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Taylor v. Smith

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

October 27, 2016

SCOTT SMITH, et al., Defendants.



         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On August 24, 2016, United States Magistrate Judge Timothy P. Greeley issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 83) be denied and that Defendants' motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 81) be granted in part and denied in part. (ECF No. 93.) The matter is before the Court on Defendants' (ECF No. 94) and Plaintiff's (ECF No. 95) objections to the R&R.

         This Court is required to make a de novo determination of those portions of the R&R to which specific objection has been made, and may accept, reject, or modify any or all of the Magistrate Judge's findings or recommendations. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). “[A] general objection to a magistrate's report, which fails to specify the issues of contention, does not satisfy the requirement that an objection be filed. The objections must be clear enough to enable the district court to discern those issues that are dispositive and contentious.” Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373, 380 (6th Cir. 1995).

         Plaintiff's Objections

         Plaintiff filed two objections. First, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that a motion made under Mich. Ct. R. 6.502 is not protected by the Constitution. Second, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that Defendant Smith is entitled to qualified immunity.

         A. Access to Courts Claim

         Plaintiff cites Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F.3d 378, 391 (6th Cir. 1999) (en banc), to support his argument that a 6.500 motion is a collateral attack on his conviction, and as such, is the equivalent of a habeas petition in federal court. But Thaddeus-X specifically provides that a prisoner's right to access the courts extends to “direct appeals, habeas corpus applications, and civil rights claims only.” Thaddeus-X, 175 F.3d at 391. A 6.500 motion is neither a direct appeal nor a habeas application. See Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 555 (1987) (explaining that there is no right to counsel in post-conviction motions); Allen v. Yukins, 366 F.3d 396 (6th Cir. 2004) (explaining that the filing of a post-conviction motion will toll a prisoner's habeas clock). But this Court has opined that “[a] state court collateral action is the equivalent of a habeas petition in federal court and certainly constitutes a collateral attack on a prisoner's sentence.” Hughes v. Toombs, No. 1:97-CV-773, 1999 LEXIS 12092, at *(W.D. Mich. Aug. 4, 1999). “Thus, such actions are protected.” Id. (citing Lewis, 518 U.S. at 355). Further, state collateral actions, like a 6.500 motion, may be necessary to the successful pursuit of federal habeas relief because prisoners are required to first exhaust all available state remedies. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A).

         Assuming Plaintiff has a right to access state courts for relief from judgment under Hughes, he still must show “an actual injury to state a claim for denial of access to the courts.” Lewis, 518 U.S. at 349. According to the Sixth Circuit, “in Lewis[, ] the Supreme court held that only prisoners with non-frivolous underlying claims can have standing to litigate an access-to-courts action.” Hadiz v. Johnson, 173 F.3d 958, 964 (6th Cir. 1999). Thus, “even if someone delays a case or prevents it from coming to court, an actual injury will not be found unless the underlying claim would have been successful.” Mikko v. Davis, 342 F.Supp.2d 643, 647 (E.D. Mich. 2004).

         In Plaintiff's deposition, he testified that he had difficulties litigating his cases because Defendants confiscated police reports, trial transcripts, and legal books. (Pl's. Dep., ECF No. 82-2, PageID.425-26.) But Plaintiff admitted that he never missed any deadlines or had any of his cases dismissed as a result of Defendants' conduct. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that he could not file his 6.502 motion because Defendants confiscated it, and he could not reproduce the motion because he did not have copies of his transcripts. (ECF No. 84, PageID.463.) Plaintiff admitted that he filed a request to get another copy of his transcripts, and had an attorney working on his criminal appeal. (ECF No. 82-2, PageID.426.)

         Plaintiff has not shown that his 6.500 motion would have been successful if not for Defendants' actions. In fact, the Michigan Court of Appeals denied Plaintiff's motion for “lack of merit in the grounds presented.” (ECF No. 84-2, PageID.474.) Plaintiff argues that the court denied his motion because he was forced to file without transcripts. (Id. at PageID.472.) But the court did not provide an explanation for the denial. Plaintiff has only shown that Defendants' actions prevented him from filing the motion with transcripts. Without further information on the validity of the motion, Plaintiff has failed to show actual injury as required under Lewis. Rumsey v. Mich. Dep't of Corr., 327 F.Supp.2d 767, 779 (E.D. Mich. 2004); Mikko, 342 F.Supp.2d at 646 (granting defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim when plaintiff failed to show actual injury). Therefore, even if Plaintiff's objection is correct, it does not affect the Magistrate Judge's recommendation to grant summary judgment in favor of Defendants on this claim.

         B. Retaliation Claim

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants confiscated his legal property in retaliation for filing lawsuits. Defendant Smith moved to dismiss Plaintiff's retaliation claim based on qualified immunity because he lacked personal involvement. (ECF No. 82, PageID.407-09.) Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that extends to government officials performing discretionary functions. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817-18 (1982). Government officials acting within the scope of their authority are entitled to qualified immunity as long as their conduct does “not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Id. at 818. It protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Humphrey v. Mabry, 482 F.3d 840, 847 (6th Cir. 2007). The Sixth Circuit applies a two-part test to determine whether a government official is entitled to the defense of qualified immunity: (1) whether the plaintiff has shown a violation of a constitutionally-protected right; and, if so, (2) whether that right was clearly established such that a reasonable official would have understood that his behavior violated that right. Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 299-300 (6th Cir. 1999).

         Plaintiff argues that Defendant Smith is not entitled to qualified immunity because he refused to notify Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (“LARA”) that Plaintiff claimed to have legal property. Plaintiff contends that Defendant Smith had a clear legal duty to notify LARA once Plaintiff made this claim, and his refusal to do was a contributing factor to the violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights.

         Defendant Smith argues that he did not have the final authority to make a decision whether Plaintiff's property was legal or personal, and that Defendant Clark was the ultimate decision maker. Defendant Smith cites the Michigan Department of Corrections Policy Directive 04.07.112 in support. (ECF No. 82-4, PageID.434-35, ¶ O.) The policy directive provides that, “[i]f the prisoner's property exceeds allowable limits due to items claimed to be legal property, a hearing shall ...

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