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Banks v. Lappin

August 10, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Plaintiff Frederick Banks ("Banks"), a federal inmate formerly incarcerated at the Canaan Federal Prison Camp in Waymart, Pennsylvania, is proceeding with this civil rights action via an amended complaint. (Doc. 38.) By prior memorandum and order, summary judgment was granted in favor of defendants and against plaintiff with respect to all claims raised pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, all Bivens claims that accrued on or after May 6, 2006, and all Bivens claims relating to the denial of access to religious materials, the denial of equal protection, to Banks' prison work status, and to all claims of conspiracy pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985. (See Doc. 59 at 38.) A variety of Bivens claims remain, to wit: (1) First Amendment claims alleging the denial of access to the courts and retaliation; (2) a Fourth Amendment invasion of privacy claim; and (3) Eighth Amendment claims alleging that Banks' cell conditions were substandard, that he was denied adequate medical care, and that he was denied adequate recreation time. Defendants now seek summary judgment on these remaining claims. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion for summary judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

The instant litigation has been ongoing since June 2006, and the court thoroughly detailed Banks' allegations in its memorandum (Doc. 59) dated June 24, 2008. Exhaustive repetition of those allegations is unnecessary and the court will limit the factual description to that which is required of the instant disposition.

On April 17, 2006, Banks was transferred to the Federal Prison Camp and United States Penitentiary at Canaan ("USP Canaan"), where he was temporarily placed in the institution's secure housing unit ("SHU"). Banks claims that once he realized that he would be spending a significant amount of time in the SHU, he began to request access to the law library, various legal papers, several individuals' mailing addresses, a telephone, and stamps. (See Doc. 38 ¶¶ 27, 30.) Banks contends that he needed each of these items because at that time, he was a litigant in at least four cases pending in federal court. Prison officials allegedly ignored Banks' requests and, as a result, Banks purportedly missed multiple deadlines in his sundry court cases. (See id. ¶ 33.)

In addition, Banks claims that the cell in which he was housed was "filled with mites and must from the vent"-conditions that allegedly resulted in Banks coughing and "chronically choking on his own vomit." (Id. ¶ 27.) During one such coughing fit, Banks avers that he "slammed his stomach and back onto his bunk bed . . . to force air into his poisoned lungs." (Id.) This incident allegedly resulted in lasting physical injury, for which prison officials denied Banks treatment. (Id.) Banks also asserts that defendants "opened and read not only [his] personal mail[,] but [also] his legal mail to pry into [his] personal legal affairs."*fn2 (Id. ¶ 9.) Banks contends that he attempted to levy complaints regarding his treatment in the SHU, but that prison officials blocked his ability to do so. (See id. ¶¶ 30-31.) According to Banks, prison officials' uncooperative behavior was an effort to retaliate against him for filing multiple lawsuits against various employees of USP Canaan. (See id. ¶ 9.)

Banks was transferred from the SHU on May 3, 2006, when a general population bed became available at USP Canaan's satellite camp. (Doc. 66-2, Declaration of L. Cunningham dated August 21, 2008 ("Cunningham Dec. 2"), at 23, ¶¶ 2-3.) Banks alleges that for the sixteen days that he was in the SHU, prison officials violated his First, Fourth, and Eighth Amendment rights. Specifically, Banks' contentions are as follows: (1) that his access to the courts was obstructed in violation of the First Amendment, (see Doc. 38 ¶¶ 26-31); (2) that prison officials retaliated against him for filing administrative grievances, (see id. ¶ 9); (3) that prison officials unconstitutionally invaded his privacy by opening and reading his mail, (see id.); (4) that the conditions of his cell fell below those required by the Eighth Amendment, (see id. ¶ 27); (5) that he was denied daily recreation time in violation of the Eighth Amendment, (see id.); and (6) that he was denied adequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment, (see id.).

Defendants have previously moved to dismiss these claims on the basis of procedural default. Banks alleges that although he made attempts to utilize the prison grievance procedures, defendants thwarted his attempts to do so. (See, e.g., Doc. 71 at 4-5.) In fact, Banks states that "during the entire [16] days [he was in the SHU,] no administrative remedies were available to [him] because the Defendants failed to furnish [him] with the requested remedies."*fn3 (Id. at 5.) On September 19, 2008, defendants moved for summary judgment. (See Doc. 65.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). The burden of proof is upon the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Defendants assert that Banks failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to all remaining claims. In the alternative, defendants argue that even if the exhaustion requirement may be excused, Banks' First Amendment access to the courts claim must nonetheless fail on the merits. The court will address defendants' exhaustion arguments before turning to the merits of Banks' access to the courts claim.

A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") requires prisoners to present their claims through an administrative grievance process before seeking redress in federal ...

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