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Smith v. Harry

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

November 3, 2017

SCOTT SMITH, Plaintiff,
SHIRLEY HARRY et al., Defendants.


          Janet T. Neff, United States District Judge

         This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court has granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (1996), the Court is required to dismiss any prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiff's pro se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiff's allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's complaint against Defendants Harry, Kowalski, Smith, Cummings, Lane, Watson, and Boykin. The Court will allow the action to proceed against the unidentified mail room employees.


         I. Factual allegations

         Plaintiff Scott Smith is an inmate at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility (“MSP”), a facility run by the Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”). Defendants are: Warden Shirley Harry; Deputy Wardens Unknown Kowalski and B. Smith; Resident Unit Managers (“RUMs”) Unknown Cummings and Unknown Lane; Assistant Resident Unit Supervisor (“ARUS”) Unknown Watson; Prisoner Counselor Unknown Boykin; and unidentified individuals from the MSP mail room.

         Plaintiff alleges that the circumstances underlying his complaint began on July 26, 2016, when staff at MSP conducted an administrative hearing to determine the location of his legal papers and why he was having difficulty obtaining them. (Compl., ECF No. 1-3, PageID.25.) His legal papers consisted of the court file from his 2013 criminal case. His mother had made copies of the file and sent it to him in the mail so that he could file a motion challenging his conviction. He contends that unidentified mail room staff at MSP rejected his papers because they were considered “too voluminous.” (Id.) Mail room staff allegedly relied upon an internal memorandum from 2008 for their decision.

         Plaintiff alleges that he received two notices of intent to conduct a hearing (“NOIs”) regarding the rejection of his mail, but no hearing took place until after his mail was destroyed by unidentified mail room staff. Prisoner Counselor Boykin allegedly postponed the hearing because ARUS Watson was not available. By the time that Watson conducted the hearing, Plaintiff's papers had already been destroyed. Plaintiff complains that Warden Harry, Deputy Warden Kowalski, Deputy Warden Smith, RUM Cummings, RUM Lane, and ARUS Watson allegedly investigated the disappearance of Plaintiff's papers in response to his grievances, but did not correct the issue.

         Plaintiff also complains that ARUS Lane failed to stop the destruction of his papers before Plaintiff received an administrative hearing, and then covered up the actions of mail room staff after they destroyed Plaintiff's papers. In addition, ARUS Watson allegedly “altered a government document prepared pursuant to an Administrative Hearing after [the] fact” to cover up the destruction of his papers by mail room staff. (Id., PageID.28.) Plaintiff contends that the destruction of his legal papers prevented him from filing a timely federal petition for habeas corpus relief. He was not able to file his petition until sixteen months after his sentencing. He contends that his petition cannot succeed unless the court decides that he is eligible for equitable tolling. Plaintiff claims that he has been denied his rights under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments as a result of Defendants' conduct, including his right of access to the courts. In addition, he contends that Defendants have “violated their oaths of office under state law and the Michigan constitution.” (Id., PageID.29.) As relief, he seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

         II. Failure to state a claim

         A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails “‘to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's allegations must include more than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement, ' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)); see also Hill v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility standard applies to dismissals of prisoner cases on initial review under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1) and 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the federal Constitution or laws and must show that the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Street v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996). Because § 1983 is a method for vindicating federal rights, not a source of substantive rights itself, the first step in an action under § 1983 is to identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).

         A. Supervisory Liability

         1. Defendants Harry, Kowalski, Smith, and Cummings

         Plaintiff alleges that Warden Harry, Deputy Wardens Kowalski and Smith, RUMs Cummings and Lane, and ARUS Watson investigated Plaintiff's grievances and failed to correct the actions of other prison employees. These are his only allegations against Defendants Harry, Kowalski, Smith and Cummings. Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691(1978); Everson v. Leis, 556 F.3d 484, 495 (6th Cir. 2009). A claimed constitutional violation must be based upon active unconstitutional behavior. Grinter v. Knight, 532 F.3d 567, 575-76 (6th Cir. 2008); Greene v. Barber, 310 F.3d 889, 899 (6th Cir. 2002). The acts of one's subordinates are not enough, nor can supervisory liability be based upon the mere failure to act. Grinter, 532 F.3d at 576; Greene, 310 F.3d at 899; Summers v. Leis, 368 F.3d 881, 888 (6th Cir. 2004). Moreover, § 1983 liability may not be imposed simply because a supervisor denied an administrative grievance or failed to act based upon information contained in a grievance. See Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th Cir. 1999). “[A] plaintiff must plead that each ...

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