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Martinez v. Hall

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Waycross Division

April 3, 2018

HARLEM MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
WARDEN HILTON HILL; GREG DOZIER; ASSISTANT WARDEN RICK STONE; and LIBRARIAN L. WALKER, Defendants.

          ORDER AND MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, who is currently housed at Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Georgia, filed a Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contesting certain conditions of his confinement. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff has also filed a Motion for injunctive relief. (Doc. 3.) The Court has permitted Plaintiff to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 7.) For the reasons set forth below, I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS Plaintiff's access to the courts, conspiracy, class action, and preliminary injunctive relief claims against Defendants. Additionally, the Court should DENY Plaintiff leave to appeal in forma pauperis as to these claims. However, Plaintiff arguably states a colorable equal protection claim against Defendants. Accordingly, the Court DIRECTS the United States Marshal to serve Defendants with a copy of Plaintiff's Complaint and this Order.

         PLAINTIFF'S ALLEGATIONS

         Plaintiff asserts Defendants have enforced and encouraged “an illegal unwritten policy, custom[, ] and practice of denying Hispanic prisoners” adequate access to legal materials because there is only one book in the prison's library containing both English and Spanish languages. (Doc. 1, p. 8.) Plaintiff maintains Defendants acted purposefully and maliciously to discriminate and conspire against Plaintiff and all other Spanish-speaking inmates by denying these inmates access to the courts. Plaintiff contends he looked for other inmates who are bilingual to help him file a habeas corpus action, but he learned that another inmate's advice was misleading after the Northern District of Georgia court dismissed Plaintiff's state habeas petition based on failure to exhaust state court remedies. (Id. at p. 11.) Plaintiff also contends he was able to reinstate his state habeas proceedings, yet he had difficulty during the evidentiary hearing explaining his position to the judge in response to the respondent's motion for a more definite statement. (Id. at pp. 11-12.) According to Plaintiff, the judge has “hinted at dismissing” his renewed petition due to Plaintiff's “inadequate filing and in court discussions[.]” (Id. at p. 12.) Plaintiff asserts his lack of access to law books written in Spanish has “hindered and frustrated” his efforts to collaterally attack his conviction. (Id.)

         Plaintiff attempts to bring a class action suit on behalf of all Spanish-speaking inmates. (Id. at pp. 1, 8.) In addition, he seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against Defendants so that they will “cease the discriminatory actions and denial of adequate access to the courts[.]” (Id. at p. 15; Doc. 3, p. 15.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Plaintiff seeks to bring this action in forma pauperis. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1), the Court may authorize the filing of a civil lawsuit without the prepayment of fees if the plaintiff submits an affidavit that includes a statement of all of his assets, shows an inability to pay the filing fee, and also includes a statement of the nature of the action which shows that he is entitled to redress. Even if the plaintiff proves indigence, the Court must dismiss the action if it is frivolous or malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). Additionally, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity. Upon such screening, the Court must dismiss a complaint, or any portion thereof, that is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or which seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

         The Court looks to the instructions for pleading contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when reviewing a complaint on an application to proceed in forma pauperis. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (“A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain [among other things] . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 10 (requiring that claims be set forth in numbered paragraphs, each limited to a single set of circumstances). Further, a claim is frivolous under Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) “if it is ‘without arguable merit either in law or fact.'” Napier v. Preslicka, 314 F.3d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Bilal v. Driver, 251 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under Section 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Thompson v. Rundle, 393 F. App'x 675, 678 (11th Cir. 2010). Under that standard, this Court must determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A plaintiff must assert “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not” suffice. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Section 1915 also “accords judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.” Bilal, 251 F.3d at 1349 (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)).

         In its analysis, the Court will abide by the long-standing principle that the pleadings of unrepresented parties are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys and, therefore, must be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1110 (11th Cir. 2006) (“Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys . . . .”) (quoting Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003)). However, Plaintiff's unrepresented status will not excuse mistakes regarding procedural rules. McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (“We have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel.”).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Equal Protection Claim

         The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the government to treat similarly situated people alike. City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985). To establish such a claim, “a prisoner must demonstrate that: (1) ‘he is similarly situated with other prisoners who received' more favorable treatment; and (2) his discriminatory treatment was based on some constitutionally protected interest[, ] such as race.” Jones v. Ray, 279 F.3d 944, 946-47 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting Damiano v. Fla. Parole & Prob. Comm'n, 785 F.2d 929, 932-33 (11th Cir. 1986)). “If a suspect classification, such as race, or a fundamental right is implicated, a court must apply strict scrutiny to that claim.” Hernandez v. Fla. Dep't of Corr., 281 F. App'x 862, 867 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 506-07 (2005) (holding that strict scrutiny is the appropriate standard of review for racial classifications even in the prison context)).

         In his Complaint, Plaintiff contends he asked Defendant Walker to help him obtain law books, materials, and computers written in Spanish “like all the [E]nglish speaking inmates have access to, so he could adequately present his habeas corpus in court.” (Doc. 1, pp. 8-9.) In response, Defendant Walker informed Plaintiff that this was not going to happen based on the policy “from the top to me” at Coffee Correctional, which does not require the provision of Spanish language materials. As Plaintiff has identified he has been treated differently from English speaking inmates, and Plaintiff's race or nationality has been implicated, he sets forth a plausible equal protection claim against Defendants Hall, Dozier, Stone, and Walker.[1]

         II. Access to the Courts Claim

         “Access to the courts is clearly a constitutional right, grounded in the First Amendment, the Article IV Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Fifth Amendment, and/or the Fourteenth Amendment.” Chappell v. Rich, 340 F.3d 1279, 1282 (11th Cir. 2003) (citing Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 n.12 (2002)). However, to bring an access to courts claim, an inmate must establish that he suffered an actual injury. In interpreting the actual injury requirement, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals stated:

The actual injury which the inmate must demonstrate is an injury to the right asserted, i.e. the right of access. Thus, the . . . official's actions which allegedly infringed on an inmate's right of access to the courts must have frustrated or impeded the inmate's efforts to pursue a nonfrivolous legal claim. See Lewis [v. Casey, 518 U.S. [343, 352-54 (1996)]. Further, the legal claim must be an appeal from a conviction for which the inmate was incarcerated, a habeas petition or a civil rights action. See id. at 352-57.

Bass v. Singletary, 143 F.3d 1442, 1445 (11th Cir. 1998). “[A]n inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison's law library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical sense.” Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351. Instead, the inmate must show that a nonfrivolous, arguable claim he wished to bring has been lost or rejected due to the deficiency or that the deficiency is currently preventing his presentation of such a claim. Sanchez v. Stephens, 689 F. App'x 797, 799 (5th Cir. 2017) (citing Harbury, 536 U.S. at 415; Lewis, 518 U.S. at 353 & n.3, 356). “The underlying claim must be described well enough to apply the frivolity test and to show that its “‘arguable' nature . . . is more than hope.” Id. (quoting Harbury, 536 U.S. At 416).

         Plaintiff does not allege enough in his Complaint to plausibly satisfy the actual injury prerequisite to set forth a plausible access to courts claim. Plaintiff fails to allege that Defendants' purported unwritten policy in having only one book in the prison's law library written in Spanish has prevented him from missing any court-imposed deadlines, and he does not provide any information as to any specific claims he was pursuing or whether any such claims were non-frivolous legal claims. Instead, Plaintiff's allegations reveal that he was able to file a federal habeas petition, and that petition was dismissed in part and denied in part based on Plaintiff's failure to meet certain procedural requirements applicable to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petitions, not due to any alleged failure to communicate with the court.[2] R. & R. and Order, Martinez-Cruz v. Hall, 1:15-cv-04015-WSD (N.D.Ga. Apr. 6 and June 22, 2016), ECF Nos. 18, 21. In addition, the Court notes Plaintiff's assertion that he dismissed his first state habeas application; however, Plaintiff also asserts he moved to dismiss this application based on the advice of a fellow inmate. (Doc. 1, p. 11.) In addition, Plaintiff avers he was able to reinstate his state habeas petition with the help of another inmate and was able to participate in an evidentiary hearing, although he “had difficulty explaining his issues” to the judge in response to a motion the respondent filed. (Id. at pp. 11-12.) While the Court is not unsympathetic to ...


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