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Stephens v. Trueheart

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

August 12, 2019

OFFICER TONI TRUEHEART, et al., Defendants.



         Charlie Grant Stephens, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] This matter is before the court on the motion to dismiss filed by defendants Officer Toni Trueheart, Sergeant Kevin Jones, and Officer Robert Patterson. Having reviewed the record, the court concludes that the defendants' motion to dismiss must be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Stephens filed this § 1983 action against defendants Officer Trueheart, Sergeant Jones, and Officer Patterson, alleging constitutional violations while housed at the New River Valley Regional Jail (NRVRJ). The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, and Stephens has responded, making the matter ripe for disposition. Liberally construed, Stephens' claims are that: (1) Trueheart and Patterson restricted Stephens' access to the courts in violation of the First Amendment; (2) Trueheart, Jones, and Patterson retaliated against Stephens for filing a § 1983 complaint; and (3) Trueheart discriminated against Stephens in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.


         A. Standard of Review

         A complaint need only contain “a short, plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations. See Vitol, S.A. v. Primerose Shipping Co., 708 F.3d 527, 539 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Stated differently, to survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A court need not “accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts” or “accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000).

         Stephens is proceeding pro se and, thus, entitled to a liberal construction of the pleading. See, e.g., Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). However, “[p]rinciples requiring generous construction of pro se complaints are not . . . without limits.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). “A court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

         “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Notably, a plaintiff must sufficiently allege a defendant's personal act or omission leading to a deprivation of a federal right. See Fisher v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Author., 690 F.2d 1133, 1142-43 (4th Cir. 1982) (abrogated on other grounds by Cty. of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991)).

         B. Access to Courts

         Stephens claims that defendants Trueheart and Patterson obstructed his access to the courts in violation of the First Amendment. In support of this claim, Stephens alleges that between February 2018 and August 2018, Trueheart and Patterson restricted his access to the law library and delayed him from filing pleadings with the court. According to Stephens, “his right to have adequate access to legal resources [has] been deliberately deprived by [Trueheart in order] to hinder his suit against jail staff.” Specifically, Stephens had an appointment to visit the law library on May 5, 2018, and it was cancelled after he was instead called to medical. In response to Stephens' complaint about missing his law library appointment, Trueheart told him that “[his] health will trump any time in the law library” and asked if he wanted to reschedule. Stephens agreed to reschedule, but the appointment was never rescheduled. (Compl. 3-4, Dkt. No. 1.)

         Stephens alleges various other situations where Trueheart and Patterson restricted his access to the courts. Stephens states that he requested a copy of “A Jailhouse Lawyer's Manual” because his time in the law library had been restricted. It is unclear if he ever received the manual. On May 31, 2018, Stephens could not go to the law library during an appointment because he was in segregated housing. When he asked Patterson about the missed appointed and told Patterson that “it was a fundamental right to have access to legal resources, not a privilege, ” he alleges that Patterson told him “[i]t doesn't matter, we do what we want, regardless of the law!” On June 27, 2018, Stephens asked Trueheart to mail legal documents to the court, and Trueheart refused to mail the documents until Stephens accused her of discrimination because he had filed other § 1983 claims against her. Trueheart eventually mailed the documents. (Compl. 3, 5-6.)

         Inmates have a constitutional right to reasonable access to the courts. See Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351-53 (1996); Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 838 (1977). The right of access to the court “is ancillary to the underlying claim, without which a plaintiff cannot have suffered injury by being shut out of court.” Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 (2002). Thus, in order to state a constitutional claim of denial of access to the courts, a plaintiff must allege specific injury resulting from the alleged denial. See Lewis, 518 U.S. at 349; see also O'Dell v. Netherland, 112 F.3d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1997) (inmate must show an “unconstitutional burden on his right of access to the courts” resulting in “actual injury” to “the capability of bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before the courts.”); Strickler v. Waters, 989 F.2d 1375, 1384 (4th Cir. 1993) (inmate had a “basic requirement that he show specific harm or prejudice from the allegedly denied access.”). An inmate cannot rely on just “vague and conclusory allegations of inconvenience or delay in his instigation or prosecution of legal actions . . . The fact that an inmate may not be able to litigate in exactly the manner he desires is not sufficient to demonstrate the actual injury element of an access to courts claim.” Burke v. Clarke, No. 16-cv-365, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51403, at *14, 2018 WL 1512615, at *5 (W.D. Va. Mar. 27, 2018).

         Here, Stephens fails to identify any injury resulting from Trueheart's or Patterson's conduct or identify the legal claim that he was prevented from litigating. Stephens' complaint relies on vague and conclusory allegations that Trueheart interfered with his ability to litigate his claims in court or harmed his ability to bring his federal lawsuits. Further, Stephens has not made a showing that the lack of access caused a specific deficiency in his legal research or that lack of research led to an inability to file his case. In fact, Stephens has filed three separate § 1983 complaints. Trueheart's delay in mailing the court documents caused him, at most, inconvenience and delay of his pleadings, but did not prevent him from filing his case. Stephens has also not shown an injury from Trueheart's delay. Moreover, he fails to allege ...

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