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Howell v. Austin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

May 22, 2015

BILLIE E. HOWELL, # K-03261 Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS AUSTIN, RICK TAPHORN, MAJOR McABBY, TIM SCHREVE, ALAN BECKMAN, C/O STEWARD, and MS. FEAZEL, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

STACI M. YANDLE, District Judge.

Plaintiff, currently incarcerated at Centralia Correctional Center ("Centralia"), has brought this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff is serving a 40-year sentence for murder. Plaintiff claims that Defendants have retaliated against him for filing grievances, by confiscating and refusing to return legal documents which he needs in order to pursue post-conviction relief in his criminal case.

In the complaint, Plaintiff states that he has been confined at Centralia since March 1999. Between that time and September 2010, he has written many grievances against prison staff, complaining about the conditions of his confinement, medical malpractice, and deliberate indifference to his medical needs (Doc. 1, p. 5).

Plaintiff accumulated a number of legal and court documents which had been stored and secured at the Centralia law library. In December 2009, the prison went on lockdown status for over a month. During this lockdown, Defendants Taphorn, McAbby, Schreve, Beckman, and Steward, along with other unknown prison officials, conducted a shakedown of the law library. Plaintiff's legal boxes were searched outside his presence. The above Defendants confiscated two of Plaintiff's legal folders, which contained documents and exhibits relating to his criminal case. These materials have never been returned to Plaintiff.

The exhibits to Plaintiff's complaint include a grievance he filed on September 7, 2010, complaining about the improper search of his legal storage boxes, and seeking the return of his missing documents (Doc. 1, pp. 10-11). That grievance was denied by Defendant Counselor Feazel because it was filed too late (Doc. 1, p. 8). On September 28, 2010, Plaintiff filed a grievance against Defendant Feazel for improperly handling his September 7 grievance (Doc. 1, pp. 12-13).

Plaintiff now claims that all Defendants have conspired to deprive him of his missing legal documents, in retaliation for his activity in filing grievances against them and other prison officials.

Plaintiff states that he is planning to file a non-frivolous successive post-conviction petition in his state criminal case, asserting his actual innocence. However, he is required to attach his supporting documentary evidence, records, affidavits, and transcripts to this petition. He cannot do so while the Defendants continue to withhold this material from him, thus, he asserts that Defendants are denying him access to the courts (Doc. 1, pp. 5-6).

Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief, ordering Defendants to immediately return the confiscated legal material to him, and enjoining any prison staff from retaliating against him or transferring him because he has filed this lawsuit (Doc. 1, p. 7). He also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

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

Under § 1915A, the Court is required to conduct a prompt threshold review of the complaint, and to dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from an immune defendant.

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). Frivolousness is an objective standard that refers to a claim that "no reasonable person could suppose to have any merit." Lee v. Clinton, 209 F.3d 1025, 1026-27 (7th Cir. 2000). 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).

Based on the allegations of the complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the pro se action into the following counts. The parties and the Court will use these designations in all future pleadings and orders, unless otherwise directed by a judicial officer of this Court. The designation of these counts does not constitute an opinion as to their merit.

Count 1: First Amendment access to courts claim against Defendants Taphorn, McAbby, Schreve, Beckman, Steward, and other unknown officers, [1] who confiscated Plaintiff's legal documents in December 2009 and continue to withhold them, thus preventing Plaintiff from pursuing post-conviction relief in his criminal case;
Count 2: First Amendment retaliation claim against Defendants Taphorn, McAbby, Schreve, Beckman, Steward, and Feazel, who are withholding Plaintiff's legal documents from him because he filed ...

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