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Witkin v. A. Sloan

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 17, 2019

MICHAEL AARON WITKIN, Plaintiff,
v.
A. SLOAN, et al., Defendants.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          EDMUND F. BRENNAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, a state prisoner without counsel, brings this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and various California laws. Defendant Williams seeks dismissal of plaintiff's state-law claims against her. ECF No. 21. Defendant Blackwell seeks dismissal of all claims against her. Id. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss must be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleges that, on February 17, 2016, he submitted various case documents in an active federal civil rights case to prison officials to be mailed to Ellis Law Group, a local law firm, because he was inquiring whether the managing partner of the firm had any interest in taking over the case. ECF No. 10 at 4. He further claims that defendant Williams, the mailroom supervisor at CSP-Solano, and some as-yet unidentified defendants, opened the envelope containing the documents, removed some, urinated on the rest, and then sent them to the law office. Id. at 5.

         In a motion for extension of time filed in that federal case, plaintiff revealed that his brother was an employee of Ellis Law Group. Id. The state deputy attorney general representing defendants in the case then contacted defendant Blackwell, a lieutenant at CSP-Solano, to tell her that plaintiff had violated the regulations concerning confidential mail. Id.

         On March 18, 2016, Blackwell called plaintiff into her office and told him he could no longer correspond confidentially with Ellis Law Group because he was not represented by the firm. Id. at 5-6. She told plaintiff that the state attorney had informed her that plaintiff was a “frequent filer” of lawsuits against prison employees. Id. at 5. Plaintiff responded that his actions complied with California Code of Regulations, title 15, § 1341. Id. Blackwell allegedly “threatened to draft a false rule violation report against plaintiff if he continued to correspond with Ellis.” Id. at 6. Blackwell then allegedly returned to plaintiff a piece of mail that was “legal in nature, ” which he had attempted to confidentially mail to Ellis Law Group. Id.

         According to the complaint, plaintiff's brother, a law student and employee at Ellis Law Group, had been providing free paralegal services to plaintiff, “such as research and access to various court dockets and filings.” Id. Plaintiff asserts that he had never mailed anything other than legal documents in active cases to Ellis Law Group. Id. Plaintiff claims that his “litigating capacity was significantly impaired by” Blackwell's refusal to allow him to send confidential mail to Ellis Law Group. Id. at 7.

         The administrative appeal documents plaintiff has appended to his complaint reveal that prison authorities determined that plaintiff had been attempting to circumvent prison regulations concerning confidential legal mail by sending mail confidentially to his brother at the Ellis Law Group even though the brother was not an attorney or a licensed paralegal and the law firm did not represent plaintiff. Id. at 35-36. An appeals reviewer contacted the managing partner of the firm, Mark Ellis, who stated that plaintiff's brother was not a paralegal, was not providing legal services to plaintiff in connection with the firm, and that no one at the firm had provided legal services to plaintiff. Id.; id. at 46 (email from Mark Ellis stating that “neither this firm nor any of its staff including [plaintiff's brother] David are providing or have ever provided formal legal advice or services to [plaintiff] within the scope of an attorney-client relationship.”).

         Plaintiff alleges that Blackwell violated his First Amendment rights, violated the Bane Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code § 52.1), and negligently inflicted emotional distress in violation of California law. He alleges that Williams intentionally inflicted emotional distress in violation of California law, violated the Bane Act, and violated his First Amendment rights. Defendants seek dismissal of all but the First Amendment claim against Williams.

         II. The Motion to Dismiss

         a. Legal Standard

         Defendants seek dismissal of plaintiff's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). A complaint may be dismissed under that rule for “failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim has “facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows 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) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement, ” but it requires more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         For purposes of dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), the court generally considers only allegations contained in the pleadings, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters properly subject to judicial notice, and construes all well-pleaded material factual allegations in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Chubb Custom Ins. Co. v. Space Sys./Loral, Inc., 710 F.3d 946, 956 (9th Cir. 2013); Akhtar v. Mesa, 698 F.3d 1202, 1212 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on either: (1) lack of a cognizable legal theory, or (2) insufficient facts under a cognizable legal theory. Chubb Custom Ins. Co., 710 F.3d at 956. Dismissal also is appropriate if the complaint alleges a fact that necessarily defeats the claim. Franklin v. Murphy, 745 F.2d 1221, 1228-1229 (9th Cir. 1984).

         Pro se pleadings are held to a less-stringent standard than those drafted by lawyers. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam). However, the Court need not accept as true unreasonable inferences or conclusory legal allegations cast in the form of factual allegations. See Ileto v. Glock Inc., 349 F.3d 1191, 1200 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Western Mining Council v. Watt, 643 F.2d 618, 624 (9th Cir. 1981)).

         b. Analysis

         i. Constitutional Claims Against Blackwell

         Plaintiff raises two constitutional claims against defendant Blackwell: (1) that Blackwell unlawfully opened his mail and refused to process it as confidential and (2) that Blackwell interfered with his mail to retaliate against him for having filed lawsuits against prison employees. Defendant argues that plaintiff has failed to state a claim on both counts.

         Interference with Mail

         Plaintiff alleges that Blackwell denied him his “confidential correspondence rights.” ECF No. 10 at 7. This allegation ...


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