United States District Court, D. New Jersey
October 17, 2005.
JOHN BRANDT Plaintiff,
JUDITH HAMILTON Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY CHESLER, District Judge
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss for
Failure to State a Cause of Action Upon Which Relief can be
Granted by Defendant Judith Hamilton (docket entry # 11). The
Court, having considered the papers submitted by the parties, for
the reasons set forth below, and for good cause shown, DENIES
I. BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
The Plaintiff, John Brandt, is a patient of the Anne Klein
Forensic Center ("AKFC"). (Def. Br. at 3.) Mr. Brandt was
involuntarily civilly committed to this institution, pursuant to
N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.10, after being found not guilty by reason of
insanity. (Id.) Ms. Hamilton, the Defendant, is employed as an
instructor and counselor in the AKFC library. (Id.) On October 24, 2004, Mr. Brandt states that he was attempting
to file a lawsuit against AKFC and its staff for damages
resulting from alleged violations of his constitutional rights.
(Complaint at ¶¶ 2-5.) He claims that he asked Ms. Hamilton to
photocopy some legal documents in furtherance of his lawsuit.
(Id. at ¶ 6.) Mr. Brandt asserts that Ms. Hamilton initially
refused to copy the documents in question after realizing their
nature, and further informed him that, pursuant to institution
rules, a patient may only have five sheets copied per day. (Id.
at ¶¶ 7-11.) When he attempted to have other patients each
submit five pages of his documents to be photocopied, thereby
complying with the institution's copying limits, Mr. Brant claims
that Ms. Hamilton maintained her refusal to copy any of these
papers and, when he became agitated at her refusal, had him
forcibly removed from the library and threw his legal papers in
the garbage. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-18.) On March 3, 2005, the Plaintiff
filed a complaint in federal court, alleging that Ms. Hamilton's
actions violated his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
by denying him his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of
access to the courts.
On August 9, 2005, the Defendant moved to dismiss this matter
for failure to state a cause of action. In their brief, the
Defendant presents three arguments to support their claim: (1)
that the Plaintiff failed to plead a constitutional violation
since AKFC allows patients to photocopy a limited number of
documents; (2) that, because the Plaintiff is institutionalized
in the care of the State, the alleged actions of the Defendant
are protected by the professional judgment and deliberate
indifference standards; and (3) that the Defendant is entitled to
qualified immunity for her actions. In deciding a motion to
dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must presume that all allegations in the complaint must be
taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the
complainant. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975);
Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts, Inc.,
140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998). Consistent with this standard,
the Court will review each of the Defendant's arguments in turn.
A. The Defendant's First Two Arguments Fail to Address the
Injury Being Alleged
The Defendant's first argument is that, because AKFC permits
its patients to photocopy up to five pages of documents per day,
there was no violation of the Plaintiff's constitutional rights.
(Def. Br. at 7.) This argument, however, fails to address the
substance of the Plaintiff's claims. The Plaintiff's claim is
that the Defendant refused to copy the Plaintiff's documents at
all and then discarded these documents, denying him his
constitutional right of access to the courts. These alleged
actions are the source of the Plaintiff's claim not whether or
not AKFC's policies limiting the number of pages a patient may
photocopy in a day were constitutionally reasonable. Accordingly,
this argument by the Defendant is inapplicable to the issues
currently before the Court.
The Defendant's second argument is that, as a patient who is
involuntarily confined to an institution, the Plaintiff's
constitutional rights may be subjected to some level of
limitations as balanced against the needs of the institution to
maintain safety and order. (Def. Br. at 14-15.) In striking this
delicate balance, courts are properly directed to minimize their
interference with the professional judgment which governs the
internal operations of facilities such as AKFC. See Youngberg
v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 322 (1982). The Defendant claims that
the institution's decision to limit patients to five copies per
day falls within the accepted professional judgment of the administrators responsible for the AKFC facility and should
not be "second guessed" by the courts under Youngsberg. (Def.
Br. at 15.) Again, this argument misses the substance of the
Plaintiff's allegations. The basis of his constitutional claims
is that Ms. Hamilton allegedly denied to photocopy any of his
legal documents, and then subsequently destroyed them, not the
reasonableness of AKFC's existing policies regarding patients'
access to photocopying services.
The Defendant's other arguments under this doctrine are
similarly inapplicable to the current case. The fact that, as the
Defendant noted, the Plaintiff was eventually able to access the
courts and file this suit has no bearing on the question of
whether his rights were violated as a result of the alleged
incident with Ms. Hamilton. The application of the deliberate
indifference standard under Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798 (3d
Cir. 2000), is similarly inapposite here. The Plaintiff is not
alleging that Ms. Hamilton negligently failed to affirmatively
protect his rights as a ward of the State, which would fall under
the Nicini standard. The Plaintiff is alleging a deliberate and
intentional action to deprive him of a constitutional right. Such
actions would not fall under the Nicini standards.
B. Defendant is Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity for the
Actions Being Alleged by the Plaintiff
The defense of qualified immunity protects government officials
"from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does
not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional
rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v.
Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The right of access to the
courts is a well established right. See Wolff v. McDonnell,
418 U.S. 539, 579 (1974) ("The right of access to the courts . . .
assures that no person will be denied the opportunity to present to the judiciary
allegations concerning violations of fundamental constitutional
rights."). The Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant directly
interfered with this well established right by refusing to
photocopy and subsequently discarding his legal papers.
The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right of prison
inmates to have access to the courts in order to redress their
grievances. See, e.g., Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821
(1977). Persons under civil commitment proceedings are entitled
to at least the level of protections for their basic
constitutional guarantees as convicted inmates. See
53 Am. Jur. 2d Mentally Impaired Persons § 86 (2005) ("A person under
commitment is entitled to protection of his or her right of
access to the courts, regardless of whether he or she has been
committed following criminal proceedings, or civilly committed on
grounds of dangerousness."). See, e.g, Ward v. Kort,
762 F.2d 856, 858 (10th Cir. 1985) ("[A] person under a mental
commitment is entitled to protection of his right of access to
the courts."); Acevedo v. Surles, 778 F.Supp. 179, 184
(S.D.N.Y. 1991) (holding mental patients have First Amendment
right to access to courts); Robbins v. Budke, 739 F.Supp. 1479,
1485 (D.N.M. 1990) (same). The Court is satisfied that Plaintiff
is claiming violation of a sufficiently well established right
that a reasonable person would have known that the actions being
alleged here would constitute a violation of Mr. Brandt's
constitutional rights. Therefore, Ms. Hamilton would not be
entitled to qualified immunity for the actions being alleged
For the reasons stated above, and for good cause shown, the
Court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Dismiss. An appropriate form of order will be filed
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