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Johnson v. Holt

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

March 2, 2017

WARDEN AHMED HOLT, et al., Defendants.



         Johnson alleges that while he was incarcerated at Central State Prison the Defendants lost a UPS package addressed to him that contained a transcript he needed for a post-hearing brief in his state habeas proceeding, did not help him find it, and did not let the state habeas court know what was going on. Doc. 1 at 17, 21. The transcript was from the second of two evidentiary hearings in Johnson's state habeas proceeding, and contained the testimony of a doctor regarding Johnson's habeas claim that his guilty plea was impaired by medication. Doc. 1 at 11-13; see also Doc. 73 at 3.

         At the screening stage, the Court allowed Johnson to prosecute First Amendment access-to-court claims against Defendants Deputy Warden Fagan, Lieutenant Phelps, and Officer Nelson. Doc. 11. After conducting extensive discovery (see, e.g., Docs. 55-1 - 55-16; 63-1 - 63-8), both parties filed motions for summary judgment (Docs. 55; 63). Magistrate Judge Charles H. Weigle recommends granting the Defendants' motion summary judgment and denying Johnson's motion. Doc. 73. Johnson objects. Doc. 76.

         The Court has reviewed the Recommendation and has made a de novo determination of the portions to which Johnson objects. For the reasons that follow, the Court determines that Johnson's objections are without merit. The Court accordingly ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge's order as clarified by this Order and GRANTS the Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 63) and DENIES Johnson's motion (Doc. 55).

         I. OBJECTIONS

         A. Objections 1, 5, and 7

         In Objections 1, 5, and 7, Johnson, recognizing that mere negligence is not enough to state an access-to-court claim, argues that he has demonstrated the Defendants' intentional failure to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs), bringing the case within the holding of Simkins v. Bruce, 406 F.3d 1239 (10th Cir. 2005). Doc. 76 at 1-3, 7-9, 10-11.

         In Simkins, the defendant's affidavit reflected a course of deliberate conduct to hold, and not forward, mail directed to the plaintiff while he was transferred to an out-of-state prison for court proceedings. 406 F.3d at 1241-43. The defendant argued that this is what she was trained to do, even though the SOPs required that the mail be forwarded. Id. at 1242-43. The Tenth Circuit held that even though the defendant was doing what she was trained to do and did not understand her obligations under the SOPs, her decision to hold the defendant's mail in violation of the SOPs was “intentional conduct violating plaintiff's right of access to the courts.” Id. at 1243.

         Johnson's claim against Nelson relies on evidence that a “Nelson” signed for the transcript at the prison gate. Doc. 76 at 7-8. Johnson argues that Nelson's “signing for and handeling [sic] privileged mail when not assigned to a mailroom post” constituted “INTENTIONAL NEGLECT” of the prison's SOPs. Id. at 7. Johnson supports his argument that the SOPs were violated by pointing to the Defendants' interrogatory responses. See, e.g., id. at 12. The responses seem to address SOPs for mail that was picked up from a United States Postal Service office or was otherwise already in the prison's mail system, not packages dropped off at the prison gate by a third-party carrier.[1] Construed in Johnson's favor, however, the Defendants' responses support his conclusion that Nelson violated the SOPs by signing for the UPS package.[2]

         However, assuming that Nelson violated the SOPs by signing for Johnson's UPS package, Johnson's reliance on Simkins is still misplaced. Unlike Simkins, where the defendant's testimony reflected a conscious choice to not forward the plaintiff's legal mail, there is no evidence here that Nelson chose to withhold or divert Johnson's mail. There is nothing in the record supporting a reasonable inference that the package did not reach the mailroom just as it should have. Cf. Doc. 63-2 at 15 (Johnson testifying that he had “no idea” what happened to the package after it was signed for). Accordingly, unlike the defendant in Simkins, Nelson's decision to sign for the mail in violation of the SOPs is not connected to any actual or intended impedance of Johnson's package.

         Johnson's assertions that Phelps also failed to follow the SOPs (Doc. 76 at 2-3, 5-8, 11) fail for similar reasons. Johnson's piggyback claim against Phelps-that Phelps violated the SOPs by allowing Nelson to sign for Johnson's mail (id. at 2-3, 7-8, 11)-fails because, even if Phelps allowed Nelson to sign for the mail in violation of the SOPs, there is no evidence connecting this to any interference with the delivery of Johnson's mail, as explained above.

         Johnson attempts to demonstrate that Phelps did not follow other SOPs in regard to the UPS package by arguing that if the SOPs had been followed, he would have gotten the transcript or it would have been returned to the sender as undeliverable. See, e.g., id. at 2, 5, 7-8. Because Johnson did not receive the package and it was not returned to the sender, it is reasonable to conclude that someone in the prison did not comply with the SOPs. Indeed, the evidence may even support an inference the failure to comply with the SOPs was an intentional obstruction of the package's delivery. See Docs. 63-2 at 20; 70-1 at 8; 76 at 8. However, the Court is unaware of any law relieving Johnson of the burden to show that this “someone” was Phelps. Johnson has failed to demonstrate that Phelps ever made any decision regarding the package, let alone that he was solely responsible for the package. Accordingly, Johnson cannot demonstrate that Phelps did not follow the SOPs regarding the package by simply showing that, somewhere along the way, the SOPs were not followed. The Court understands the frustration Johnson must feel that his claim fails simply because he, even with the benefit of discovery, is unable to determine who this “someone” is.[3] But that is the law.

         B. Objection 6

         Johnson argues in Objection 6 that Warden Holt told Fagan to “[i]mmediately contact and draft a letter to” the state habeas court about the lost transcripts on two occasions, but Fagan still neglected to “sign a letter to be sent off to” the habeas court. Doc. 76 at 9-10. However, according to Johnson's deposition, Fagan, on Holt's second instruction, brought Johnson to his office and instructed a subordinate to take down Johnson's information, draft a letter, and get into contact with the habeas court. Doc. 63-2 at 17. Johnson assumes that no letter was ever sent. Id. He makes this admitted “assumption” because he sent a letter to the habeas court to find out if they had received a letter from Fagan, but never heard back from the habeas court. Id. This is not enough to ...

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