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Love v. Strubhart

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

August 22, 2013

ADOLPH HENRY LOVE, JR., # N-70991, Plaintiff,


G. PATRICK MURPHY, District Judge.

Plaintiff, who is currently incarcerated at Lawrence Correctional Center ("Lawrence"), brings this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff is serving an eight-year sentence for burglary. His claims arose during his incarceration at Lawrence. Plaintiff claims that Defendant Strubhart, a Lawrence grievance officer, conspired with several unnamed Lawrence officers to prevent Plaintiff from filing lawsuits by interfering with his grievances (Doc. 1). This caused Plaintiff to suffer emotional distress (Doc. 1, p. 5). He seeks nominal damages and injunctive relief (Doc. 1, pp. 9-11).

Specifically, Plaintiff sues Defendant Strubhart in his individual capacity for improperly handling grievances that Plaintiff filed between January and June 2013 (Doc. 1, pp. 3-5). These grievances include the following: (1) Grievance addressing staff misconduct (filed January 21st); (2) Grievance addressing personal property and staff misconduct (filed January 30th); (3) Grievance addressing staff misconduct (filed January 31st); (4) Grievance addressing medication, personal property, and staff misconduct (filed February 8th); (5) Appeal challenging adverse decision regarding Department Rule 504 (filed February 10th); (6) Grievance addressing staff's deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's serious medical need (filed February 23rd); (7) Grievance addressing medical personnel's discrimination (filed February 24th); (8) Grievance addressing medical staff's negligence (filed March 6th); and (9) Grievance regarding dietary supervision conduct (filed March 27th). (Doc. 1, pp. 4-5). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Strubhart violated his right to due process by failing to investigate, respond to, and/or return the above-referenced grievances. Plaintiff also claims Defendant Strubhart conspired with other Lawrence officers to prevent Plaintiff from suing prison officials by thwarting his efforts to first exhaust his administrative remedies. Plaintiff indicated in his complaint that he has one other lawsuit pending in federal court, which he filed during the period at issue (Doc. 1, p. 12).

Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

According to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court is required to conduct a prompt threshold review of the complaint. Accepting Plaintiff's allegations as true, the Court finds that Plaintiff has articulated a colorable retaliation claim (Count 1) against Defendant Strubhart. Prison officials may not retaliate against inmates for filing grievances or lawsuits. See, e.g., Walker v. Thompson, 288 F.3d 1005 (7th Cir. 2002); DeWalt v. Carter, 224 F.3d 607 (7th Cir. 2000); Babcock v. White, 102 F.3d 267 (7th Cir. 1996); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139 (7th Cir. 1988). "All that need be specified is the bare minimum facts necessary to put the defendant on notice of the claim so that he can file an answer." Higgs v. Carver, 286 F.3d 437, 439 (7th Cir. 2002). The "bare minimum" in a retaliation claim are the facts that would apprise Defendant of what Plaintiff did to provoke the alleged retaliation and what Defendant did in response. Id.; see also Walker, 288 F.3d at 1012. A complaint that provides a short, clear statement of the relevant facts complies with the federal rules of civil procedure, and thus cannot be dismissed because it does not allege all facts necessary to clearly establish a valid claim. Id.

At issue here is whether Plaintiff experienced an adverse action that would likely deter First Amendment activity in the future, and if the First Amendment activity was "at least a motivating factor" in the Defendant's decision to take the retaliatory action. Bridges v. Gilbert, 557 F.3d 541, 551 (7th Cir. 2009). Whether preventing Plaintiff from filing a lawsuit was a motivating factor in Defendant's decision to ignore Plaintiff's grievances is a question that cannot be resolved at the initial pleadings stage of this case. Further, this Court cannot conclude, at least at this stage, that the underlying grievances undermine the validity of Plaintiff's claim. See, e.g., Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 846 (7 Cir. 1999); Thomson v. Washington, 362 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2004). Thus, the Court is unable to dismiss Count 1 at this time.

Plaintiff has not articulated a colorable due process claim against Defendant Strubhart for failing to process Plaintiff's grievances (Count 2). Plaintiff complains that Defendant Strubhart failed to investigate, respond to, or return his grievances addressing a variety of issues (Doc. 1, pp. 3-5). However, "[p]rison grievance procedures are not mandated by the First Amendment and do not by their very existence create interests protected by the Due Process Clause." Owens v. Hinsley, 635 F.3d 950, 953 (7th Cir. 2010); citing Grieveson v. Anderson, 538 F.3d 763, 772 n. 3 (7th Cir. 2008); Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1430 (7th Cir. 1996). The Constitution requires no procedure at all, and the failure of state prison officials to follow their own procedures does not, of itself, violate the Constitution. Maust v. Headley, 959 F.2d 644, 648 (7th Cir. 1992); Shango v. Jurich, 681 F.2d 1091, 1100-01 (7th Cir. 1982). The fact that a counselor, grievance officer, or even a supervisor received a complaint about the actions of another individual does not create liability. In order to be held individually liable, a defendant must be "personally responsible for the deprivation of a constitutional right." Sanville v. McCaughtry, 266 F.3d 724, 740 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Chavez v. Ill. State Police, 251 F.3d 612, 651 (7th Cir. 2001)). See also Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Plaintiff has no claim against Defendant Strubhart merely because he did not adequately respond to Plaintiff's grievances and complaints in a timely manner. Accordingly, Count 2 shall be dismissed with prejudice from this action.

Plaintiff has also failed to state a claim based on the denial of his access to the courts (Count 3). When prison officials fail to respond to inmate grievances, administrative remedies become "unavailable" under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See Lewis v. Washington, 300 F.3d 829, 833 (7 Cir. 2002). Prisoners are excused from the requirement that they exhaust all administrative remedies prior to bringing a suit in federal court, if they establish that the remedies are unavailable. Therefore, Plaintiff's access to the courts is not actually impeded when prison officials lose, delay, or ignore his grievances. Count 3 shall also be dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiff has also failed to state a conspiracy claim against Defendant Strubhart (Count 4). Conspiracy is not an independent basis of liability in § 1983 actions. See Smith v. Gomez, 550 F.3d 613, 617 (7th Cir. 2008); Cefalu v. Vill. of Elk Grove, 211 F.3d 416, 423 (7th Cir. 2000). "There is no constitutional violation in conspiring to cover-up an action which does not itself violate the Constitution." Hill v. Shobe, 93 F.3d 418, 422 (7th Cir. 1996). See Conyers v. Abitz, 416 F.3d 580, 586 (7th Cir. 2005) (plaintiff's argument that conspiracy by prison officials to deny administrative review of his grievances by dismissing them was frivolous where plaintiff had access to the grievance procedure but he did not obtain the outcome he desired). As set forth above, Plaintiff has failed to state a due process claim. Even with regard to his retaliation claim, however, Plaintiff has failed to allege that anyone other than Defendant interfered with his grievances. He names no other defendants or unconstitutional acts committed by them.

Further, under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, a Section 1985 conspiracy claim "cannot exist solely between members of the same entity." Payton v. Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Med. Ctr., 184 F.3d 623, 632 (7th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant and his co-conspirators are members of the same entity, the Illinois Department of Corrections ("IDOC"), and that they were all working in the IDOC's interest. Defendant and his alleged co-conspirators cannot be sued under § 1985 conspiracy. See id.; see also Wright v. Ill. Dep't Of Children and Family Servs., 40 F.3d 1492, 1508 (7th Cir. 1994).

Pending Motions

Plaintiff's motion for recruitment of counsel (Doc. 3) shall be referred to United States Magistrate Judge Donald G. Wilkerson for further consideration.

Plaintiff has filed a motion for service of process at government expense (Doc. 4). The motion is GRANTED. Service shall be ...

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