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Rudnick v. Raemisch

United States District Court, D. Colorado

February 27, 2018



          Kristen L. Mix, United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) [#69][1] (the “Motion”). Plaintiff filed a Response [#82] in opposition to the Motion [#69], and Defendants did not file a reply before the time for doing so elapsed. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and D.C.COLO.LCivR 72.1(c)(3), the Motion has been referred to the undersigned for recommendation. See [#70]. The Court has reviewed the Motion, the Response, the entire case file, and the applicable law, and is sufficiently advised in the premises. For the reasons set forth below, the Court respectfully RECOMMENDS that the Motion [#69] be GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, who proceeds pro se, [2] is a prisoner in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections (“CDOC”) at the Sterling Correctional Facility. He initiated this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various prison officials on August 11, 2016. Compl. [#1]. On December 6, 2016, Plaintiff filed the Second Amended Complaint [#24], which is the operative pleading. Plaintiff challenges the replacement of his prescription eyeglasses with state-issued eyeglasses that he alleges are inadequate. He also challenges certain restrictions placed on his access to the prison's law library and his legal materials, and the alleged search and seizure of his property. See id. at 36-50. The specific allegations will be discussed in the Analysis below.

         Plaintiff essentially brings seven claims: (1) blocked access to the courts in violation of the First Amendment; (2) seizure of his materials in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (3) denial of due process and equal protection with regard to accessing his legal files; (4) violations of his right to confidentiality; (5) retaliation in violation of the First Amendment; (6) medical deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (7) unconstitutional policies concerning administrative remedies.[3] Plaintiff requests declaratory and injunctive relief and money damages. Id. at 55-60.

         On January 26, 2017, Defendants Vorwald, Deal, Reynolds, Sanchez, Jacobson, Holst, DeCesaro, Ward, and Coffman were dismissed with prejudice as legally frivolous due to lack of personal participation. Order to Dismiss in Part and to Draw Case [#29] at 4. Additionally, to the extent that Plaintiff seeks money damages against the individual Defendants in their official capacities, those claims were dismissed as barred by sovereign immunity. Id. On July 18, 2017, Defendant Samora was dismissed without prejudice for failure to serve. Order [#94] at 11. Defendants now seek to dismiss the remainder of Plaintiff's claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is to test “the sufficiency of the allegations within the four corners of the complaint after taking those allegations as true.” Mobley v. McCormick, 40 F.3d 337, 340 (10th Cir. 1994); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (stating that a complaint may be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted”). “The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” Sutton v. Utah State Sch. for the Deaf & Blind, 173 F.3d 1226, 1236 (10th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). To withstand a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain enough allegations of fact ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atlantic Co. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Shero v. City of Grove, Okla., 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 2007) (“The complaint must plead sufficient facts, taken as true, to provide ‘plausible grounds' that discovery will reveal evidence to support the plaintiff's allegations.” (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “A pleading that offers labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement.” Id. (brackets in original; internal quotation marks omitted).

         To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the factual allegations in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Christy Sports, LLC v. Deer Valley Resort Co., 555 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2009). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, ” a factual allegation has been stated, “but it has not show[n][ ]that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). Iqbal, 552 U.S. at 679 (second brackets added; citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity, in certain circumstances, protects government officials from litigation when they are sued in their individual capacities. See, e.g., Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 814-18 (1982). A government official is entitled to qualified immunity from liability for civil damages when his or her allegedly unlawful conduct did not violate any of the plaintiff's statutory or constitutional rights that (1) were “clearly established” at the time of the conduct, and (2) would have been known to a reasonable person in the official's position. Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818. A government official is entitled to qualified immunity in “[a]ll but the most exceptional cases.” Harris v. Bd. of Educ. of Atlanta, 105 F.3d 591, 595 (11th Cir. 1997).

         The threshold inquiry is whether the facts taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff sufficiently allege a constitutional violation. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). “If no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established, there is no necessity for further inquiries concerning qualified immunity.” Id. However, “if a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, ” a court must “ask whether the right was clearly established.” Id.; see also Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (holding that although qualified immunity determination involves a two-part inquiry, if the plaintiff fails either inquiry reviewed in any order, no further analysis need be undertaken and qualified immunity is appropriate).

         III. Analysis

         A. Claim One: First Amendment Right to Access the Courts

         In Claim One, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Anderson has denied him access to and has threatened to delete legal documents that he created from the prison computer system. Second Am. Compl. [#24] at 36, 37. Allegedly, Defendant Anderson has told him that the documents look like notes, which are not allowed to be printed or stored on the system. Id. at 37. He further alleges that he has been “denied access to print-outs and copies on frivolous grounds, ” including unreasonable page limitations. Id. He also states that he has been denied access to law library appointments and the law library work station. Id. at 36. Specifically, he complains that there are fourteen work stations shared among 1, 200 prisoners, Plaintiff has faced delays of up to six weeks between appointments, and that Defendant Anderson schedules Plaintiff for “assisting” other inmates more frequently than scheduling him to work on his own documents. Id. at 15, 16.

         Access to the courts is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, including the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Nordgren v. Milliken, 762 F.2d 851, 853 (10th Cir.1985). To successfully raise such a claim, “a prisoner must demonstrate actual injury from interference with his access to the courts - that is, that the prisoner was frustrated or impeded in his efforts to pursue a nonfrivolous legal claim concerning his conviction or conditions of confinement.” Gee v. Pacheco, 627 F.3d 1178, 1191 (10th Cir. 2010) (citing Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351-55 (1996)).

         As Defendants argue, the pleadings fail to articulate any actual injury in support of Plaintiff's claim. Motion [#69] at 7. Plaintiff asserts that he “has recently found substantial constitutional cause for pursuit of state post[-]conviction relief from his case by the help of a jailhouse lawyer and legal research that exposes the invalidity of his conviction and sentence.” Second Am. Compl. [#24] at 13. It is unclear from these vague allegations what the basis of Plaintiff's lawsuit or potential lawsuit is, and therefore ascertainment of whether it is frivolous or nonfrivolous is impossible. See Gee, 627 F.3d at 1191. Plaintiff's argument that he “need not present details of what his legal documents contain or what they are for” is directly contradicted by the law and therefore lacks merit. See Response [#82] at 11; Gee, 627 F.3d at 1191; Wardell v. Duncan, 470 F.3d 954, 959 (10th Cir. 2006) (stating that conclusory allegations of injury will not suffice for a First Amendment retaliation claim). Additionally, as noted in the Recommendation to deny Plaintiff's motion for injunctive relief, “the docket demonstrates that Plaintiff has been able to prepare and submit numerous filings. He therefore does not appear to be hindered by his limited access to his legal work or law library access in the present case.” Recommendation [#71] at 7. The Court finds that Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged an actual injury stemming from interference with his access to the courts. See Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1247.

         Finding that no constitutional violation has sufficiently been alleged, the Court concludes that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim. See Escobar v. Reid, 668 F.Supp.2d 1260, 1293 (D. Colo. 2009). The Court respectfully recommends that Claim One regarding restricted access to the courts be dismissed without prejudice. See Reynoldson v. Shillinger, 907 F.2d 124, 127 (10th Cir. 1990) (holding that prejudice should not attach to a dismissal when plaintiff has made allegations “which, upon further investigation and development, could raise substantial issues”).

         B. Claim Two: Search and Seizure of Property in Violation of Fourth Amendment

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants conducted a cell search and confiscated and destroyed eyeglasses, shoes, books, headphones, “box, ” and typewriter ribbons worth $457.00. Second Am. Compl. [#24] at 18. He also alleges that Defendant Anderson violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching through the content of Plaintiff's legal documents, not allowing him access to them during certain periods of time, refusing to print them out, sharing them with other people without Plaintiff's consent, and threatening to delete them because she incorrectly stated that they were improper notes. Second Am. Compl. [#24] at 38. The Court first considers Plaintiff's allegations with respect to the cell search and confiscated items.

         The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “[P]risoners are not protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable searches of their prison cells or from the wrongful seizure of property contained in their cells because ‘the Fourth Amendment does not establish a right to privacy in prisoners' cells.'” Rodriguez-Rodriguez v. United States, 4 F. App'x 637, 639 (10th Cir. 2001) (quoting Hayes v. Marriott, 70 F.3d 1144, 1146 (10th Cir. 1995)). Thus, the search of Plaintiff's cell and confiscation of personal items did not violate Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights, and Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.

         Plaintiff alleges that confiscating his glasses left him “blind” (limited to vision less than four inches) and “disabled and exposed to [the] open prison environment . . . unable to function reasonably.” Second Am. Compl. [#24] at 24, 26. He asserts that Defendants violated a “CDOC regulation not to take prisoners['] necessary medical device[s] or allow unethical conduct of [their] subordinates (or [themselves]) during regular operations.” Id. at 25. “While an inmate's ownership of property is a protected property interest that may not be infringed without due process, ...

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