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Rogers v. McKishen

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 29, 2018

MARTIN LUTHER ROGERS, Plaintiff,
v.
D. MCKISHEN, et al., Defendants.

          APPEARANCES: MARTIN LUTHER ROGERS, PLAINTIFF PRO SE

          GURBIR GREWAL, ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY KEVIN JOHN DRONSON, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

          ATTORNEYS FOR DEFENDANTS K. DAVIS, DONAGHY, GOFFREDI, D. MCKISHEN, MILLER, H. ORTIZ, PARK, R. PETTIT, ROBBINS, S.B. MUTSCHLER, SEGUINOT, THOMPSON, AND WOLBERT

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' K. Davis, Donaghy, Goffredi, D. McKishen, Miller, H. Ortiz, Park, R. Pettit, Robbins, S.B. Mutschler, Seguinot, Thompson, and Wolbert motion for summary judgment. Docket Entry 124. Plaintiff Martin Luther Rogers opposes the motion. Docket Entry 129. The motion is being considered on the papers pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b).

         Plaintiff, a state prisoner, asserts that various prison employees opened his legal mail outside his presence, in violation of his constitutional rights under the First Amendment. The principal issues to be decided are (1) whether defendants are entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's claims that defendants opened or otherwise tampered with his properly marked legal mail outside of his presence between May 12, 2012 and January 26, 2013 and, in the case of McKishen, failed to correct an ongoing constitutional violation by his subordinates; (2) whether defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims that they interfered with his First Amendment right of access to the courts through their actions, and (3) to the extent there may have been a violation, are the remaining defendants entitled to qualified immunity.

         For the reasons discussed herein, the Court finds that no reasonable jury could conclude defendants interfered with Plaintiff's access to the courts because there is no evidence defendants' alleged actions caused an injury to an existing criminal or civil cause of action. The Court also finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that a pattern or practice of opening Plaintiff's legal mail outside of his presence existed. Moreover, there is a question of fact as to whether Seguinot, Goffredi, Davis, Thompson, Robbins, and Donaghy participated in the opening of Plaintiff's legal mail outside his presence. The Court finds these remaining defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity as Plaintiff's right to have his legal mail opened by prison employees only in his presence was clearly established by 2012. Therefore, the Court will grant the summary judgment motion in part and deny it in part for the reasons stated below.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On June 19, 2013, Plaintiff submitted a civil complaint alleging Defendant McKishen and John Doe mailroom officers violated his constitutional rights by opening, inspecting, reading, and tampering with his legal mail outside of his presence during his incarceration at South Woods State Prison (“SWSP”) in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Complaint, Docket Entry 1. The Court permitted the complaint to proceed on May 1, 2014. Docket Entry 2.

         Plaintiff moved to amend his complaint on September 8, 2014, as he had identified some of the employees who had allegedly worked in the mailroom during the period of his incarceration at SWSP. Docket Entry 8. Magistrate Judge Donio granted the motion and ordered the amended complaint to be served on the defendants. Docket Entry 9. Plaintiff moved to amend his complaint again on January 22, 2016 to add new defendants and dismiss others from the matter. Docket Entry 47. The Court granted the motion on April 22, 2016. Docket Entry 49.[1]

         B. Statement of Facts

         1. Allegations in Pleadings

         Plaintiff's second amended complaint alleges that defendants opened and tampered with his legal mail while he was incarcerated in SWSP. Officers Reyes, Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, Mutschler, and Miller were all assigned to the SWSP mailroom or delivered inmate mail to the housing units. Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) ¶¶ 4-5, Docket Entry 52. McKishen was the mailroom sergeant prior to his retirement. Id. ¶ 3.

         Plaintiff states that he handed Rivera mail on May 12, 2012 that was addressed to a legal correspondent and was clearly marked as legal mail. Id. ¶ 6. This letter was returned to Plaintiff on June 23, 2012 with a “Return to Sender” sticker. Id. ¶ 7. The letter had been “opened, inspected, and tampered with outside of Plaintiff's presence” by Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Reyes, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, Mutschler, Miller, and/or John Doe. Id.

         Plaintiff also alleges Parks, Mutschler, Miller, and/or John Doe delivered clearly-marked legal mail to him on June 26, 2012 that had been “opened, inspected, and tampered with outside of Plaintiff's presence” by Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Reyes, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, Mutschler, Miller, and/or John Doe. Id. ¶ 8.

         According to the SAC, Plaintiff handed a legal letter to Pettit on August 3, 2012 that was returned to him on August 29, 2012 after being “opened, inspected, and tampered with outside of Plaintiff's presence” by Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Reyes, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, Mutschler, Miller, and/or John Doe. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. The letter had a post office “Return to Sender” sticker. Id. ¶ 10.

         On September 5 and 26, 2012 and January 26, 2013, Pettit and/or John Doe allegedly gave Plaintiff clearly-marked legal mail that had been “opened, inspected, and tampered with outside of Plaintiff's presence” by Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Reyes, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, Mutschler, Miller, and/or John Doe. Id. ¶¶ 11-13.

         Plaintiff states he filed grievances about the opening of his legal mail to McKishen on July 23, 2012, October, 18, 2012, and other dates, but McKishen did not remedy the situation. Id. ¶ 14.

         B. Defendants' Statement of Material Facts

         Defendants state that Plaintiff is serving a forty-four-year sentence with a mandatory minimum of twenty-two years. Defendants' Statement of Facts (“DSOF”), Docket Entry 124-2 ¶ 2. Defendants state Plaintiff testified during his deposition he had “‘no proof' as to who opened and/or tampered with the legal mail that was delivered to him on June 23, 2012, and that he was ultimately informed that the letter had been opened because he was the addressee and it was not considered legal mail.” DSOF ¶ 8; see also Deposition Transcript, Defendants' Exhibit C, 12:14-16, 44:5-11. Plaintiff also testified no documents were missing from the envelope on June 23, 2012. DSOF ¶ 9; Transcript 11:9-13. Defendants further state that Plaintiff testified nothing appeared to be missing from the legal mail that was delivered to him on June 26, 2012. DSOF ¶ 12; Transcript 14:21-23.

         According to Defendants, the envelope that had been returned to Plaintiff on August 29, 2012 had originally been mailed to Dr. Rubin Carter in Toronto, Canada on August 3, 2012. DSOF ¶¶ 13, 15; Certification of Kevin J. Dronson (“Dronson Cert.”) Exhibit K. The envelope was marked “Return to Sender.” DSOF ¶ 14; Dronson Cert. Exhibit K. Defendants argue Plaintiff conceded that the mail was returned to him with the contents intact. DSOF ¶ 16; Transcript 17:3-5. Plaintiff also conceded that no documents were removed from the mail he received on September 5, 2012 or September 26, 2012. DSOF ¶¶ 17-18, 21; Transcript 20:13-16, 24:24 to 25:23.

         Defendants assert Plaintiff cannot show they were the ones who opened or tampered with his legal mail. Mutschler states he was not assigned to work in the SWSP mailroom on any of the dates on which Plaintiff alleges his mail was tampered with. DSOF ¶ 24; Mutschler Response to Plaintiff's Second Request for Admissions (“Mutschler Admissions”), Docket Entry 124-9 ¶¶ 1-8. Mutschler's sole responsibility was to deliver mail on June 26, 2012. DSOF ¶ 24; Mutschler Admissions ¶ 67. Ortiz argues her duties were limited to processing bulk mail, not legal mail, on the dates in question. DSOF ¶¶ 25-26; Ortiz Response to Plaintiff's Second Request for Admissions, Docket Entry 124-10 (“Ortiz Admissions”) ¶¶ 9-16.[2] Parks denies being assigned to the mailroom on the relevant dates and states he only delivered mail to Plaintiff on June 23, 2012. DSOF ¶ 29; Parks Response to Plaintiff's Second Request for Admissions (“Parks Admissions”), Docket Entry 129-11 ¶ 66. Pettit delivered mail to Plaintiff on June 23, 2012. DSOF ¶ 30; Pettit Response to Second Request for Admissions (“Pettit Admissions”), Docket Entry 129-12 ¶ 85. Defendant Robbins asserts he only worked in the mailroom on August 3, 2012. DSOF ¶ 31; Robbins Response to Plaintiff's Second Request for Admissions (Robbins Admissions), Docket Entry 129-13 ¶ 4.

         Defendants argue Plaintiff conceded that other legal mail was properly delivered and opened in his presence between May 2012 and January 2013. DSOF ¶ 32; Transcript 28:16-18. They assert that all legal mail besides the few instances named in Plaintiff's second amended complaint were opened in Plaintiff's presence. DSOF ¶¶ 34-46. “Indeed, Plaintiff testified that he was not aware of any legal mail not identified in this action being opened outside of his presence during the relevant time period.” DSOF ¶ 47.

         Furthermore, Defendants state Plaintiff alleged more compensatory damages than there were actual damages. DSOF ¶ 49. Although Plaintiff alleged Defendants tampered with his mail out of retaliation for a different civil suit, Defendants argue Plaintiff conceded he had no proof of a retaliatory motive and only one letter related to that other civil proceeding. DSOF ¶¶ 50-51; Transcript 47:3-11, 49:7-17. The other letters concerned criminal proceedings, but Plaintiff could not “state whether Defendants' alleged tampering with his legal mail affected any of the aforementioned actions.” DSOF ¶ 53; Transcript 48:24, 49:24.

         C. Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts

         Plaintiff agrees that he was incarcerated in SWSP at the relevant period. Plaintiff's Statement of Facts (“PSOF”), Docket Entry 129 ¶ 3. He states that Reyes, Ortiz, Davis, Pettit, Thompson, Seguinot, Robbins, Goffredi, Wolbert, Donaghy, Rivera, Parks, and Mutschler tampered with his legal mail by opening it outside of his presence. Id. ¶ 5. McKishen purportedly failed to remedy the ongoing constitutional violation when Plaintiff filed grievances. Id.

         Plaintiff states Parks admitted to delivering mail to Plaintiff on June 23, 2012. Id. ¶ 6; Parks Admissions ¶ 82. He alleges this piece of mail had been tampered with outside of his presence. PSOF ¶ 7. He states Davis also admitted she worked in the mailroom on June 23, 2012, and that part of her duties were to “separate inmate regular mail from legal mail; and that she opened and inspected inmate mail on said date.” Id. ¶ 8; Davis Response to First Request for Admissions (Davis Admissions), Docket Entry 129 at 11 ¶¶ 2, 4, 6-9.[3] He agreed that no documents appeared to be missing from his June 23, 2012 legal mail but asserts the mail had been tampered with as the staple had been removed and the envelope had been taped. PSOF ¶ 9.

         Plaintiff states that Mutschler admitted that he delivered mail on June 26, 2012, as part of his housing-unit officer responsibilities. Id. ¶ 10. He then goes on to state Mutschler denied delivering mail to Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff further states Robbins also admitted to serving as a housing-unit officer on June 26, 2012 but denied delivering mail. Id. Thompson admitted to working in the mailroom on June 26, 2012 but asserted he could not “recall whom may have opened and/or inspected inmate regular and/or legal mail” on that date. Id.; Thompson Answer to Second Set of Interrogatories (“Thompson Interrogatories”), Docket Entry 129 at 26 ¶ 3.[4] Plaintiff testified at his deposition that nothing appeared to be missing from this mail piece. PSOF ¶ 12.

         On August 29, 2012, Pettit returned a legal mail piece addressed to Dr. Rubin Carter for the Innocence Project in Toronto, Canada that Plaintiff mailed out on August 3, 2012. Id. ¶¶ 13, 15. Plaintiff indicates Pettit admitted to delivering Plaintiff's mail on August 29, 2012 and to being Plaintiff's housing-unit officer on August 3, 2012. Id. at 13. Robbins and Davis admitted to working in the mailroom on August 3, 2012. Id. Robbins stated he could not remember who opened or inspected legal mail on that date, and Davis admitted she opened legal mail on August 29, 2012. Id.; Davis Admissions ¶ 5. Plaintiff alleges the letter was tampered with by “scratching out part of the address on the envelope.” PSOF ¶ 14; Dronson Cert. Exhibit K. He testified at his deposition that the contents of his letter were intact. PSOF ¶ 16.

         Plaintiff alleges Pettit or John Doe delivered legal mail on September 5, 2012. Id. ¶ 17. Miller indicated he was working as the housing-unit officer on 6-1-Right on that date, but he did not remember who delivered mail. Id.; Miller Answers to Second Set of Interrogatories (“Miller Interrogatories”), Docket Entry 129 at 34, ¶¶ 3-4. Plaintiff stated during his deposition that no documents were missing from his September 5, 2012 mail. Id. ¶ 18.

         Plaintiff states Pettit delivered legal mail from Centurion Ministries on September 26, 2012 that had been opened outside of Plaintiff's presence. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Robbins and Pettit admitted they were housing-unit officers. Id. at 19; Pettit Admissions ¶ 79; Robbins Admissions ¶ 79. Pettit admitted to delivering the mail on that date. Pettit Admissions ¶ 85. Davis and Wolbert admitted to working in the mailroom on September 26, 2012. Davis Admissions ¶ 7. Defendant Wolbert indicated he could “not recall who may have opened and/or inspected inmate regular and/or legal mail on” September 26, 2012. Wolbert Response to Second Set of Interrogatories (“Wolbert Interrogatories”), Docket Entry 129 at 37 ¶ 3. Nothing was missing from the envelope, but it had been opened and resealed. PSOF ¶ 21.

         Plaintiff states Pettit delivered opened legal mail on January 26, 2013. Id. ¶ 22. Pettit admitted to working as the housing-unit officer and delivering mail on that date. Id.; Pettit Admissions ¶¶ 72, 80. Donaghy could not recall his assigned duties from January 26, 2013. PSOF ¶ 22.

         III. ...


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