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Williams v. Lackawanna County Prison

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 17, 2017



          Kane Judge

         Pro se Plaintiff Gary Williams, a prisoner formerly confined at the Lackawanna County Prison (“LCP”), filed a civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on April 4, 2013. (Doc. No. 1.) Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a supplement to the complaint. (Doc. No. 34.) Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 50), to which Plaintiff has filed a brief in opposition (Doc. No. 55). The motion, having been fully briefed by the parties, is now ripe for disposition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's complaint names as defendants the LCP, Warden Robert McMillan, Corrections Officer Laboronti, and Sergeant Hebron. (Doc. No. 1.) Plaintiff claims that prison officials at LCP opened his legal mail outside of his presence on several occasions. (Doc. No. 1 at 1.) He alleges that on December 5, 2012, he received a piece of opened legal mail from Defendant Laboronti for the fourth time in three weeks. (Id.) All letters were sent from the United States District Court and two of the envelopes were marked “Special Mail, Not to Be Opened Outside the Presence of the Inmate.” (Id.) Plaintiff claims he spoke about this with Defendant Hebron, who said that Defendant Laboronti should not have opened the legal mail outside of Plaintiff's presence. (Id.) Plaintiff also claims that he filed three grievances about this issue and that he received no response to any of them. (Id. at 2.)

         Subsequently, on August 10, 2015, the Court issued a Memorandum and separate Order granting in part Defendants' motion to dismiss and permitting Plaintiff to file a supplemental complaint with respect to additional defendants Corrections Officers Jervis and Cole. With respect to the original complaint, the Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss the portion of the complaint which set forth a First Amendment claim. The Court indicated that at that current stage of the proceedings, there were sufficient allegations of a pattern or practice of opening Plaintiff's legal mail to allow the claims against the four (4) defendants named in the original complaint to go forward. With regard to the supplemental complaint, the Court concluded similarly with respect to the additional defendant Corrections Officers Jervis and Cole. (Doc. Nos. 36 and 37.) However, all of the new claims set forth in the supplemental complaint against Warden McMillan, Assistant Warden Langan, Captain Yavorski, Lieutenant Murray, Disciplinary Hearing Officer Fanning and Sergeant Kennedy were dismissed. By Order of September 28, 2015, this Court dismissed the claims against LCP. (Doc. No. 39.) Therefore, the remaining defendants in this action are Warden McMillan, Sergeant Hebron, and Corrections Officers Laboranti, Jervis, and Cole.

         In his supplemental complaint, Plaintiff alleges that on August 5, 2013, Defendant Cole verbally harassed him, removed him to the restricted housing unit (“RHU”), and issued him a misconduct, all in retaliation for Plaintiff filing grievances. (Doc. No. 34.) Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant Jervis opened his legal mail outside of his presence on August 13, 2014, and when confronted by Plaintiff as to why he opened the legal mail, Defendant Jervis sent him to the “hole.” (Id.)

         Defendants Jervis and Cole filed an answer and affirmative defenses to the supplemental complaint on August 25, 2015. (Doc. No. 38.) After being directed to do so, on October 9, 2015, an answer was filed to the original complaint by Warden McMillan, Corrections Officer Laboronti, and Sergeant Hebron relating to the First Amendment claim which survived the motion to dismiss. (Doc. No. 40.) After discovery was conducted, Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment. Accompanying their motion for summary judgment, Defendants filed a statement of undisputed material facts (“SUMF”) (Doc. No. 51), and a brief in support (Doc. No. 52). Plaintiff filed an answer to Defendants' SUMF (Doc. No. 54), [1] and a brief in opposition to Defendants' instant motion (Doc. No. 55).


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) requires the court to render summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         A disputed fact is “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the outcome of the case under applicable substantive law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Gray v. York Newspapers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992). An issue of material fact is “genuine” if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257; Brenner v. Local 514, United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of Am., 927 F.2d 1283, 1287-88 (3d Cir. 1991).

         When determining whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, the court must view the facts and all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Moore v. Tartler, 986 F.2d 682 (3d Cir. 1993); Clement v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 963 F.2d 599, 600 (3d Cir. 1992); White v. Westinghouse Electric Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). In order to avoid summary judgment, however, the nonmoving party may not rest on the unsubstantiated allegations of his or her pleadings. When the party seeking summary judgment satisfies its burden under Rule 56 of identifying evidence which demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party is required by Rule 56 to go beyond his pleadings with affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories or the like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give rise to a genuine issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The party opposing the motion “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Electric Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). When Rule 56 shifts the burden of production to the nonmoving party, that party must produce evidence to show the existence of every element essential to its case which it bears the burden of proving at trial, for “a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; see Harter v. G.A.F. Corp., 967 F.2d 846, 851 (3d Cir. 1992).


         A. First Amendment Claim - Interference with Legal Mail

         The Supreme Court has made clear that prisoners do not surrender all constitutional rights during their confinement, and the Supreme Court has instructed that “federal courts must take cognizance of the valid constitutional claims of prison inmates.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987). The Third Circuit has explained that prisoners “do not forfeit their First Amendment right to use of the mails, ” particularly with respect to privileged “legal mail” exchanged with counsel, and that a “pattern and practice of opening properly marked incoming [legal] mail outside an inmate's presence infringes communication protected by the right to free speech.” Bieregu v. Reno, 59 F.3d 1445, 1452 (3d Cir. 1995), abrogated in part by Oliver v. Fauver, 118 F.3d 175 (3d Cir. 1997); Taylor v. Oney, 196 F. App'x 126, ...

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