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Flynn v. Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 3, 2015

DONALD FLYNN, Plaintiff,


RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.


Donald Flynn, an inmate presently confined at the State Correctional Institution, Coal Township, Pennsylvania (SCI-Coal Twp.), initiated this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. By Memorandum and Order dated August 26, 2013, Defendants' motion seeking partial dismissal was granted. Specifically, dismissal was granted in favor of Defendants Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and the following DOC officials, Secretary John Wetzel; Chief Grievance Officer Dorina Varner; and Chief Hearing Examiner Robin Lewis. See Doc. 33, p. 18.

Dismissal was also entered in favor of the following SCI-Coal Twp. Defendants: Hearing Examiner Kerns-Barr; Unit Manager Charles Custer; Major Miller; Licensed Psychologist Manager (LPM) John Sidler; Cam II Michael Corbacio; Correctional Officer Richards; ex-Deputy Superintendent Rhonda Ellet; Medical Director McCarty; Unit Manager Williams; Correctional Officer Lahr; and Captain Scicchitano.

As a result, the Remaining Defendants are the following SCI-Coal Twp. officials: Superintendent David Varano; Mail Room Inspector Terese Jellen; Captain Charles Stetler; Correctional Officer Nowell; as well as Lieutenants Shipe and R.E. Long. Plaintiff's surviving claims are: (1) mail interference by Defendant Jellen; (2) retaliation by Defendants Stetler, Shipe, Long, and Varano; (3) improper taking of legal materials by Defendants Nowell and Long; and (4) the Psychiatric Observation Cell (POC) related claims against Defendants Stetler and Shipe. Presently pending is Remaining Defendants' motion seeking entry of summary judgment. See Doc. 39.


Remaining Defendants contend that they are entitled to entry of summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Plaintiff does not allege that he suffered any injury to a non-frivolous pursuit of a legal remedy or was deprived of any other constitutional protection as the result of the conduct attributed to Mail Room Inspector Jellen; (2) Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to his POC related allegations; (3) Defendants Nowell and Long did not confiscate Plaintiff's legal materials but rather those officials properly confiscated contraband; and (4) Plaintiff has not established that his RHU placement was retaliatory.

Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper if "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001). A factual dispute is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248. The court must resolve all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in favor of the non-moving party. Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232; see also Reeder v. Sybron Transition Corp., 142 F.R.D. 607, 609 (M.D. Pa. 1992). Unsubstantiated arguments made in briefs are not considered evidence of asserted facts. Versarge v. Township of Clinton, 984 F.2d 1359, 1370 (3d Cir. 1993).

Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the claims of the non-moving party, the non-moving party may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in its complaint. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Instead, it must "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id . (internal quotations omitted); see also Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (citations omitted). Summary judgment should be granted where a party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. "Such affirmative evidence - regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial - must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance.'" Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (quoting Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989)).

Access to the Courts

The Complaint initially and generally alleges that between 2009-2012, Defendant Jellen and other unidentified SCI-Coal Twp. mail inspectors intentionally destroyed, rejected, and lost Plaintiff's incoming and outgoing mail. See Doc. 1, p. 3. There were also several instances were Flynn's incoming and outgoing legal mail was purportedly opened outside of his presence. See id.

Remaining Defendants assert that to the extent that Plaintiff is asserting a denial of access to the courts claim against Jellen, said allegation must fail because Flynn has not alleged that he suffered any injury to his pursuit of a non-frivolous legal claim.

Prisoners enjoy a constitutional right of meaningful access to the law libraries, legal materials, or legal services. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821-25 (1977). Inmates have a right to send and receive legal mail which is uncontroverted and implicates both First and Sixth Amendment concerns, through the right to petition the government and the right of access to the courts. "When legal mail is read by prison employees, the risk is of a 'chill, ' rendering the prisoner unwilling or unable to raise substantial legal issues critical of the prison or prison employees." Proudfoot v. Williams, 803 F.Supp. 1048, 1052 (E.D. Pa. 1992).

The United States Supreme Court in Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351-54 (1996), clarified that an inmate plaintiff, in order to set forth a viable claim under Bounds, must demonstrate that a non-frivolous legal claim had been frustrated or was being impeded. A plaintiff must also allege an actual injury to his litigation efforts. Under the standards mandated by Lewis, in order for an inmate to state a claim for interference with his legal work, he must demonstrate that he has suffered actual injury. See Oliver v. Fauver, 118 F.3d 175, 177-78 (3d Cir. 1997)(concluding that Lewis effectively requires a showing of actual injury where interference with legal mail is alleged).

Following a careful review of the Complaint, it is clear to this Court that Flynn has failed to adequately demonstrate that he suffered any injury to a non-frivolous legal claim as required under Lewis. There is no assertion that the alleged interference by Defendant Jellen caused him to suffer any adverse ...

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