be opened. Jones argues that the improper treatment of inmate mail was
part of a practice of Defendants and in support Jones includes as exhibits
affidavits from fellow inmates Rickie Cole, Larry Williams, Randall Scott
Jarrett, Sr., Arthur McKenzie Jr., James Dolis, Cedric M. Nelson, Josal
Crawford, Albert Welton Ill, and Robert Jefferson. The affidavits contain
vague and unsubstantiated allegations regarding mail that was allegedly
improperly opened or delayed. These affidavits are insufficient to create
a genuine issue of material fact warranting a trial. Therefore, we grant
summary judgment on all official capacity claims.
Based on the foregoing analysis we grant the motion for summary
judgment in its entirety.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.