United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
PHIL GILBERT, District Judge.
Plaintiff Aaron Salters, a former inmate at Shawnee Correctional Center ("Shawnee"), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1) for the deprivation of his constitutional rights at Shawnee. The substantive allegations in the complaint span a single page (Doc. 1, p. 5). Plaintiff claims that Shawnee's warden, Kurtis Hunter ("Defendant Hunter"), and Shawnee's mailroom clerk ("Defendant Mailroom Clerk") intercepted his clearly marked legal mail from the court and two public officials on March 18, April 16, and April 29, 2015 (Doc. 1, p. 5). The defendants opened and read Plaintiff's mail outside of his presence and without his consent. Plaintiff maintains that this conduct is consistent with the defendants' custom, policy, or practice of treating all incoming mail as general correspondence that can be opened and read before it is delivered to the intended recipient. Plaintiff brings a mail interference claim under the First Amendment against Defendants Hunter and Mailroom Clerk. He seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief (Doc. 1, p. 6).
Plaintiff filed this action on May 18, 2015, without prepaying a filing fee of $400.00 or filing a motion to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP motion") (Doc. 4). The same day, the Clerk of Court notified Plaintiff of his obligation to either pay the full filing fee or file a properly completed IFP motion within thirty days. Plaintiff's IFP motion followed on June 8, 2015 (Doc. 4). The complaint is now ripe for preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
Merits Review Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A
Under Section 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). The complaint survives preliminary review under this standard.
The complaint articulates a plausible mail interference claim (Count 1) against Defendants Hunter and Mailroom Clerk. Claims involving prisoner mail are analyzed differently, based on the type of mail and the nature of the constitutional right at issue. Plaintiff's claim focuses on interference with his legal mail, and he brings the claim against the defendants under the First Amendment.
The Seventh Circuit defines legal mail to include mail exchanged between a prisoner and an attorney who represents him or from whom he seeks representation. See Kaufman v. McCaughtry, 419 F.3d 678, 686 (7th Cir. 2005). In addition, legal mail includes communications from the court and other agencies that contain sensitive information. Guajardo-Palma v. Martinson, 622 F.3d 801, 804 (7th Cir. 2010). Plaintiff's mail, which was from a "court of law and two public officials, " appears to fit within the latter category (Doc. 1, p. 5).
Ordinarily, communications from the court, as well as public officials, consist of "public documents... which the prison officials have as much right to read as the prisoner." Id. (citing Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1431-32 (7th Cir. 1996); Martin v. Brewer, 830 F.2d 76, 78 (7th Cir. 1987); Keenan v. Hall, 83 F.3d 1083, 1094 (9th Cir. 1996)). But this is not always the case. See, e.g., Guajardo-Palma, 622 F.3d at 804 (citation omitted) (noting that sensitive information from the court may include communications responsive to a prisoner's request that materials he submitted ex parte be held in camera or withheld from his adversary). The complaint offers no insight into the content of the communications, so it is not possible to determine whether the mail at issue contained sensitive information (Doc. 1, p. 5). Given the early stage in litigation and the factual inquiry necessary to make this determination, however, the Court will not dismiss Plaintiff's claim on this basis.
Plaintiff brings his claim under the First Amendment, which "applies to communications between an inmate and an outsider." Zimmerman v. Tribble, 226 F.3d 568, 572 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing Martin, 830 F.2d at 77). The Supreme Court has recognized that inmates have a First Amendment right to send and receive mail. Kaufman, 419 F.3d at 685-86 (citing Rowe v. Shake, 196 F.3d 778, 782 (7th Cir. 1999) (citations omitted)). Of course, this right does not preclude prison officials from inspecting mail to ensure that it does not contain contraband. Id. at 685-86 (citing Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 576 (1974)).
An inmate's legal mail "is entitled to greater protections." Id. (citing Rowe, 196 F.3d at 782). The Supreme Court has recognized 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, 196 F.3d at 782 (citing Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 1996)). For this reason, claims of interference with legal mail are often brought under the Fourteenth Amendment, which "guarantees meaningful access to the courts." Guajardo-Palma, 622 F.3d at 802 (quoting Dreher v. Sielaff, 636 F.2d 1141, 1143 (7th Cir. 1980)). This is because the right at stake in this context is the right to pursue a non-frivolous legal claim, not just the right to engage in protected speech or enrich the marketplace of ideas. Id. at 802 (citing Denius v. Dunlap, 209 F.3d 944, 954 (7th Cir. 2000)).
Prisoners regularly bring civil suits against prison officials at prisons where they are incarcerated. Guajardo-Palma, 622 F.3d at 802 (citations omitted). The Court is naturally concerned about situations in which prison officials open and read - or even photocopy and distribute - legal mail offering insight into the prisoner's case. This practice could give prison official defendants a litigation advantage that violates the prisoner's access to the courts. Id. For this reason, courts have held that prison officials who open clearly marked legal mail outside of an inmate's presence may violate the inmate's constitutional rights. Kaufman, 419 F.3d at 695-86 (citations omitted).
This is not to say that an inmate has an actionable claim any time a prison official opens his legal mail. The inadvertent or negligent opening of an occasional legal letter is not actionable. See, e.g., Bryant v. Winston, 750 F.Supp. 733 (E.D. Va. 1990). Likewise, "an isolated delay or some other relatively short-term... disruption in the delivery of inmate reading materials will not support... a cause of action ground upon the First Amendment." Rowe, 196 F.3d at 782. See also Sizemore v. Wiliford, 829 F.2d 608, 610 (7th Cir. 1987) (sporadic disruption of mail service does not violate ...