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Watson-El v. Wilson

September 15, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James F. Holderman, Chief Judge


The plaintiff, a federal prisoner, has brought this pro se civil rights action against federal prison officials pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The plaintiff additionally purports a cause of action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (hereinafter, "the FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680. The plaintiff alleges that correctional officials and health care providers at the Metropolitan Correctional Center violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights by denying him due process, by infringing on the exercise of his freedom of association and religious beliefs, and by acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. More specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants wrongfully froze the funds in his prison trust account; he further contends that as a result, he was denied telephone privileges, religious items, and prescribed medications because he was unable to pay for them.

This matter is before the court for ruling on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated in this order, the defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted and the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied. Certain of the plaintiff's claims must be dismissed for failure to exhaust appropriate administrative remedies before initiating suit; with respect to all other claims, the plaintiff has no triable cause of action with regard to the $75.00 encumbrance on his prison trust account, notwithstanding his attempts to "constitutionalize" his claims.


Summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Vision Church v. Village of Long Grove, 468 F.3d 975, 988 (7th Cir. 2006). In determining whether factual issues exist, the court must view all the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Walker v. Northeast Regional Commuter Railroad Corp., 225 F.3d 895, 897 (7th Cir. 2000). The court does not "judge the credibility of the witnesses, evaluate the weight of the evidence, or determine the truth of the matter. The only question is whether there is a genuine issue of fact." Gonzalez v. City of Elgin, 578 F.3d 526, 529 (7th Cir. 2009), citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986).

However, Rule 56(c) "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Sarver v. Experian Information Solutions, 390 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). "A genuine issue of material fact arises only if sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists to permit a jury to return a verdict for that party." Egonmwan v. Cook County Sheriff's Dept., 602 F.3d 845, 849 (7th Cir. 2010), quoting Faas v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 532 F.3d 633, 640-41 (7th Cir. 2008).


The defendants filed a statement of uncontested material facts pursuant to Local Rule 56.1 (N.D. Ill.). Together with their motion for summary judgment, the defendants included a "Notice to Pro Se Litigant Opposing Motion for Summary Judgment" [document no. 58], as required by circuit precedent. That notice clearly explained the requirements of the Local Rules and warned the plaintiff that a party's failure to controvert the facts as set forth in the moving party's statement results in those facts being deemed admitted. See, e.g., Smith v. Lamz, 321 F.3d 680, 683 (7th Cir. 2003). The notice specifically provides: Local Rule 56.1(b) requires a party opposing a motion for summary judgment to file:

(3) a concise response to the movant's statement that shall contain

(A) a response to each numbered paragraph in the moving party's statement, including, in the case of any disagreement, specific references to the affidavits, parts of the record, and other supporting materials relied upon, and

(B) a statement, consisting of short numbered paragraphs, of any additional facts that require denial of summary judgment, including references to the affidavits, parts of the record, and other supporting materials relied upon.

L.R. 56.1(b).

The district court may require strict compliance with Local Rule 56.1. See Ammons v. Aramark Uniform Serv., Inc., 368 F.3d 809, 817 (7th Cir. 2004); Bordelon v. Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees, 233 F.3d 524, 527 (7th Cir 2000) (strict compliance with the local rules governing summary judgment is upheld given the importance of local rules that structure the summary judgment process). Although pro se plaintiffs are entitled to lenient standards, compliance with procedural rules is required. Cady v. Sheahan, 467 F.3d 1057, 1061 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Koszola v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, 385 F.3d 1104, 1108 (7th Cir. 2004). "We have . . . repeatedly held that a district court is entitled to expect strict compliance with [Local] Rule 56.1." Cichon v. Exelon Generation Co.,, 401 F.3d 803, 809 (7th Cir. 2005).

Despite these admonitions, the plaintiff's response to the defendants' statement of uncontested facts merely argues or clarifies certain points; the plaintiff does not cite any authority for most of the factual propositions he makes. Likewise, the plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment is unaccompanied by a supporting memorandum of law or required Rule 56.1(a) statement of uncontested facts.

Because the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the court will grant him some leeway and consider the factual assertions he makes in his summary judgment materials. However, the court will entertain the plaintiff's factual statements only to the extent that he could properly testify about the matters asserted. Among other things, a witness may not testify to a matter unless evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of the matter. Fed. R. Evid. 602. In addition, a layperson may not testify about matters involving medical, technical, or other specialized knowledge. See Fed. R. Evid. 701, 702.

Consequently, the following facts are deemed undisputed for purposes of this motion [the court has omitted certain contested factual matters that are not outcome-dispositive]:

The plaintiff is a federal prisoner, currently confined at the U.S. Penitentiary in Oxford, Wisconsin. (Document No. 80, Notice of Change of Address.) At the time the plaintiff initiated suit, he was an inmate at the Metropolitan Correctional Center [hereinafter, "MCC"] in Chicago, Illinois. (Amended Complaint, Document no. 39, at p. 2.) Defendant Robert Johnson is a Special Intelligence Officer at MCC. (Ibid.) Defendant Deborah Lamping is the Administrator of Health Services at MCC. (Ibid.) Defendant Paul Harvey is the facility's clinical director. (Id. at p. 3.) Harvey and Lamping are both commissioned officers of the U.S. Public Health Service. (Defendants' Exhibit 9, Affidavit of Ben Brown, at ¶ 3.) Defendant Roberto Aruiza is a staff physician at MCC. (Ibid.) Defendant Eric Wilson is MCC's Warden. (Amended Complaint, p. 2.)

On January 28, 2007, the plaintiff received a $75.00 deposit into his commissary account from a non-incarcerated person named Diana Snejberg ("Snejberg"). (Defendants' Exhibit 1, Inmate Statement; Defendants' Exhibit 2, Memorandum Re: Request for Encumbrance of Inmate Funds.)

Several months later, in reviewing inmate financial transactions, defendant Johnson noticed that Snejberg's telephone number appeared on the call list of another inmate, Dennis Harmon. (Exhibit 2.) Johnson therefore requested that a hold be placed on the $75.00 pending an investigation. (Ibid.) Warden Wilson approved the encumbrance on the plaintiff's commissary account on August 22, 2007. (Ibid.)

On April 6, 2008, the plaintiff made an informal request to his counselor to have the encumbrance lifted. (Defendants' Exhibit 3, Informal Resolution Form.) The plaintiff's counselor responded that the issue could not be resolved at that level. (Ibid.)

The plaintiff then filed a formal request for administrative remedy. (Defendants' Exhibit 4.) The plaintiff once again asked that the $75.00 encumbrance be lifted, declaring that he needed money to purchase medication for acid reflux. (Ibid.)

On April 10, 2008, Warden Wilson denied the plaintiff's request for administrative remedy. (Ibid.) Wilson explained that (1) the money had come from the common law wife of another inmate, and (2) Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") regulations prohibited transfers between inmates unless (a) the inmates involved were close relatives and (b) the transfer was approved by the warden. (Ibid.)

The BOP offers several rationales behind the provision prohibiting unrelated inmates from channeling money to each other. (Defendants' Exhibit 10, Affidavit of Antonio Salas, MCC Captain, ¶ 3.) The purpose of the regulation is to prevent illegal activity among inmates and to ensure the safety and security of the inmates and the institution. (Ibid.) Inmates are not allowed to receive funds from another inmate or another inmate's family members because the money could be exchanged for contraband or "favors." (Ibid.) In addition, inmates can extort money from fellow prisoners for providing protection or because they have some other advantage that gives them leverage against another inmate. (Ibid.) In Salas' experience, such transfers between unrelated inmates tend to indicate illegal activity. (Ibid.)

On April 28, 2008, the plaintiff appealed the Warden's decision to the BOP's regional director. (Defendants' Exhibit 5, Regional Administrative Remedy Appeal.) The plaintiff clarified that there was technically no transfer of funds between two inmates at issue, but rather a deposit from an outsider; moreover, he noted that he had received no incident report, hearing, or other due process. The plaintiff asserted that he was unable to call his family and also implied again that he was unable to buy his acid reflux medication. (Ibid.)

In response, the Regional Director reiterated the previously-given reasons for the freeze on the plaintiff's funds. (Ibid.) The Regional Director further stated that because BOP rules permit encumbrances to be placed at the warden's discretion, no due process was required. (Ibid.) The Regional Director accordingly upheld the warden's decision. (Ibid.)

On an unspecified date, the plaintiff filed a final administrative appeal to the BOP's general counsel in Washington, D.C. (Defendants' Exhibit 6.) On September 8, 2008, the National Inmate Appeals Administrator denied the plaintiff's appeal. (Ibid.) It was again explained to the plaintiff that because the funds came from an unauthorized source, the money would not be available to him until he was released from prison. (Ibid.) The Administrator noted that the plaintiff nevertheless had access to any funds above and beyond the amount of the $75.00 encumbrance. (Ibid.)

On December 9, 2008, the plaintiff filed a Bivens action against various MCC employees. (Document no. 1, Complaint.) On July 31, 2009, the plaintiff submitted an amended complaint adding an FTCA claim against the United States. (Document #39, Amended Complaint.) In a letter dated July 29, 2010, the plaintiff was notified of the final decision on his federal tort claim and was advised of his right to bring suit in ...

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