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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 photocopying. SAC, Count One ¶¶ 3-4; Count Two ¶ 4. According to Plaintiff, these actions resulted in a "total denial of the means and materials necessary to secure the capability to prepare and file actionable claims to the Courts." Id., Count Two ¶ 5.

Plaintiff seeks damages as a remedy in this suit. However, such a remedy remains available with respect to his underlying Eighth Amendment claims. Christopher, 536 U.S. at 421. The claims are not time-barred nor does Plaintiff otherwise allege that they have not been "lost." Id. The statute of limitations applicable in section 1983 actions is the two-year period set forth at California Civil Procedure Code § 335.1 for personal injury actions. See Maldonado v. Harris, 370 F.3d 945, 954 (9th Cir. 2004). Imprisonment delays the accrual of the cause of action for up to two years pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 352.1. As such, Plaintiff has a maximum of four years to file a civil rights action based on his Eighth Amendment claims. The events giving rise to these causes of action occurred in March and April 2011. The statute of limitations has not yet expired.

Furthermore, Plaintiff does not allege any current impediment to pursuing his Eighth Amendment claims. Plaintiff concedes that he now has access to a law library, and he clearly has not been frustrated in his efforts to litigate. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 348-49 (1996) (to state an access to courts claim, inmate must "demonstrate that a nonfrivolous legal claim had been frustrated or was being impeded"). In sum, Plaintiff fails to allege a "remedy that may be awarded as recompense but not otherwise available in some suit that may yet be brought." Christopher, 536 U.S. at 415. Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims are viable.[2] Therefore, his First Amendment claim is not.

2. Leave to Amend

The Court must give a pro se litigant leave to amend his complaint "unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts." Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (quotation omitted), citing Noll v. Carlson, 809 F.2d 1446, 1447 (9th Cir. 1987). Here, for the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff cannot amend his allegations to state a plausible First Amendment access-to-courts claim against Defendants. Nor may Plaintiff amend his complaint in this action to add his underlying Eighth Amendment claims. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20(a)(2) requires that the right to relief arise out of common events and contain common questions of law or fact. "Unrelated claims against different defendants belong in different suits...." George v. Smith, 507 F.3d 605, 607 (7th Cir. 2007). Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims arise out of events unrelated to those precipitating his access-to-courts claim, and indict the actions of different defendants. Plaintiff may pursue his Eighth Amendment claims against the appropriate defendants in a separate civil rights lawsuit.


Based on the foregoing, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion to dismiss. The Court DISMISSES Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint without prejudice for failing to state a claim upon which relief maybe granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Court DENIES Plaintiff leave to amend. See Robinson v. California Bd. of Prison Terms, 997 F.Supp. 1303, 1308 (C.D. Cal. 1998) ("Since plaintiff has not, and cannot, state a claim containing an arguable basis in law, this action should be dismissed without leave to amend; any amendment would be futile."), citing Newland v. Dalton, 81 F.3d 904, 907 (9th Cir. 1996). The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment accordingly and terminate this action.


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