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Geier v. Davis

United States District Court, N.D. California

March 27, 2017

RON DAVIS, et al., Defendants.


          JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY United States Magistrate Judge.


         Plaintiff, a California prisoner at San Quentin State Prison (“SQSP”), filed this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaining that his legal mail was opened outside of his presence on three occasions. He names Warden Ron Davis and A. Lile, a mailroom supervisor, as defendants. He also lists unnamed SQSP mailroom staff as defendants. Lile and Davis (hereinafter “Defendants”) have filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Plaintiff has filed an opposition, and Defendants have filed a reply brief. For the reasons discussed below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART, and Plaintiff is given leave to file an amended complaint naming the unnamed defendants.


         I. Standard of Review

         Failure to state a claim is a grounds for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dismissal for failure to state a claim is a ruling on a question of law. Parks School of Business, Inc., v. Symington, 51 F.3d 1480, 1483 (9th Cir. 1995). "The issue is not whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether he is entitled to offer evidence to support his claim." Usher v. City of Los Angeles, 828 F.2d 556, 561 (9th Cir. 1987). Review is limited to the contents of the complaint, Clegg v. Cult Awareness Network, 18 F.3d 752, 754-55 (9th Cir. 1994), including documents physically attached to the complaint or documents the complaint necessarily relies on and whose authenticity is not contested. Lee v. County of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001). In addition, the Court may take judicial notice of facts that are not subject to reasonable dispute. Id. (discussing Fed.R.Evid. 201(b)). Allegations of fact in the complaint must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001). The court need not, however, “accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences.” Id. A pro se pleading must be liberally construed, and “however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (citations and internal quotations omitted). Although in order to state a claim a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, . . . a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). A motion to dismiss should be granted if the complaint does not proffer "enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. To state a claim that is plausible on its face, a plaintiff must allege facts that "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)

         II. Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges in his complaint that unnamed SQSP mailroom staff opened his mail from the Marin County Supreme Court regarding his criminal case outside of his presence on October 9, 2014. He also alleges that on November 12, 2014, and on June 18, 2015, unnamed SQSP mailroom staff opened and read mail from his attorney, also outside of Plaintiff's presence and also about his criminal case. Plaintiff alleges that he filed administrative grievances about this conduct, which grievances were reviewed by Defendants Lile and Davis who did not correct the problem. The Court reviewed the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A and found these allegations, when liberally construed, stated cognizable a claim for the violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment right to access to the courts.[1] See O'Keefe v. Van Boening, 82 F.3d 322, 325 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1, 11 (1972)) (the opening and inspecting of "legal mail" outside the presence of the prisoner may have an impermissible "chilling" effect on the constitutional right to petition the government).

         A. The First Amendment Claim

         Defendants have shown that mail from courts to a prisoner may be opened and read by prison officials outside of the prisoner's presence without violating his First Amendment rights. See Keenan v. Hall, 83 F.3d 1083, 1094 (9th Cir. 1996), amended, 135 F.3d 1318 (9th Cir. 1998) (prison officials may open and inspect mail to prisoner from courts outside prisoner's presence because mail from courts is public). Therefore, Plaintiff's claim that Defendants violated his First Amendment rights when they opened and read his mail from Marin County Superior Court does not state a cognizable claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and will be dismissed.

         Defendants argue that opening and reading Plaintiff's mail from his attorney without him present also does not violate the First Amendment, and alternatively that they are entitled to qualified immunity because there is no “clearly established” law in the Ninth Circuit supporting such a claim. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001) (officials are entitled to qualified immunity unless their conduct violates clearly established law of which a reasonable officer would have known); Brown v. Dep't. of Corr., 751 F.3d 983, 990 (9th Cir. 2014) (defendants cannot be held liable for violating right that was not clearly established at time violation occurred).

         The Ninth Circuit recently held that the First Amendment prohibits prison officials from opening a prisoner's mail from his attorney outside of the prisoner's presence. Hayes v. Idaho Dept. Corrections, No. 14-35078, slip op. at 14, 2017 WL 836072 (9th Cir. Mar. 3, 2017) (agreeing with other circuits). The question, therefore, is whether that law was clearly established when Plaintiff's mail from his attorney was opened in November 2014 and June 2015. The answer is no.

         "[A] right is clearly established only if its contours are sufficiently clear that ‘a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.' In other words, ‘existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.'" Carroll v. Carman, 135 S.Ct. 348, 350 (2014) (citations omitted). A court determining whether a right was clearly established looks to “Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit law existing at the time of the alleged act.” Community House, Inc. v. Bieter, 623 F.3d 945, 967 (9th Cir. 2010). In November 2014 and June 2015 there were no decisions from the United States Supreme Court or the Ninth Circuit holding that the opening or reading of mail from an attorney to a prisoner in the prisoner's absence violates the prisoner's First Amendment rights. See Hayes, slip op. at 8-10 (reviewing Supreme Court precedent, and stating “we have not yet addressed prisoners' First Amendment right to have legal mail opened in their presence”).[2] The Ninth Circuit did not resolve the question of whether that violated Plaintiff's First Amendment rights until this month. Although the issue had been resolved in other circuits, see id at 10-12, a prison official working within the Ninth Circuit could reasonably think that whether the First Amendment required the inmate's presence when opening mail from the inmate's lawyer was not ...

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