United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
MICHAEL S. WILSON, # R06115, Plaintiff,
DONALD GAETZ and MICHELLE CREWS, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
J. PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court for consideration of Plaintiff Michael Wilson's amended complaint (Doc. 7). The Court dismissed Plaintiff's original complaint (Doc. 1) on February 18, 2014 (Doc. 6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. However, Plaintiff's access to courts claim was dismissed without prejudice, and he was granted leave to file an amended complaint focusing only on this claim by March 25, 2014. (Doc. 6, p. 12). The amended complaint is timely,  and it is now subject to review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's access to courts claim survives preliminary review.
The Amended Complaint
According to the amended complaint, Defendant Crews (former law librarian) and Gaetz (former warden) have denied Plaintiff access to the law library at Pinckneyville Correctional Center ("Pinckneyville") since March 2012 (Doc. 7, p. 5). Plaintiff has made regular attempts to visit the prison's law library in order to research several family law matters, without any success. In March 2012, the mother of Plaintiff's son was allegedly violating visitation orders. Plaintiff wished to address this matter in Court. However, his inability to access the law library foreclosed this opportunity. In addition to denying his repeated requests for law library access, Defendant Crews impeded Plaintiff's ability to obtain the courthouse address and file a petition for an order of protection in the family law matter. Defendant Gaetz denied Plaintiff the opportunity to attend a June 2012 hearing in the family law case. By June 2012, Plaintiff learned that the mother of his child had absconded with the child. Although Plaintiff filed at least one grievance to address his denial of law library access on March 9, 2012, it was denied at all levels.
Plaintiff was not granted law library access until December 2012, after writing Defendants Crews and Gaetz directly. Even then, his access appears to have been limited to two hours per week. This was not enough time to prepare a petition in his family law case, and the petition was dismissed (Doc. 7, pp. 5-6).
Plaintiff now sues Defendants Crews and Gaetz for denying him access to the courts in violation of his constitutional rights (Doc. 7, pp. 5-6). He points to past and future legal opportunities that have been lost based on this denial. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief (Doc. 7, p. 7).
Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A
Under § 1915A, the Court is required to promptly screen prisoner complaints to filter out nonmeritorious claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court is required to dismiss any portion of the complaint that is legally frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or asks for money damages from a defendant who by law is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).
An action or claim is frivolous if "it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted if it does not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The claim of entitlement to relief must cross "the line between possibility and plausibility." Id. at 557. Conversely, a complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although the Court is obligated to accept factual allegations as true, see Smith v. Peters, 631 F.3d 418, 419 (7th Cir. 2011), some factual allegations may be so sketchy or implausible that they fail to provide sufficient notice of a plaintiff's claim. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). Additionally, Courts "should not accept as adequate abstract recitations of the elements of a cause of action or conclusory legal statements." Id. At the same time, however, the factual allegations of a pro se complaint are to be liberally construed. See Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 821 (7th Cir. 2009).
After carefully reviewing the allegations in the complaint, the Court finds that it articulates a colorable access to courts claim (Count 1) against Defendants Crews and Gaetz. It has long been "established beyond doubt that prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts." Bounds v. Smith, et al., 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1977). This "fundamental constitutional right... requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Id. at 828.
However, "the mere denial of access to a prison law library or to other legal materials is not itself a violation of a prisoner's rights; his right is to access the courts, and only if the defendants' conduct prejudices a potentially meritorious challenge to the prisoner's conviction, sentence, or conditions of confinement has this right been infringed." Marshall v. Knight, 445 F.3d 965, 968 (7th Cir. 2006). The requirement that prisoners allege specific prejudice "should not be understood as an onerous fact-pleading burden; it is simply a requirement that a prisoner's complaint spell out, in minimal detail, the connection between the alleged denial of access to legal materials and an inability to pursue a legitimate" claim. Id. at 968.
The Seventh Circuit uses a two-part test to decide if prison administrators have violated the right of access to the courts. Lehn v. Holmes, 364 F.3d 862, 868 (7th Cir. 2004). First, the prisoner must show that prison officials failed "to assist in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Jenkins v. Lane, 977 F.2d 266, 268 (7th Cir. 1992) (quoting Bounds, 430 U.S. at 828). Second, he must be able to show "some quantum of detriment caused by the challenged conduct of state officials resulting in the interruption and/or delay of plaintiff's pending or contemplated litigation." Alston v. DeBruyn, 13 F.3d 1036, 1041 (7th Cir. 1994); see also Lehn, 364 F.3d at 868. Plaintiff's amended complaint satisfies both parts of this test on preliminary review.
However, the Supreme Court's decision in Lewis v. Casey suggests that Plaintiff may not be able to proceed against the defendants, based on the loss of a family law claim. Justice Scalia, ...