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Turner v. Burak

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 19, 2018

MELONIE BURAK, et al., Defendants.


          PETER G. SHERIDAN United States District Judge


         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants Melonie Burak, Officer David Sisnetsky, and Special Investigation Division ("SID") Officer Matthew Schlusselfeld's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Juan Ibn-Don Mumit Turner's complaint. (ECF No. 34). For the following reasons, the motion is granted. The complaint will be dismissed without prejudice to Plaintiffs ability to file an amended complaint seeking injunctive relief within 45 days of this Opinion and Order.


         Petitioner is currently incarcerated in New Jersey State Prison ("NJSP") Trenton, New Jersey. On May 5, 2017, he filed a complaint alleging defendants violated his First Amendment right of access to the courts by reading and confiscating his legal mail, specifically three affidavits in support of a motion for a new trial.

         According to the Complaint, Plaintiff sent an inmate paralegal to the NJSP law library to make copies of Plaintiff s motion for a new trial and supporting documents on January 18, 2017. Compl. ¶ 6. Plaintiff states that Ms. Burak read his brief and gave it to Officer Sisnetsky, who gave it to SID Officer Schlusselfeld. Id.; see also Compl. Exhibit 2a. Officer Schlusselfeld came to Plaintiffs cell on January 19 and began asking Plaintiff questions about the appendix, such as how he obtained the affidavits from other inmates. Compl. ¶ 6. Officer Sisnetsky later sent Plaintiff a confiscation notice for three affidavits in support of Plaintiff s motion as being "suspected [security threat group] material." Compl. Exhibit 3a. Plaintiff filed grievances, but did not receive any relief.

         Plaintiff argues the affidavits were the "focal point in [his] motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence." Id. ¶ 6. He states that Officer Schlusselfeld admitted to him that the Essex County Prosecutor's Office was involved with seizing the material. Compl. ¶ 7; Exhibit la. He asserts his brief is "no longer useful to [his] defense because it has been obtained by [his] adversary before [he] got the chance to file it." Compl. ¶ 7. He asked for punitive damages and compensatory damages in order to hire a private investigator to obtain new affidavits. Id. ¶ 7.

         Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss on December 15, 2017. Plaintiff filed opposition to this motion. ECF No. 35. He included a proposed amended complaint purporting to address the deficiencies alleged by defendants, as well as adding new defendants. The Court conducted oral argument on January 24, 2018, at which time Plaintiff appeared by telephone.


         When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. A motion to dismiss may be granted only if the plaintiff has failed to set forth fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests that make such a claim plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). Although Rule 8 does not require "detailed factual allegations, " it requires "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombfy, 550 U.S. at 555).

         In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court must "tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, it should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, [w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016) (alterations in original) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "[A] complaint's allegations of historical fact continue to enjoy a highly favorable standard of review at the motion-to-dismiss stage of proceedings." Id. at 790.


         Defendants argue Plaintiff has failed to sufficiently allege an access to the courts claim.[1]Access to the courts claims fall into two general categories. "In the first are claims that systemic official action frustrates a plaintiff or plaintiff class in preparing and filing suits at the present time." Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 413 (2002). "In cases of this sort, the essence of the access claim is that official action is presently denying an opportunity to litigate for a class of potential plaintiffs. The opportunity has not been lost for all time, however, but only in the short term; the object of the denial-of-access suit, and the justification for recognizing that claim, is to place the plaintiff in a position to pursue a separate claim for relief once the frustrating condition has been removed." Ibid. See also Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 511 (3d Cir. 2003) ("[P]refiling conduct that either prevents a plaintiff from filing suit or renders the plaintiffs access to the court ineffective or meaningless constitutes a constitutional violation."). A plaintiff must be able to plead that "a nonfrivolous legal claim had been frustrated or was being impeded." Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 353 (1996).

         "The second category covers claims not in aid of a class of suits yet to be litigated, but of specific cases that cannot now be tried (or tried with all material evidence), no matter what official action may be in the future. The official acts claimed to have denied access may allegedly have caused the loss or inadequate settlement of a meritorious case." Christopher, 536 U.S. at 413-14. "The ultimate object of these sorts of access claims, then, is not the judgment in a further lawsuit, but ...

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