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Williams v. Gore

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

December 18, 2013

WILLIAM D. GORE, Sheriff of San Diego County, et al, Defendants.


MICHAEL M. ANELLO, District Judge.

Plaintiff James M. Williams, a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, has filed a Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") against Defendants William D. Gore, Sheriff of San Diego County, and the County of San Diego. See Doc. No. 22. Plaintiff alleges violations of his First Amendment rights arising out of Defendants' purported failure to provide meaningful access to the courts. Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion.


This matter arises out of events occurring while Plaintiff was incarcerated at George Baily Detention Center and San Diego Central Jail, in the custody of the Sheriff of San Diego County.[1] Generally, Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated his First Amendment right of access to the courts because in lieu of visiting a law library, he was offered only limited access to legal research materials through the County's contract with Legal Research Associates. According to Plaintiff, the lack of access to a law library prevented him from pursuing a federal civil rights action for Eighth Amendment claims arising out of the denial of medical treatment and physical injuries sustained while incarcerated.

Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants frustrated his access to the courts by failing to provide sufficient postage for mailing legal documents to the courts; failing to provide ink pens, sufficient paper, and envelopes; and failing to provide sufficient photocopies of court documents and notary services. Plaintiff claims that these deficiencies prevented him from pursuing his federal civil rights action. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages.

Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's SAC in its entirety, arguing that Plaintiff fails to state a plausible First Amendment claim.


To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quotation marks omitted); Conservation Force v. Salazar, 646 F.3d 1240, 1241-42 (9th Cir. 2011). The Court must accept the well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Daniels-Hall v. National Educ. Ass'n, 629 F.3d 992, 998 (9th Cir. 2010); Sanders v. Brown, 504 F.3d 903, 910 (9th Cir. 2007). Further, although the pleading standard is now higher, the Ninth Circuit has continued to emphasize that prisoners proceeding pro se in civil rights actions are still entitled to have their pleadings liberally construed and to have any doubt resolved in their favor. Wilhelm v. Rotman, 680 F.3d 1113, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012).


1. Plaintiff's First Amendment Claim

Plaintiff sues Defendant Gore in his individual capacity for violation of his First Amendment right of access to the courts. Plaintiff also alleges his First Amendment claim against the County pursuant to Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). To maintain a First Amendment claim against either defendant, Plaintiff must sufficiently allege that he was deprived of a constitutional right. Defendants argue that he has not done so. The Court reaches the same conclusion, albeit by a different path.

Under the First Amendment, state prisoners have a right to access the courts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 346 (1996), citing Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821, 823, 828 (1977). "[A]ccess to the courts means the opportunity to prepare, serve and file whatever pleadings or other documents are necessary or appropriate in order to commence or prosecute court proceedings affecting one's personal liberty." Id. at 384 (Thomas, J. concurring). The right is limited, but includes civil rights actions. Id. at 354. To prove a violation of the right of access to the courts, a prisoner must establish, inter alia, "actual injury" - that is, "actual prejudice with respect to contemplated or existing litigation, such as the inability to meet a filing deadline or to present a claim." Lewis, 518 U.S. at 348; see also Monell, 436 U.S. at 658.

There are two types of access to the courts claims: backward-looking and forward-looking. See Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 413-14 (2002). Here, Plaintiff alleges a backward-looking claim concerning a lost opportunity to litigate his civil rights claims. To adequately plead a backward-looking denial of access to the courts claim, Plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to show: (1) the loss of a non-frivolous or arguable underlying claim; (2) the official acts frustrating the litigation; and (3) a remedy that may be awarded as recompense but that is not otherwise available in a future suit. Christopher, 536 U.S. at 414-15.

Plaintiff cannot satisfy this pleading standard. Plaintiff alleges that he lost the opportunity to pursue non-frivolous Eighth Amendment claims related to his denial of adequate medical treatment and the deliberate indifference of prison officials to his serious medical needs. He sufficiently alleges facts in support of his underlying Eighth Amendment claims. Id. at 417 (holding that a "complaint should state the underlying claim... just as if it were being independently pursued."). Plaintiff further alleges that his ability to litigate his claims was frustrated by Defendants' ongoing practice of contracting with Legal Research Associates to provide inadequate legal assistance, depriving him of access to a law library, denying and prohibiting the receipt and distribution of pens and paper necessary for drafting legal claims, prohibiting the distribution of adequate envelopes and postage necessary for mailing documents to the courts, and prohibiting ...

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