United States District Court, N.D. California
CHRISTOPHER A. GEIER, Plaintiff,
RON DAVIS, et al., Defendants.
ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION TO DISMISS; GRANTING
LEAVE TO AMEND RE: DKT. NO. 14
JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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)
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. 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).
The First Amendment Claim
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.
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).
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.
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”). 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 ...