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Zilich v. Lucht

filed: December 17, 1992.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 90-00131E).

Before: Stapleton, Scirica and Garth, Circuit Judges.

GARTH, Circuit Judge : Wayne Zilich, an inmate at SCI Rockview, appeals from the district court's dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action. Zilich filed a complaint against Gary Lucht, Warden of the Erie County Prison where Zilich was incarcerated before being transferred to SCI Rockview. The complaint alleged that Lucht deprived Zilich of legal materials that Zilich needed in order to pursue his "many pending cases." Adopting the magistrate Judge's February 6, 1992 Report and Recommendation (the "Report"), the district court dismissed Zilich's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Report holds that Zilich's § 1983 action will not lie since adequate state post-deprivation remedies are available to him. Because the Report, as adopted by the district court, misapplies the relevant law, we reverse.


We exercise plenary review over a district court's order dismissing a complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Ditri v. Coldwell Banker Residential Affiliates, Inc., 954 F.2d 869, 871 (3d Cir. 1992). In reviewing such an order, we must accept as true the factual allegations in the complaint. D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, 972 F.2d 1364, 1367 (3d Cir. 1992); Ransom v. Marrazzo, 848 F.2d 398, 401 (3d Cir. 1988). When, as in this case, the plaintiff is a pro se litigant, we have a special obligation to construe his complaint liberally. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 30 L. Ed. 2d 652, 92 S. Ct. 594 (1972).


As an initial matter, we address whether an action claiming denial of access to the courts may be entertained under § 1983. In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 52 L. Ed. 2d 72, 97 S. Ct. 1491 (1977), the Supreme Court held that the right of access to the courts is fundamental as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and held that the denial of such a right is actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id at 828.

Moreover, "many courts have found a cause of action for violation of the right of access stated where it was alleged that prison officials confiscated and/or destroyed legal materials." Simmons v. Dickhaut, 804 F.2d 182 (1st Cir. 1986). See, e.g., Wright v. Newsome, 795 F.2d 964, 968 (11th Cir. 1986); Carter v. Hutto, 781 F.2d 1028, 1031-32 (4th Cir. 1986); Tyler v. "Ron" Deputy Sheriff or Jailer/Custodian of Prisoners, 574 F.2d 427, 429 (8th Cir. 1978); Hiney v. Wilson, 520 F.2d 589, 591 (2d Cir. 1975); Sigafus v. Brown, 416 F.2d 105, 107 (7th Cir. 1969).

The question before us is whether the factual allegations in Zilich's amended complaint, if true, state "an access to courts" claim. At the outset of this inquiry, we note that Zilich's amended complaint is not a model of clarity. Construed liberally, the allegations set forth therein are generally as follows.

In March of 1990, Zilich was transferred from SCI Rockview to the Erie County Prison for court appearances.*fn1 During the intake process at Erie, Zilich was placed in a "visiting booth" where he requested certain legal materials that he "needed for his defence [sic]" and his "many pending cases." Correctional officer Roger Hill denied the request, stating that his orders came directly from the Erie County Warden, Gary Lucht. Subsequently, Zilich sent a letter to Lucht requesting his legal materials for use in pending court proceedings. Zilich also communicated with his then attorney, R. Gilmore, concerning the denial of these materials.

Zilich alleges that he was not given access to his legal materials until a few days later when they were delivered to him in the course of a hearing before Judge Bozza of the Erie County Court of Common Pleas. According to Zilich's complaint, the box brought to the hearing did not contain certain transcripts, a cassette tape of a telephone conversation, police reports from Florida, bonding and property papers and his Bible, in which he had inserted legal papers. In response to Zilich's request for these missing materials, Judge Bozza ordered that the missing tape be produced. Subsequently, the box produced in Judge Bozza's courtroom was brought to Erie County for Zilich to reinspect. The cassette tape and the transcript of that tape were still missing, but Zilich's Bible was in the box. When a correctional officer discovered a letter in the Bible, it was confiscated over Zilich's objections. The Officer made clear that the letter was taken pursuant to orders issued by the Warden.


The hearing before Judge Bozza, during which an order was issued from the bench requiring the production of the missing tape, suggests that at least one item that Zilich alleges was stolen from him was relevant to court proceedings.*fn2 The magistrate Judge's report, as adopted by the district court, acknowledged that "denial of access to legal documents can, in some cases, constitute a violation of due process, since it impinges on an inmate's access to the court system." Nevertheless, the magistrate Judge concluded that Zilich's § 1983 claim was foreclosed by Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 533, 82 L. Ed. 2d 393, 104 S. Ct. 3194 (1984), due to the availability of an adequate state post-deprivation remedy. In support of that Conclusion, the magistrate Judge cited to Morello v. James, 627 F.Supp. 1571 (W.D.N.Y. 1986), a district court case holding that an adequate state post-deprivation remedy forecloses a § 1983 claim, even when that claim is of a substantive due process nature such as access to the courts.

The magistrate Judge erred in relying on Hudson and Morello. In Hudson, an inmate brought a § 1983 claim against a prison official whom the inmate accused of intentionally destroying certain of his non-contraband personal property. The prisoner alleged that he had been deprived of property without due process of law. Responding to Hudson's § 1983 complaint, the Supreme Court extended its decision in Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 68 L. Ed. 2d 420, 101 S. Ct. 1908 (1981) (concerning negligent*fn3 deprivation of property), and held that the Fourteenth Amendment is not violated when a state employee intentionally deprives an individual of property, provided that the state makes available a meaningful post-deprivation remedy.*fn4 Hudson, 468 U.S. at 533.

Hudson, however, concerned only the deprivation of property by prison officials and, by its own terms, is limited to the procedural due process context. Id. Where, as in the case at hand, a prisoner's complaint alleges the taking of legal property that results in the denial of his access to the courts, the Parratt /Hudson ...

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