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Longs v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

June 26, 2019

MICHAEL J. LONGS II, Plaintiff,
v.
BRADLEY JOHNSON, Lancaster County Jail Director; Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RICHARD G. KOPF SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed a Complaint on October 30, 2018, when he was incarcerated at the Lancaster County Department of Corrections. (Filing No. 1.) He has been given leave to proceed in forma pauperis.[1] (Filing No. 7.) The court now conducts an initial review of Plaintiff's Complaint to determine whether summary dismissal is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) and 1915A. For purposes of this initial review, the Complaint includes Plaintiff's supplemental filing (filing no. 8).

         I. SUMMARY OF COMPLAINT

         Plaintiff filed this action against Bradley Johnson, the Director of the Lancaster County Jail, alleging the jail classified Plaintiff to “maximum security” and “raised [his] points 7 points for nothing, attempting to oppress [him] and succeeding at it” because Plaintiff was assaulted by another inmate on September 17, 2018, as a result of his reclassification. (Filing No. 1.) Plaintiff also alleges jail mail room staff are opening and tampering with his legal mail. Plaintiff claims “[t]he mail opened directly pertains to this facility, Bradley Johnson and my jewelry being stolen on 9/6/2018 by staff at this facility [and] also my car's key fob.” (Filing No. 8 (capitalization and punctuation corrected).) As relief, Plaintiff seeks damages and injunctive relief. (Filing No. 1; Filing No. 8.)

         II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS ON INITIAL REVIEW

         The court is required to review prisoner and in forma pauperis complaints seeking relief against a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity to determine whether summary dismissal is appropriate. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) and 1915A. The court must dismiss a complaint or any portion of it that states a frivolous or malicious claim, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

         Pro se plaintiffs must set forth enough factual allegations to “nudge[] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, ” or “their complaint must be dismissed.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 569-70 (2007); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”).

         “The essential function of a complaint under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is to give the opposing party ‘fair notice of the nature and basis or grounds for a claim, and a general indication of the type of litigation involved.'” Topchian v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 760 F.3d 843, 848 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Hopkins v. Saunders, 199 F.3d 968, 973 (8th Cir. 1999)). However, “[a] pro se complaint must be liberally construed, and pro se litigants are held to a lesser pleading standard than other parties.” Topchian, 760 F.3d at 849 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Liberally construed, Plaintiff here alleges federal constitutional claims. To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege a violation of rights protected by the United States Constitution or created by federal statute and also must show that the alleged deprivation was caused by conduct of a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Buckley v. Barlow, 997 F.2d 494, 495 (8th Cir. 1993).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Liberally construed, Plaintiff alleges violations of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Fourteenth Amendment[2] and his right to access the courts under the First Amendment.

         “[P]rison officials have a duty . . . to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994). However, prison officials do not incur constitutional liability for every injury suffered by a prisoner. Id. at 834. In order to prevail on an Eighth Amendment failure-to-protect claim, an inmate must make two showings. First, the inmate must demonstrate that he or she is “‘incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm.'” Jensen v. Clarke, 73 F.3d 808, 810 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994)). The second requirement concerns the state of mind of the prison official who is being sued. Id. It mandates that the inmate show that the official “knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and [the official] must also draw the inference.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). This subjective requirement is necessary because “only the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain implicates the Eighth Amendment.” Id. (internal quotation omitted).

         With respect to Plaintiff's First Amendment claims, it is true that prisoners retain their First Amendment rights to send and receive mail, but “prison officials have a duty to maintain security within the prison, and this may include reading inmates' incoming and outgoing mail, with the exception of legal mail.” Thongvanh v. Thalacker, 17 F.3d 256, 258-59 (8th Cir. 1994). Indeed, “[p]rivileged prisoner mail, that is mail to or from an inmate's attorney and identified as such, may not be opened for inspections for contraband except in the presence of the prisoner.” Gardner v. Howard, 109 F.3d 427, 430 (8th Cir. 1997) (quotation and citation omitted); see also Sallier v. Brooks, 343 F.3d 868, 877 (6th Cir. 2003) (holding that mail from a court constitutes “legal mail” and cannot be opened outside the presence of a prisoner who has specifically requested otherwise); Kamau v. Buss, No. 3:07-CV-372, 2007 WL 2363874, at *2 (N.D. Ind. Aug. 15, 2007) (“The purpose of preventing prisons from opening legal mail outside of the presence of an inmate is to protect the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the attorney-client privilege by ensuring that prison officials merely inspect for contraband and do not read confidential communications between an inmate and his counsel.”).

         It is also well established “that prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts.” Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1977). To prevail on an access to courts claim, a prisoner must establish that he sustained “an actual injury.” Moore v. Plaster, 266 F.3d 928, 933 (8th Cir. 2001). To demonstrate “actual injury, ” the prisoner must show “‘that a nonfrivolous legal claim had been frustrated or was being impeded.'” Id. (quoting Johnson v. Missouri, 142 F.3d 1087, 1089 (8th Cir. 1998)). “[A]n isolated incident, without any evidence of improper motive or resulting interference with ...


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