United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
October 24, 2005.
JOSEPH JOHNSON, Plaintiff
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et. al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM NEALON JR., Senior District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
On May 6, 2003, Plaintiff, Joseph Johnson ("Johnson"), filed
this combined Bivens*fn1 and Federal Tort Claims Act
complaint against the United States of America, Defendant Rod
Kerstetter, Assistant Inmate Systems Manager, and Garth Bingaman,
Inmate Systems Officer. (Doc. 1). The Plaintiff is proceeding via
an amended complaint. (Doc. 31). Johnson alleges that on Friday,
July 26, 2002, he placed an envelope containing certain documents
to be mailed to the Supreme Court of Virginia into the legal
mailbox at the Federal Prison Camp at Lewisburg. The documents contained in the envelope were to be filed in Plaintiffs ongoing
litigation in that court. Johnson claims that he attached an
"Inmate Request to Staff" form to the envelope indicating that
the envelope had to be postmarked by Monday, July 29, 2002, to
meet a court deadline. He states, however, that his legal mail
was not postmarked until July 30, 2002, and was rejected by the
Supreme Court of Virginia as untimely, which resulted in Johnson
losing his opportunity to appeal his criminal conviction in that
court. (Doc. 31).
Thus, Plaintiff filed the instant action in which he claims
that Defendant Bingaman, who was responsible for emptying the
legal mailbox during the month of July 2002, failed to pick up
the mail between the dates of July 26, 2002 and July 29, 2002,
which resulted in Plaintiff's petition for appeal being
post-marked July 30, 2002.
By Order dated September 24, 2004, Defendants' motion to
dismiss Johnson's Federal Tort Claim Act was granted and
Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment was denied. (Doc. 103).
The motion to dismiss Johnson's Bivens claim with respect to
Defendant Kerstetter was granted, and Kerstetter was dismissed
from the action. Id. Defendant Bingaman sought to be shielded
from liability on the basis of qualified immunity. Id. However,
the facts alleged in Plaintiff's complaint were found sufficient
to set forth a constitutional violation of Plaintiff's access to
the courts and that the right was clearly established at the time the alleged
incident occurred, thereby negating any entitlement to qualified
immunity. Id. Thus, the motion to dismiss Defendant Bingaman
was denied. Id.
On October 14, 2004, Bingaman filed an answer to the complaint.
(Doc. 105). He subsequently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment
rasing the same qualified immunity defense which he had
previously raised in his Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 122). The
Summary Judgment Motion was denied by Order dated September 28,
2005 for the same reasons that the Motion to Dismiss was
originally denied. (Doc. 145).
A pretrial conference was held on September 20, 2005 at which
time the parties were directed to submit briefs on the issue of
whether interference with access to the courts required a showing
of intentional interference or deliberate indifference, or
whether negligence, oversight, or dereliction would be
sufficient. (Doc. 145, n. 2). Both parties have now filed briefs
setting forth their views of the standard applicable to
interference with access to the courts under the First Amendment.
For the reasons set forth below, it is concluded that plaintiff
must allege intentional conduct on the part of Bingaman in order
to state a constitutional claim of denial of access to the
Interference with legal mail implicates a prison inmate's right
to access to the courts. Under Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817,
97 S.ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72 (1977), prison inmates have a
constitutional right to access the courts under the First
Amendment. Id. at 824-25, 97 S.Ct. at 1491. However, a
plaintiff must allege intentional conduct on the defendant's part
in order to state a claim that his right of access to the courts
has been denied. Simkins v. Bruce, 406 F.3d 1239, 1242
(10th Cir. 2005). "Any deliberate impediment to access [to
the courts], even a delay of access, may constitute a
constitutional deprivation." Green v. Johnson, 977 F.2d 1383,
1389 (10th Cir. 1992); Jackson v. Procunier, 789 F.2d 307,
311 (5th Cir. 1986). If "access to the courts is impeded by
mere negligence, as when legal mail is inadvertently lost or
misdirected, no constitutional violation occurs." Simkins at
1242 citing Pink v. Lester, 52 F.3d 73, 77 (4th Cir.
1995). "It is well-settled that the protections afforded
prisoners by the Due Process Clause are not triggered by the
simple negligence of prison officials." Burnside v. Moser,
138 Fed. Appx. 414, 416 (3d Cir. 2005). This reasoning is equally
applicable to a first amendment analysis.
In the instant case, Johnson alleges that he placed his mail in
the legal mailbox on Friday, July, 26, 2002. Johnson attached an
"Inmate Request to Staff" form to the mail and on that form he
wrote that the attached legal mail "had a court deadline of July
29, 2002, and must be postmarked on that date." (Doc. 31, ¶ 25).
Bingaman was the prison employee who was in charge of emptying the legal
mailbox for the week of July 26, 2002. Plaintiff alleges that
Bingaman failed to pick up the mail in the legal mailbox on July
29, 2002 resulting in the untimely posting of Johnson's letter
and the ultimate dismissal of his appeal to the Virginia Courts
for failure to timely file an appeal.
Johnson's amended complaint does not allege that Bingaman acted
intentionally when he failed to empty the legal mailbox and
postmark Johnson's legal mail. Further, Johnson's deposition
testimony provides no indication or allegation that Bingaman's
actions was intentional. Specifically, Johnson states that he
believed that Bingaman just got busy on Monday, July 29, 2002,
and forgot to empty the legal mailbox that day. (Doc. 124, Ex. 1,
p. 38). He further explained that he never had a conflict with
Bingaman and that he never spoke to Bingaman "about anything
relating to" the petition for appeal which he placed in the legal
mail. (Doc. 124, Ex. 1, p. 23). These facts make it clear that
Johnson has failed to sufficiently allege the intentional conduct
necessary to state a claim for denial of access to the courts.
Additionally, an act only becomes intentional "when the actor
intends not only the act, but the harmful consequences of the
act" as well. Stevenson v. Koskey, 877 F.2d 1435, 1439 (9th
Cir. 1989). Therefore, even if Johnson's allegations were
sufficient to show that Bingaman intentionally failed to empty
the legal mailbox, his claim still fails because he has made no
allegation that Bingaman intended, or even knew of, the negative consequence of this failure.
In his briefs, Johnson focuses the court's attention on the
actual injury requirement of a claim for denial of access to the
courts. Johnson reasons that the dismissal of his appeal
establishes the requisite actual injury. While Johnson's argument
is well articulated, it fails to recognize that a claim for
denial of access to the courts requires not solely an actual
injury but also intentional conduct in bringing about that
injury. The majority of the cases upon which Johnson relies
involve factual scenarios where the intentional conduct
requirement was clearly satisfied. This preliminary requirement
being met, the court was then free to move on to a determination
of whether an actual injury occurred. See Ex parte Hull,
312 U.S. 546 (1941) (prison official refused to notarize habeas
corpus petition and confiscated letter to clerk of court
regarding case); Monsky v. Moraghan, 127 F.3d 243 (2d Cir.
1997) (judge allowed his dog to harass plaintiff who was
attempting to file documents in the clerk of courts office);
McDonald v. Steward, 132 F.3d 225, 231 (5th Cir. 1998) (no
evidence at trial that prisoner was denied law library access
based on improper motives and so no claim for denial of access to
courts). In the instant case the first hurdle to stating a denial
of access to the courts claim is not crossed and, consequently,
there is no need to further the analysis.
Assuming arguendo that Johnson could establish an actual injury
which resulted from Bingaman's delay in emptying the legal
mailbox, his claim must still fail since he cannot show that Bingaman acted intentionally. ORDER
AND NOW, this 24th day of October, 2005, upon the court's
sua sponte consideration of the legal standard for a First
Amendment claim of interference with access to the courts and in
accordance with the accompanying Memorandum of this date, IT IS
HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
(1) Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. 31) is DISMISSED with
respect to Defendant Bingaman for failure to state a claim;
(2) The Clerk of Court shall CLOSE this case.
© 1992-2005 VersusLaw Inc.