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Michel v. Wicks

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

January 30, 2017

Travis Andrew Michel, Plaintiff,
Capt. Lisa Wicks, Defendant.


         The plaintiff, Travis Andrew Michel (“Michel”) initiated the above-entitled action pro se on November 9, 2016, with the submission of an application to proceed in forma pauperis, which the court granted, and a complaint. On November 21, 2016, he filed notice of his consent to the undersigned. On December 19, 2016, Michel filed what the court construed as a motion to substitute Capt. Lisa Wicks in place of the Burleigh County Detention Center as the named defendant in this action. The court granted the motion. This matter is now before the court for initial review as mandated by 28 U.S. § 1915A.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Michel was a pretrial detainee at the Burleigh County Detention Center when he initiated this action in November 2016. He asserts in his complaint that staff at the Burleigh County Detention Center opened legal mail outside of his presence. Specifically, he alleges:

They (Jarod C.O) brought me my legal mail already opened. It was not opened in front of me. Nurse Amanda witnessed it and it is also on camera Sgt. Michael I talked to on Attorney Line. I also asked for a copy of grievance and not received one.

         (Docket No. 5) (errors in original). He seeks to recover $250, 000 in damages.


         The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”) requires an initial court screening of all civil actions brought by prisoners that relate to prison conditions or that seek redress from a governmental entity, officer, or employee. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The screening is required even when the prisoner has paid the filing fee. Lewis v. Estes, Case No. 00-1304, 242 F.3d 375 (table); 2000 WL 1673382, at *1 (8th Cir. Nov. 8, 2000) (unpublished per curiam). The purpose of the screening requirement is to weed out claims that clearly lack merit with the hope that this will help to lessen the burdens imposed by the ever-rising numbers of prisoner suits, which too often are frivolous and without merit. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 202-03 (2007); Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 83-84 (2006). In conducting the screening, the court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if its claims are legally frivolous or malicious, fail to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (c)(1).

         Neither 42 U.S.C. § 1983 nor the PLRA imposes any heightened pleading requirements. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. at 211-12. Consequently, in order to state a cognizable claim, the complaint need only meet the minimum requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), which are that it contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam).

         The court is obligated to construe a pro se complaint liberally and hold it to a less stringent standard than what normally would be required of attorneys. Id.; see also Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, 402 (2008). This does not mean that the court must accept everything or anything that is filed by pro se prisoners, however. In enacting the screening requirement, Congress obviously expected it to be more than an a ritualistic exercise and that courts would only allow to go forward those claims that are cognizable, that seek relief from a non-immune party, and that are not obviously frivolous or malicious.

         To meet the minimal pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2) for stating a cognizable claim, something more is required than simply expressing a desire for relief and declaring an entitlement to it. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 n.3 (2007). The complaint must state enough to “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. at 93 (quoting Bell Atlantic, 550 U.S. at 555). And, even though the complaint is to be liberally construed, it must also contain enough to satisfy Bell Atlantic's “plausibility standard.” E.g., Ventura-Vera v. Dewitt, 417 F. App'x 591, 592, 2011 WL 2184269, *1 (8th Cir. 2011) (unpublished per curiam) (citing Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2007) for the appropriate post-Bell Atlantic standard); see also Stone v. Harry, 364 F.3d 912, 914 (8th Cir. 2004) (pro se complaints must allege sufficient facts to state a claim). Complaints that offer nothing more than labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements are not sufficient. Frivolous claims are those that are clearly baseless, fanciful, fantastic, or delusional. See Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 32-34 (1992).

         To state a cognizable claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must normally allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States and that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Walker v. Reed, 104 F.3d 156, 157 (8th Cir. 1997). Even under liberal pleading standards, a pro se litigant, at the very least, must invoke rights under the Constitution or federal law in order to plead a § 1983 claim. Walker v. Reed, 104 F.3d at 157-58.

         Finally, even though the court is obligated to construe pro se complaints liberally, the court is not required to ignore facts that are pled by a prisoner when they undermine the prisoner's claim. The court may accept as true all facts pled in the complaint and conclude from them that there is no claim as a matter of law. E.g., Thompson v. Ill. Dep't of Prof'l Regulation, 300 F.3d 750, 753-54 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing other cases)


         Interference with legal mail implicates a prisoner's (1) right to court access, and (2) right to free speech as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. See Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d 346, 351 (2d Cir. 2003); Sallier v. Brooks, 343 F.3d 868, 873 (6th Cir. 2003). To state a cognizable court access claim, a prisoner must allege that he suffered an injury as a result of the defendant's actions. Turner v. Douglas, No. 1:06cv00058, 2007 WL 87628, at * 1 (E.D. Ark. Jan. 10, 2007) (adopting a magistrate judge's recommended dismissal of a prisoner's claim on initial review); see also Thomsen v. Ross, 368 F.Supp.2d 961, 975 (D. Minn. 2005); Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d at 351 (2d Cir. 2003). To state a cognizable First Amendment claim, a prisoner must allege an ongoing practice by prison officials of interfering with his mail or that he has otherwise suffered harm as a result of the interference. Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d at 351 (2d Cir. 2003) (‚ÄúDavis' allegations of two instances of mail interference are insufficient to state a claim for denial of access to the courts because Davis has not alleged that the interference with his mail either constituted an ongoing practice of unjustified censorship or caused him to miss court deadlines or in any way prejudiced his legal actions . . . . Similarly, Davis fails to state a constitutional claim for violating his right to send and receive legal mail because he alleges neither the establishment of an ...

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