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Mitchell v. Phelps

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

February 21, 2018

Captain PHELPS, et al., Defendants.



         This case is currently before the Court for screening as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Plaintiff Milton Mitchell, an inmate confined at Dooly State Prison, filed the above-captioned proceeding seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As discussed below, Plaintiff may proceed with his First Amendment access to courts claim against Defendants Phelps, Arnold, and Johnson. It is RECOMMENDED, however, that Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment due process claims be DISMISSED without prejudice.

         I. Preliminary Review of Plaintiff's Complaint

         A. Standard for Preliminary Review

         Under the PLRA, the district courts are obligated to conduct a preliminary screening of every complaint filed by a prisoner who seeks redress from a government entity, official, or employee. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). Screening is also required, under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), when the plaintiff is proceeding IFP. Both statutes apply in this case, and the standard of review is the same. When conducting a preliminary review, the district court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and make all inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Brown v. Johnson, 387 F.3d 1344, 1347 (11th Cir. 2004). Pro se pleadings are also “held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys, ” and a pro se compliant is thus “liberally construed.” Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998) (per curiam). The district court, however, cannot allow a plaintiff to litigate frivolous, conclusory, or speculative claims. As part of the preliminary screening, the court shall dismiss a complaint, or any part thereof, prior to service, if it is apparent that the plaintiff's claims are frivolous or if his allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted - i.e., that the plaintiff is not entitled to relief based on the facts alleged. See § 1915A(b); § 1915(e).

         To state a viable claim, the complaint must include “enough factual matter” to - not only “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests” - but to also create “a reasonable expectation” that discovery will reveal evidence to prove the claim(s). Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). The claims cannot be speculative or based solely on beliefs or suspicions; each must be supported by allegations of relevant and discoverable fact. Id. Thus, neither legal conclusions nor a recitation of legally relevant terms, standing alone, is sufficient to survive preliminary review. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009) (“labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements” of a cause of action is not enough). Claims without an arguable basis in law or fact will be dismissed as frivolous. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Bilal v. Driver, 251 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2001) (claims frivolous if “clearly baseless” or “legal theories are indisputably meritless”).

         B. Plaintiff's Claims

         The present action arises out of Plaintiff's confinement at Dooly State Prison. According to Plaintiff, on July 13, 2017, Defendants Phelps, Arnold, and Johnson took Plaintiff's property “without giving reasons or a property inventory sheet.” Compl. 1, ECF No. 4. Plaintiff states that the property taken consisted of personal documents, legal mail, art work, color pencils, and religious materials. Plaintiff's allegations implicate both a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim and a First Amendment access to courts claim.

         i. Fourteenth Amendment Due Process

         “To successfully assert a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant deprived him of a liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution, (2) the deprivation occurred under color of state law, and (3) he was not provided with constitutionally adequate process to redress the harm.” Mines v. Barber, 610 Fed.Appx. 838, 840 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Grayden v. Rhodes, 345 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2003)). “[A]n unauthorized intentional deprivation of property by a state employee does not constitute a violation of the procedural requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment if a meaningful post deprivation remedy for the loss is available.” Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 533 (1984). And “a random and unauthorized deprivation does not violate procedural due process if the state provides an adequate post-deprivation remedy.” Mines, 610 Fed.Appx. at 840 (quoting Carcamo v. Miami-Dade Cty., 375 F.3d 1104, 1105 (11th Cir. 2004)). The Eleventh Circuit recognizes several state law remedies available to Georgia prisoners complaining of property deprivations, including the prison's administrative grievance system and a civil cause of action for wrongful conversion. Mines, 610 Fed.Appx. at 840; see also Moore v. McLaughlin, 569 Fed.Appx. 656, 658 (11th Cir. 2014); Stickels v. Chief Police, Gwinnett Cty. Police Dept., 279 Fed.Appx. 790, 791 (11th Cir. 2008) (state law civil action for wrongful conversion was adequate state post-deprivation remedy for failure of state officials to return property).

         Plaintiff complains that the Defendants entered his cell, removed his property, and refuse to return it. Liberally construed, Plaintiff is alleging that he was deprived of his property without due process of law. Plaintiff, however, cannot plausibly state a due process claim as “he was able to file a grievance with the prison and he has an adequate post-deprivation remedy available under state law.” See Mines, 610 Fed.Appx. at 838. Plaintiff has availed himself of the prison grievance process, and Georgia law provides a tort cause of action for the wrongful deprivation of personal property. Plaintiff thus has a post-deprivation remedy under Georgia law, and he does not allege that it is inadequate to redress the harm he suffered. Accordingly, Plaintiff has failed to state a due process claim.

         ii. First Amendment Access to Courts

         Plaintiff alleges that among the items taken by the Defendants were legal documents related to Plaintiff's criminal case. This allegation potentially implicates a First Amendment access to courts claim. The First Amendment grants prisoners a limited constitutional right to access to the courts. Lloyd v. Card, 283 Fed.Appx. 696, 700 (11th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citing Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1977)). To state a claim for denial of that right, an inmate must show an actual injury. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 349 (1996). Thus, the First Amendment does not grant a prisoner the free standing right to access a prison's law library or to legal assistance, instead, a prisoner must show interference with the presentation of their claims or cases. Id. at 349-50. “‘The purpose of recognizing an access claim is to provide vindication or a separate and distinct right to seek judicial relief, ' and thus a litigant asserting an access claim must also prove that he has a viable or colorable claim for which he seeks relief.” Arthur v. Comm'r., Ala. Dept. of Corr., 680 Fed.Appx. 894, 902 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Barbour v. Haley, 471 F.3d 1222, 1225-26 (11th Cir. 2006)).

         In his initial complaint, Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants took Plaintiff's “legal documents habeas corpus information that was needed to meet a July 14, Federal Deadline. My case was Dismissed.” Compl. 7, ECF No. 1. In his Supplement, Plaintiff explains that the following items were taken: state trial transcripts, a timely filed motion to withdraw guilty plea, documents related to his criminal indictment, a “letter stating the facts that there's ‘no minutes' of grand jury proceedings, ” and “Plaintiffs state habeas corpus.” Suppl. Compl. 1, ECF No. 6. Plaintiff further states that these documents were needed to prove that the trial court failed to rule on Plaintiff's motions, his guilty plea was entered unknowingly, he received an “excessive sentence, ” and that his ...

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