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Wilson v. Baldwin

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

November 18, 2019

HOWARD W. WILSON, #K02002, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Howard Wilson, an inmate of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”) currently incarcerated at Vienna Correctional Center (“Vienna”), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivations of his constitutional rights. He requests a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and monetary damages.

         Plaintiff's Complaint is now before the Court for preliminary review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Under Section 1915A, the Court is required to screen prisoner complaints to filter out non-meritorious claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Any portion of a 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 must be dismissed. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). The Court also must determine whether misjoinder is an issue and retains authority to sever unrelated claims against different defendants into one or more additional lawsuits. See George v. Smith, 507 F.3d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 2007).

         The Complaint

         Plaintiff makes the following allegations regarding allegedly unconstitutional handling of his mail and processing of his grievances during his time at Lincoln Correctional Center (“Lincoln”) and Vienna. (Doc. 1):

         Lincoln Correctional Center

         While at Lincoln, Plaintiff was employed as a Greenhouse Specialist. Id. at p. 12. In June 2018, he and other inmates began experiencing respiratory problems and severe allergy-like symptoms. Plaintiff submitted Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Public Health asking for public records related to the health effects of exposure to mold and mildew. Id. at pp. 12-13. On July 6, 2018, he received various public records from the Illinois Department of Public Health pertaining to mold and mildew. Id. at p. 13. Because Plaintiff's requests to governmental agencies are not recognized as privileged or legal mail, his mail was placed in unsealed envelopes so that the mail room staff had opportunities to inspect and read his mail.

         After Plaintiff submitted the requests for public documents and received the information, staff members began treating him unusually. Id. On one occasion, a corrections officer asked him if he had written to the EPA. Id. In another instance, an envelope containing a motion he was trying to file in a state civil case was not sent certified mail as requested, and the Champaign County Circuit Clerk never received the motion. Id. at pp. 14, 15, 59, 64.

         Plaintiff filed two grievances regarding the mishandling of his mail (“Grievance 1” and “Grievance 2”). In Grievance 1, Plaintiff requested an explanation for why his certified mail service request was not honored, and in Grievance 2, he asked for an explanation and reimbursement for financial burdens incurred for the untimely filing of the legal documents. Id. at p. 15.

         On September 12, 2018, Plaintiff met with Defendants Corrections Counselor Koontz, Caseworker Supervisor Singleton, and Clinical Services Supervisor Mittleman. Id. at p. 16. Koontz told Plaintiff that he would not be allowed to attach additional pages to his grievances and would have to take Grievance 2 back. After being questioned by Defendants about emails received from the Assistant State's Attorney in his civil case and the use of intimidation tactics by Defendants aimed at “making Grievance 2 disappear”, Plaintiff was allowed to leave. Id. at pp. 17, 18.

         Following the meeting, Plaintiff told Koontz he had submitted another grievance (“Grievance 3”) regarding inadequate health care at Lincoln, which also included additional pages and documents. Koontz told Plaintiff Grievance 3 would also not be processed because of the additional pages and that his bosses told him not to process Grievances 2 and 3. Id. at p. 18. Plaintiff understood “bosses” to mean Defendants Warden Roberson, Mittleman, and Singleton. Id. at p. 19.

         Plaintiff then submitted another grievance (“Grievance 4”) regarding the mishandling of Grievances 2 and 3 and recounting the meeting with Koontz, Singleton, and Mittleman. Id. A few days later, he received a response to Grievance 4 that was signed by Singleton, stating that Plaintiff was not denied the right to file a grievance, but was instructed on the proper procedure for filing a grievance. Id. at p. 20. Plaintiff then submitted Grievance 4 for second level review, which was again reviewed by Singleton. Id. at pp. 22, 87. Singleton's response was in violation of Illinois Administrative Code, which prohibits a person directly involved in the subject of the grievance from serving as the reviewing grievance officer and also contained false statements. Id.

         Plaintiff filed an appeal of Grievance 4 with the Administrative Review Board (“ARB”) and Defendant IDOC Director Baldwin. Id. at p. 25. Ultimately, the ARB ruled that Plaintiff had submitted Grievance 2 and 3 in accordance with the Offender Grievance Process, and ruled Grievance 2 moot. Id. at pp. 30-31. The ARB did not address the conduct of Koontz, Mittleman, or Singleton, and by finding Grievance 2 moot, concealed the actions of IDOC employees. Id. Late in December 2018, Plaintiff was abruptly transferred from Lincoln to Vienna and was terminated from his job assignment as a Greenhouse Specialist. Id. at p. 25.

         Vienna Correctional Center

         Plaintiff claims he has had similar experiences regarding staff misconduct in the processing of his mail and grievances at Vienna. Plaintiff's mail has been repeatedly mishandled by mailroom staff. He has been overcharged for three mailings sent certified mail. Id. at p. 37. His legal and privileged mail has been (1) opened while he was not present; (2) given to someone else on at least two separate occasions; and (3) sent without a return receipt as requested. Id. at p. 29, 30, 33, 37, 39. One letter addressed to a sheriff's office and labeled “privileged mail” was returned to Plaintiff and marked “non-privileged mail which must be unsealed, ” contrary to a Vienna Institutional Directive. Id. at pp. 28, 105. Another letter Plaintiff mailed to his mother was returned to him marked “No third party.” Although Plaintiff submitted a request to mailroom staff asking for further explanation, he never received a response, and after resubmitting the letter to be mailed a second time, still does not know if it was ever sent. Id. at pp. 31-32. In March 2019, Plaintiff received one set of legal documents 17 days after the envelope was postmarked and another set 11 days after postmarked. Id. at p. 34. He also never received an envelope of documents sent to him by an assistant attorney general. Because he did not receive his mail in timely fashion, he was not able to argue against the defendant's motion in another civil case, and the motion was subsequently granted. Id. at p. 34.

         Plaintiff has contacted and met with staff and filed grievances regarding the mishandling of his mail. See Id. at pp. 28-29, 34, 35, 38. He filed three grievances regarding the problems with the mail policies (“Vienna Grievance 1, ” “Vienna Grievance 2, ” and “Vienna Grievance 3”). Vienna Grievance 1 included attached documents that were not on the facility's grievance forms and marked as an emergency. Id. at pp. 32-33. That grievance was returned to Plaintiff with no response. Id. at p. 34. After submitting the grievance a second time, it was again returned with a sheet stating that Plaintiff must submit the additional pages of his grievance on grievance forms. Id. at p. 35. He later learned the note was written by Defendant Correctional Counselor Ethridge-Hicks. Id. at p. 36. Plaintiff appealed, and the ARB deemed Vienna Grievance 1 not an emergency and, in its response, wrote “Now process through DR 504 F.” Id. at p. 39. Although Plaintiff resubmitted Vienna Grievance 1, it was not processed. Id.

         Plaintiff attempted to appeal the response to Vienna Grievance 2 but received no response when he requested complete copies from Defendant Grievance Officer Long. Id. at pp. 36. He submitted an offender request slip with the Housing Unit 1 Counselor, and the request for copies was denied. Id. at p. 37.

         Vienna Grievance 3 was denied by Defendant Warden Swalls on Long's recommendation, despite a corroborating statement by a corrections officer in the grievance response that there are issues in the mail handling. Id. at pp. 37-38. Upon Plaintiff filing an appeal of Vienna Grievance 3, the ARB ruled that his privileged mail had been mishandled. However, the ARB members did not discipline the staff involved or consider the relief Plaintiff requested. Id. at p. 39.

         Plaintiff's next grievance (“Vienna Grievance 4”) was also returned unprocessed at the direction of Ethridge-Hicks. Id. at p. 37. Plaintiff submitted another grievance (“Vienna Grievance 5”) regarding Ethridge-Hick's handling of grievances and failure to provide copies needed to appeal the grievance decisions. Id. at p. 38. He later met with Ethridge-Hicks and McCann. Ethridge-Hicks informed Plaintiff that she did not need to consider documents attached to grievances as exhibits and that she could not provide him copies of attachments he had previously submitted because she had thrown them away. Id.

         Based on the allegations in the Complaint, the Court finds it convenient to divide the pro se action into the following fifteen counts:

Count 1: First Amendment retaliation claim against Mittleman, Singleton, and Koontz for impeding Plaintiff's ability to file grievances, transferring him to another prison, and terminating his job as a greenhouse specialist after he filed FOIA requests and grievances.
Count 2: First and Fourteenth Amendment claim against Roberson, Mittleman, Singleton, Koontz, Benton, and John/Jane Does 1-5 for denying and mishandling Plaintiff's grievances filed during his time at Lincoln.
Count 3: Illinois state law claim under 730 ILCS 5/3-8-8 and Ill. Admin. Code tit. 20 § 504 against Mittleman, Singleton, Koontz, Benton, and John/Jane Does 1-5 for refusing to properly process Plaintiff's grievances submitted while at Lincoln.
Count 4: Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim against Mittleman, Singleton, Koontz, Benton, and John/Jane Doe 1-5 for impeding his access to the offender grievance process while at Lincoln.
Count 5: First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claim against Baldwin, Roberson, and Butler-Jones for failing to adequately train and supervise subordinates resulting in the unconstitutional mishandling of Plaintiff's mail and grievances at Lincoln.
Count 6: First Amendment claim for the mishandling of Plaintiff's mail while at Lincoln.
Count 7: First Amendment retaliation claim against Houston, Ethridge- Hicks, McCann, Long, Potocki, and John/Jane Does 6-10.
Count 8: First and Fourteenth Amendment claim against Houston, Ethridge- Hicks, McCann, Long, Swalls, Benton, and John/Jane Does 1-5 for the denying and mishandling Plaintiff's ...

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