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Cooper v. Sniezek

September 7, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


This is a civil rights case brought by Maurice Donnell Cooper, an inmate currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Schuylkill ("FCI-Schuylkill") against seven FCI-Schuylkill employees in their individual and official capacities, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons ("BOP"). Before the court are cross-motions for summary judgment filed on behalf of all Defendants and Plaintiff, along with Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction. (Docs. 10, 27, 38.) For the reasons that follow, the court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment and deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. The court will also deny as moot Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction.

I. Background

A. Procedural Background

Plaintiff filed his complaint on December 10, 2009. (Doc. 1.) The court ordered him to file an amended complaint by no later than January 15, 2010, and he did so on January 13, 2010. (Doc. 12.) Prior to filing his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff filed a motion for injunctive relief requesting the court to order Defendants not to restrain access to his inmate account. (Doc. 10.)

The court ordered that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and his motion for injunctive relief be served upon Defendants by the United States Marshal, and Defendants respond to both documents within sixty days of the date of service. (Doc. 14.) Service was effected on February 8, 2010. (Doc. 16.) After service of these documents, but before Defendants filed their response, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment on April 14, 2010. (Doc. 27.) By order dated April 19, 2010, the court stayed briefing on this motion until Defendants filed their response. (Doc. 28.)

Following an enlargement of time, on June 8, 2010, Defendants responded to Plaintiff's Amended Complaint by filing a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 38.) By order dated June 9, 2010, the court deemed Defendants' motion to be a motion for summary judgment decided pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, lifted the stay of the briefing on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and established a briefing schedule. (Doc. 39.) Both parties filed their respective supporting and opposing briefs, exhibits in support of their motions, as well as their reply briefs. (See Docs. 42, 46-48, 52-55.) Both motions for summary judgment are ripe for disposition.

On June 22, 2010, Defendants filed their brief in opposition to Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction as well as supporting exhibits.*fn1 (Docs. 44-45.) No reply brief was filed by Plaintiff. This motion is ripe for disposition.

B. Factual Background

1. Incident Reports Plaintiff Received at FCI-Schuylkill

The crux of Plaintiff's complaint surrounds two disciplinary incident reports that he received while at FCI-Schuylkill. Plaintiff received the first incident report (1887193) on June 30, 2009, for being absent from his food service work assignment. (Doc. 47, Defs.' Statement of Material Facts at ¶ 38 ("Defs.' SMF").) Defendant Diehl, the reporting cook supervisor, noted that Plaintiff's work hours were 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., but when he conducted his census of mainline workers at 12:10 p.m., Plaintiff was not present. (Id. ¶ 39.) Defendant Diehl noted that all inmates were told to check out with him prior to leaving their work assignment. (Id. ¶ 40.) Because Plaintiff was absent from work, he was issued a disciplinary incident report.

On July 2, 2009, a hearing was held at which time Plaintiff stated that after he completed his work on June 30, 2009, he departed food service without checking out with Defendant Diehl. (Id. ¶ 41.) Plaintiff added that he did check out with another officer, but did not recall that officer's name. (Id. ¶ 42.) The hearing officer sustained the charge and sanctioned Plaintiff with ninety days loss of telephone privileges. (Id. ¶ 43.)

On July 7, 2009, Plaintiff filed an administrative remedy (546240-F1) with the institution contesting this decision. (Id. ¶ 23.) On July 14, 2009, Defendant Sniezek, the warden, denied Plaintiff's appeal. (Id. ¶ 25.) On July 30, 2009, Plaintiff appealed the warden's denial to the Northeast Regional Office, which partially granted the appeal and remanded the disciplinary action back to the prison. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27.) The Regional Director determined that BOP officials had not thoroughly completed the incident report, and remanded the matter back so that they could do so. (Id.) Prison officials amended the report to note that Plaintiff admitted to leaving his work assignment without checking out with his immediate supervisor, and provided a copy of the amended report to Plaintiff on September 4, 2009. (Id. ¶ 47.) The Regional Director's decision informed Plaintiff that, after he received the amended incident report, he could file a new administrative remedy with the institution; however, Plaintiff did not file any further appeals or remedies regarding this incident report. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30.)

On October 13, 2009, Plaintiff received his second incident report (1929830) charging him with lying or providing a false statement to a staff member. (Id. ¶ 48.) The reporting employee noted that Plaintiff told him he needed copies of his legal materials, and that Warden Sniezek had ordered Case Manager Brill to make the copies, but Case Manager Brill refused. (Id. ¶ 49.) The reporting employee looked into what Plaintiff was telling him and verified that Warden Sniezek never made the statement. (Id. ¶ 50.)

An initial hearing was held on October 15, 2009, and the matter was referred to the Discipline Hearing Officer ("DHO") for further hearing. (Id. ¶ 51.) At the initial hearing, Plaintiff received a copy of the "Inmate Rights at Discipline Hearing" form, as well as the form entitled "Notice of Discipline Hearing Before the DHO." (Id. ¶¶ 52-53.) Plaintiff refused to sign the forms, and it was noted that Plaintiff did not request a specific staff representative or witnesses, rather he stated he would make the request at the DHO hearing. (Id. ¶ 54.)

On October 27, 2009, the DHO held a hearing. (Id. ¶ 55.) Plaintiff was present and advised of his rights to a staff representative and to call witnesses. (Id. ¶ 56.) The parties dispute whether Plaintiff understood these rights and whether he waived his right to staff representation and witness testimony. Defendants point to the DHO Report which states that he did understand his rights and that he waived staff representation and witness testimony. (See Doc. 46-2, Decl. of Joseph McCluskey at ¶ 7, Attach. 9, DHO Report.) In contrast, Plaintiff points to his appeal of that decision where he states that he did not understand his rights and specifically requested a representative and the ability to call witnesses. (Id. at Attach. 15, Regional Administrative Remedy Appeal.)

On November 4, 2009, the DHO issued his written decision finding that Plaintiff committed the prohibited act of lying or providing a false statement to a staff member. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 59-60.) The DHO sanctioned Plaintiff to fifteen days in disciplinary segregation, a thirteen day disallowance of good conduct time, a thirteen day forfeiture of non-vested good conduct time, and a four month loss of commissary privileges. (Id. ¶ 61.)

On November 30, 2009, Plaintiff filed an appeal (565383-R2) with the Northeast Regional Office. (Id. ¶ 31.) In this appeal, Plaintiff sought review of the DHO's decision and alleged various procedural errors that were committed during the disciplinary process. (Id. ¶ 32.) On December 28, 2009, the Regional Director denied the appeal noting that Plaintiff's due process rights were not violated throughout the disciplinary proceedings. (Id. ¶ 33.) The Regional Director noted that the evidence supported the DHO's decision, and Plaintiff failed to apprise the DHO of his desire to have a staff representative or witnesses and he did not complain about these issues at the DHO hearing. (Id. ¶ 34.) On January 19, 2010, Plaintiff further appealed to the Central Office (565383-A1). (Id. ¶ 35.) This appeal was denied on May 13, 2010. (Id. ¶ 36.)

2. Facts Related to Plaintiff's Denial of Access to the Courts Claim

Plaintiff alleges in his amended complaint that he was unable to get copies of his legal materials, and as such he could not meet court deadlines and was denied relief by the United States Supreme Court. (See Doc. 12 at 3-4.) On October 29, 2007, Plaintiff, through his attorney, appealed his conviction of one count of attempted bank robbery and three counts of bank robbery to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 62.) Plaintiff was represented by the federal public defender's office. (Id. ¶ 63.) On August 22, 2008, the Ninth Circuit denied Plaintiff's appeal because it found the district court did not commit a clear error of judgment when it decided to admit DNA evidence. (Doc. 46-3 at 24-25 of 52, United States v. Cooper, No. 07-10512 (9th Cir. Aug. 12, 2008)). On September 15, 2008, the Ninth Circuit issued its Mandate. (Id. at 26 of 52, Ninth Circuit Mandate.)

On November 14, 2008, Plaintiff's then-counsel sent him a letter advising of the Ninth Circuit's decision, apologizing for the delay in sending it to him, and advising him of the appeal process. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 67.) Plaintiff argues that he never received this letter, and that "the letter had been intercepted." (Doc. 52, Pl.'s Counterstatement of Material Facts, ¶ 67.) In support, Plaintiff cites to a motion he filed with the Ninth Circuit on February 9, 2009, for leave to file out of time a petition for rehearing en banc. (Doc. 46-3 at 27-40 of 52, Pl.'s Mot. for Leave to File Out of Time Rehearing En Banc.) Plaintiff's motion was denied, and on March 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on October 5, 2009. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 69-70.)

In the midst of these proceedings, on July 21, 2009, Plaintiff filed administrative remedy (547869- F2) with FCI-Schuylkill claiming he could not afford to make copies of his legal materials, and, thus, he was denied access to the courts. (Id. ¶ 13.) On July 30, 2009, Warden Sniezek addressed Plaintiff's issue noting that he did not qualify to have copies made by staff at the expense of the institution since he was not indigent. (Id. ¶ 14.) While acknowledging that this was Warden Sniezek's reasoning, Plaintiff asserts that his conclusion was incorrect because Plaintiff's prison account was "manipulated" to show that he had more money than he did. (Pl'.s Counterstatement of Material Facts ¶ 14.)

On August 10, 2009, Plaintiff appealed the Warden's denial to the Northeast Regional Office (547869-R1). (Defs.' SMF ¶ 16.) On September 9, 2009, the Regional Director denied the appeal noting that Plaintiff was not entitled to free copies of his legal materials because he had funds. (Id. ¶ 17.) On September 28, 2009, Plaintiff further appealed to the Central Office (547869-A1), and on January 29, 2010, the Central Office ...

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