United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
JERRY J. MEEKS, Plaintiff,
JUDY P. SMITH, Defendant.
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR LEGAL LOAN
(DKT. NO. 41), GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT (DKT. NO. 35) AND DISMISSING CASE
PAMELA PEPPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
plaintiff, a state prisoner who is representing himself,
filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that
defendant Judy Smith violated his constitutional rights when
she opened his legal mail outside of his presence. Dkt. No.
1. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which
is fully briefed. Dkt. Nos. 35, 42, 45. The court will grant
the defendant's motion and dismiss the case.
31, 2017, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the judge who
screened the plaintiff's complaint, allowed the plaintiff
to proceed against the defendant based on allegations that
the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional
rights when she opened his legal mail outside of his presence
on seven occasions. Dkt. No. 15. According to the plaintiff,
the mail related to ongoing litigation (Meeks v.
Feldner, No. 14-cv-850 (E.D. Wis.)) and included letters
from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
Wisconsin (dkt. no. 30-1 at 28, 30-31), the Wisconsin
Department of Justice (dkt. no. 30-1 at 29, 32-33) and the
Office of Corporation Counsel for Winnebago County (dkt. no.
30-1 at 34). Dkt. No. 44 at ¶ 2.
The Court's Analysis
plaintiff argues that the court should apply a bright-line
rule that would prohibit prison officials from opening any
legal mail outside of an inmate's presence. The law in
this circuit does not support the plaintiff's argument.
most recent case addressing the issue is Guajardo-Palma
v. Martinson, 622 F.3d 801 (2010). The Seventh Circuit
explained that the constitutional right implicated when
prison officials open legal mail outside of an inmate's
presence is the inmate's right to access the courts,
which arises under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at
802-03. A plaintiff who asserts that he was denied access to
the courts in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment must show
that the alleged misconduct “hindered [the
prisoner's] efforts to pursue a legal claim.”
Id. at 805 (quoting Lewis v. Casey, 518
U.S. 343, 351 (1996)). The Seventh Circuit held that proof of
a practice of reading an inmate's legal mail outside of
his presence will generally be sufficient to demonstrate
Seventh Circuit clarified, however, that the practice of
opening publicly available or non-sensitive legal mail
(i.e., legal mail that does not give prison
officials an edge in litigation) does not give rise
to an access-to-the-courts claim. Guajardo-Palma,
622 F.3d at 806. Such a practice is harmless because mail of
that nature does not impact an inmate's ability to pursue
a legal claim and therefore does not implicate his right to
access the courts. Id.
plaintiff identifies seven letters that he says the defendant
opened outside of his presence. Three of the letters were
from the court and four were from agencies. None of the
letters were from his attorney. To succeed on his claim, the
plaintiff must provide evidence from which a jury could
reasonably conclude that the defendant's opening or
reading of those letters hindered his ability to pursue a
legal claim. The plaintiff has not provided such evidence.
plaintiff provided seven envelopes with return addresses
indicating who the letters were from and numbers for the
cases to which his says the letters related. Dkt. No. 30-1 at
16, 28-34. The plaintiff did not provide the letters that
were in the envelopes, nor did he describe the contents of
those letters. As explained in Guajardo-Palma, the
mere fact that a prison official opens mail from a court or
agency outside of an inmate's presence is insufficient to
prevail on an access-to-the-courts claim. This is because, if
an official reads mail from a court or agency that is
publicly available and/or non- sensitive in nature, the
reader would gain no insight into an inmate's legal
strategy, rendering any potential violation harmless.
the plaintiff provides no evidence about the contents of the
mail the defendant allegedly read, no jury could reasonably
conclude that the defendant gained an unfair advantage by
reading the letters or hindered the plaintiff's ability
to pursue his claim. Accordingly, the defendant is entitled
to summary judgment. Guajardo-Palma, 622 F.3d at
806; see Arnett v. Webster, 658 F.3d 742, 760 (7th
Cir. 2011); Johnson v. Cambridge Indus., Inc., 325
F.3d 892, 901 (7th Cir. 2003) (“[S]ummary judgment is
the put up or shut up moment in a lawsuit, when a party must
show what evidence it has that would convince a trier of fact
to accept its version of events.”) (internal quotation
the court did not consider the plaintiff's sur-reply in
reaching its decision, the court notes that the plaintiff
makes much of the fact that DOC policy 309.04.01 appears to
require that letters such as the ones in this case be opened
in the presence of inmates. Dkt. No. 46; Dkt. No. 39-1 at 1,
6. In Guajardo-Palma, however, the Seventh Circuit
explained that “[A] violation of state law is not a
ground for a federal rights suit.” 622 F.3d at 806.
While the defendant may have violated DOC policy (the court
offers no opinion on this point), she did not violate the
Constitution, and this federal court can grant relief only if
the defendant violated the Constitution.
on November 14, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion asking the
court to order the defendant to give him a legal loan. Dkt.
No. 41. A plaintiff does not have a constitutional
entitlement to a subsidy to prosecute his lawsuits.
Lindell v. McCallum, 352 F.3d 1107, 1111 (7th Cir.
2003) (citing Lewis v. Sullivan, 279 F.3d 526, 528
(7th Cir. 2002)). The Seventh Circuit has explained that an
institution's provision of legal loans “is a matter
strictly between [a prisoner] and Wisconsin, and not any
business of the federal courts.” Lindell, 352
F.3d at 1111. In any event, the plaintiff's access to the
court does not appear to have been impacted by the lack of a
legal loan. After he filed his motion, he filed a brief in
opposition to the defendant's motion for summary
judgment, dkt. no. 42, a declaration, dkt. no. 43, a response
to the defendant's proposed findings of fact, dkt. no. 44
and a sur-reply, dkt. no. 46. The court will deny the motion.