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Cathy v. Kuzmicz

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 6, 2019

R. KUZMICZ, et al., Defendants.


          Phyllis J. Hamilton, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, a state prisoner, proceeds with a pro se civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He has paid the filing fee.



         Federal courts must engage in a preliminary screening of cases in which prisoners seek redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). In its review the court must identify any cognizable claims, and dismiss any claims which are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. at 1915A(b)(1), (2). Pro se pleadings must be liberally construed. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

         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 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." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations omitted). A complaint must proffer "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. The United States Supreme Court has recently explained the “plausible on its face” standard of Twombly: “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two essential elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).


         Plaintiff describes many instances of interference with his legal mail and legal publications. He seeks money damages.

         Prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts. See Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 350 (1996); Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1977). To establish a claim for any violation of the right of access to the courts, the prisoner must prove that there was an inadequacy in the prison's legal access program that caused him an actual injury. See Lewis, 518 U.S. at 349-51. To prove an actual injury, the prisoner must show that the inadequacy in the prison's program hindered his efforts to pursue a non-frivolous claim concerning his conviction or conditions of confinement. See id. at 351, 354-55.

         Prisoners enjoy a First Amendment right to send and receive mail. See Witherow v. Paff, 52 F.3d 264, 265 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989)). A prison, however, may adopt regulations or practices which impinge on a prisoner's First Amendment rights as long as the regulations are "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). The Turner standard applies to regulations and practices concerning all correspondence between prisoners and to regulations concerning incoming mail received by prisoners from non-prisoners. See Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 413.

         Prison officials may institute procedures for inspecting “legal mail, ” e.g., mail sent between attorneys and prisoners, see Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 576-77 (1974) (incoming mail from attorneys), and mail sent from prisoners to the courts, see Royse v. Superior Court, 779 F.2d 573, 574-75 (9th Cir. 1986) (outgoing mail to court). But “prisoners have a protected First Amendment interest in having properly marked legal mail opened only in their presence.” Hayes v. Idaho Correctional Center, 849 F.3d 1204, 1211 (9th Cir. 2017). See also O'Keefe v. Van Boening, 82 F.3d 322, 325 (9th Cir. 1996) (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 plaintiff need not allege a longstanding practice of having his mail opened outside his presence in order to state a claim for relief. Hayes, 849 F.3d at 1218 (allegation that protected mail was opened outside plaintiff's presence on two separate occasions sufficient to state First Amendment claim).

         "Legal mail" may not be read or copied without the prisoner's permission. See Casey v. Lewis, 43 F.3d 1261, 1269 (9th Cir. 1994), rev'd on other grounds, 518 U.S. 343 (1996). The Ninth Circuit has emphasized that there is a clear difference between inspecting outgoing legal mail for contraband and reading it under Wolff, 418 U.S. 539 at 577, such that prison officials may not circumvent this prohibition by reading an inmate's outgoing legal mail in his presence because this practice does not ameliorate the chilling effect on the inmate's Sixth Amendment rights. See Nordstrom v. Ryan, 762 F.3d 903, 911 (9th Cir. 2014) (Nordstrom I) (reversing district court's dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim after finding complaint stated a cognizable 6th Amendment claim based on prisoner's allegations that prison officials read his legal mail, that they claimed entitlement to do so, and his right to private consultation with counsel was chilled); Nordstrom v. Ryan, 856 F.3d 1265, 1272 (9th Cir. 2017) (Nordstrom II) (on appeal after remand of Nordstrom I, holding that prison policy requiring officials to confirm that outgoing letters qualified as legal mail failed to meet standard that officials may inspect but not read outgoing legal mail). But again, prison officials may establish that legitimate penological interests justify the policy or practice. See O'Keefe, 82 F.3d at 327.

         The deliberate delay of legal mail which adversely affects legal proceedings presents a cognizable claim for denial of access to the courts. See Jackson v. Procunier, 789 F.2d 307, 311 (5th Cir. 1986). Isolated incidents of mail interference without any evidence of improper motive or resulting interference with the right to counsel or access to the courts do not give rise to a constitutional violation, however. See Smith v. Maschner, 899 F.2d 940, 944 (10th Cir. 1990); Morgan v. Montanye, 516 F.2d 1367, ...

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