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Williams v. Russo

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

January 14, 2015

MARIO WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW RUSSO, CARL HUMPHREY, JUNE BISHOP, JAMES McMILLIAN. Defendants.

ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS

C. ASHLEY ROYAL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Mario Williams filed this 28 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Andrew Russo, Carl Humphrey, June Bishop, and John McMillian (collectively "Defendants"), seeking damages for the violation of his Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.[1] Plaintiff, a practicing attorney, alleges that Officer Russo violated his privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment by opening, reading, and taking a letter addressed to him from his prisoner client and that Humphrey, Bishop, and McMillian are liable as supervisors. Currently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Upon review of the applicable law, the Amended Complaint, and this Motion and responses thereto, the Court cannot find at this early stage of the proceedings that Plaintiff was not deprived of a constitutional right. Accordingly, and for the reasons stated below, the Motion to Dismiss [Docs. 21] is DENIED.

LEGAL STANDARD

On a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in a plaintiff's complaint.[2] To avoid dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain specific factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'"[3] A claim is plausible where the plaintiff alleges factual content that "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."[4] The plausibility standard requires that a plaintiff allege sufficient facts "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" that supports a plaintiff's claims.[5]

BACKGROUND

For purposes of this Motion, the Court accepts all factual allegations in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint as true and construes them in the light most favorable to Plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleges that between August 8 and 11, 2012, Officer Russo entered his client's cell at the Special Management Unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison ("GDCP") and opened, read, and took letters that his client addressed to Plaintiff and clearly marked "legal mail" and "attorney/client privileged" on the outside of the envelopes.[6] The letters were taken out of the cell and have not been returned to Plaintiff's client.

During a meeting between Plaintiff and his client on August 8, Plaintiff's client showed Plaintiff an opened envelope and told him that the mail had been opened, read, and removed. On August 17, 2012, Plaintiff sought an arrest warrant for Officer Russo, and the Superior Court of Butts County held a probable cause hearing; however, no warrant was issued.[7]

On August 1, 2014, Plaintiff filed his Complaint with this Court. Plaintiff contends that by reading and taking attorney/client privileged mail addressed to him, Defendants have violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that Warden Carl Humphrey, Deputy Warden June Bishop, and Unit Manager James McMillian "ordered Defendant Russo to open and read and take" the mail from Plaintiff's client's cell and condoned Russo's actions by not returning the mail to Plaintiff's client.[8]

Defendant has filed this Motion to Dismiss contending that Plaintiff has failed to allege a Fourth Amendment violation, and that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.[9] However, because Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged facts to support that he possessed a valid privacy and possessory interest in mail addressed to him, the Court cannot, at this early stage in the proceedings, dismiss Plaintiff's claim as a matter of law.

DISCUSSION

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff can bring a private cause of action against those who, under color of law, deprive a citizen of the United States of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws."[10] A plaintiff can bring a § 1983 claim against a governmental entity or a person in his individual or official capacity.[11] Here, Plaintiff brings claims against Defendants in their individual capacities for their alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful search and seizure of mail addressed to him and marked as attorney-client privileged. The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."[12] A seizure occurs when there is some "interference with an individual's possessory interests."[13] An improper search occurs under the Fourth Amendment, "when the government violates a subjective expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable."[14] Generally, an expectation is reasonable if it is one that "society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.'"[15] Moreover, whether an individual has a protected privacy interest depends on the "totality of the circumstances."[16]

It is a general rule that mail is subject to Fourth Amendment protection and both senders and addressees of packages or other closed containers can reasonably expect that the government will not open them.[17] Moreover, the courts have long recognized that an addressee has "both a possessory and a privacy interest in a mailed package."[18]

In this case, the alleged violation took place in a prison cell. The Supreme Court has concluded that "the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable searches does not apply within the confines of the prison cell."[19] However, censorship of an inmate's attorney-client privileged mail is only justified if it is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.[20] Although the Supreme Court has upheld prison regulations ...


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