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Bruin v. Meko

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland

September 8, 2014

BRANDON R. BRUIN, Plaintiff,
v.
WARDEN JOSEPH P. MEKO, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HENRY R. WILHOIT, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiff Brandon R. Bruin is an inmate confined in the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex ("EKCC") located in West Liberty, Kentucky. Proceeding without counsel, Bruin has filed a civil rights complaint asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that various officials employed at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex ("LSCC")[1] violated his federal constitutional rights. [D. E. No. 1; supplemented at D. E. No. 4] The Court has previously granted Bruin in forma pauperis status. [D. E. No. 6]

The Court has conducted a preliminary review of Bruin's complaint because he has been granted pauper status and because he asserts claims against government officials. 28 U.S.C. §§, 1915(e)(2)(B), 1915A. Because Bruin is not represented by an attorney, the Court liberally construes his claims and accepts his factual allegations as true. Erickson v. Pardus , 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). The Court concludes that Bruin's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims must be dismissed, but that his First Amendment claims alleging interference with his incoming legal mail warrant a response from certain defendants.

ALLEGATIONS OF THE COMPLAINT

Bruin alleges that from late September 2013 to late January 2014, Defendant Jerry Barker, LSCC Correctional Officer, either filed, or had his subordinates file, several frivolous disciplinary reports against him charging him with violating various prison policies.[2] [D. E. No. 1, pp. 4-5, ¶¶ 24-32] Bruin alleges that Barker's actions constituted harassment and caused him to suffer "mental anguish and hardship." [ Id. , p. 5, ¶ 37] Bruin alleges that on January 31, 2014, he complained to Defendant Laura Dennis, another LSCC Correctional Officer, about the alleged harassment and mental distress he was suffering because of Barker's actions, and that he told Dennis, "I've taken matters into my own hands." [ Id. , ¶ 35] Bruin claims that Dennis incorrectly interpreted his statement as a threat and ordered him to report to two Internal Affairs officials (Defendants Crouch and Holbrook) for further questioning, and that during the interview, he reiterated that Barker and Barker's subordinates had been harassing him and filing false disciplinary reports against him. [ Id. , ¶¶ 36-37] Bruin alleges that Crouch and Holbrook told him that they would be placing him in administrative detention to ensure his safety and the safety of others. [ Id. , ¶¶ 36-38] It is unclear from the complaint if Bruin is complaining about his placement in administrative detention.

Bruin alleges that on February 7, 2014, Dennis filed a disciplinary report against him, alleging that on January 31, 2014, Bruin had made a threatening or intimidating statement or remark. [ Id. , p. 6, ¶ 39] On February 7, 2014, the LSCC Adjustment Committee found Bruin guilty of the offense, and ordered him to serve 45 days in disciplinary segregation and to forfeit 60 days of statutory good-time credits. [ Id. , ¶ 40] Bruin states that he complained to the Kentucky Department of Corrections ("KDOC") about the disciplinary segregation sanction. [ Id. , ¶ 41] Bruin further alleges that he filed a declaratory rights action in the "Elliot Judicial Center, " and requested that Defendant Matthew Fyffe, LSCC Case Treatment Officer, deduct the pre-paid postage costs from his inmate account. [ Id. , ¶ 42] Bruin alleges that on February 28, 2014; on March 7, 2014, and on March 10, 2014, LSCC mail room employees opened his incoming mail from the Elliot Circuit Court outside of his presence; tampered with his legal mail; and copied his legal mail without his knowledge or consent. [ Id. , pp. 6-7, ¶¶ 45; 48; p. 8, ¶ 51]

Bruin states that on March 14, 2014, he was again taken to Internal Affairs, and that Defendants Crouch and Holbrook questioned him about his letters to the KDOC, in which he had complained about alleged harassment. [ Id. , p. 8, ¶¶ 51-53] Bruin claims Crouch and Holbrook again told him that he would be placed in administrative segregation, id. , ¶ 54. Bruin's other allegations about this particular encounter (set forth in ¶ 55 of his complaint) are extremely confusing, and as noted, it is unclear if Bruin is complaining about his placement in administrative segregation. Bruin does allege that Defendant Laura Dennis "... did not have his best interests at heart when [she] had Plaintiff sanctioned state for exercising his constitutional right to redress of grievance, failed to investigate." [ Id. , ¶ 55]

Bruin states that Defendant Adam Bear, EKCC Postal Technician, deducted money from his inmate account to cover the cost of pre-paid postage for some of his out-going mail, but his allegations concerning Bear are unclear. [ Id. , p. 9, ¶ 57; ¶ 59] Bruin appears to be alleging that although Bear assessed his inmate account for postage fess associated with his out-going mail, Bear instead improperly forwarded his out-going mail to Internal Affairs for review and inspection. Bruin apparently wrote to Bear complaining about Bear's actions of transmitting his mail to Internal Affairs, and Bear apparently forwarded Bruin's complaint to Defendant Holbrook of the Internal Affairs Office. On March 17, 2014, Holbrook sent Bruin a memorandum stating that Bear had properly complied with KDOC Corrections Policy and Procedure 16.2, and had improperly forwarded Bruin's outgoing and incoming legal mail to Internal Affairs for inspection. [D. E. No. 1-15, pp. 1-2] Holbrook also informed Bruin that "any further harassing correspondence to the staff at the Little Sandy Correctional Complex can result in disciplinary action being taken." [ Id. , p. 1]

As to specific legal claims, Bruin alleges in "Count One" that Defendant Laura Dennis "failed to investigate" his "redress" and that by failing to investigate his harassment allegations against Barker, Dennis was merely protecting Defendant Barker's interests. [ Id. , pp. 9-10; ¶¶ 60-65] In "Count Two, " Bruin alleges that when Defendant Holbrook told him that any further correspondence to any LSCC staff member would result in disciplinary action, Holbrook "demonstrated indifference..." [ Id. , p. 10, ¶ 68] Bruin then cites a Pennsylvania case which, he explains, holds that lost wages constitutes "physical injury leading to mental anguish, " and that 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) does not require him to show a physical injury as part of a claim alleging emotional distress. [ Id. , ¶¶ 68-70]

Bruin labeled "Count Three" as "Breach of Mail." [ Id. , p. 11] Bruin's factual allegations on this issue are disjointed and difficult to follow; he states that he filed a petition seeking declaratory relief in the Elliot Circuit Court, but then states, "... response within days. Plaintiff is already deprived of his right to redress, now the fear of litigation whereof." [ Id. , ¶ 72] Bruin further alleges that Defendants Leach and Bear "molested, read, and mishandled" his mail, id. , ¶ 75; that he notified Warden Meko and Deputy Warden Green about the alleged interference with his mail by Defendants Leach and Bear, id. , p. 12, § 79; but that neither Defendant Meko or Green responded to his complaint. [ Id. ]

Bruin seeks damages of no less than $25, 000 to compensate him for the defendants' alleged "deliberate and intentional misconduct." [ Id. , p. 13]

DISCUSSION

1. Claims Alleged in Count One

In Count One of the complaint, Bruin alleges that Defendant Barker verbally harassed him on numerous occasions between September 2013 and January 2014. Bruin claims that their actions violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. This claim will be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Only deprivations denying "the minimalized measure of life's necessities" constitute and Eighth Amendment violation. See Wilson v. Seiter , 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991); Rhodes v. Chapman , 452 U.S. 337, 347 (1981). Verbal abuse, harassment, and arbitrariness in dealing with inmates, while not condoned, do not violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. See Ivey v. Wilson , 832 F.2d 950, 955 (6th Cir. 1987); Oltarzewski v. Ruggiero , 830 F.2d 136, 139 (9th Cir. 1987)

Bruin further alleges that the verbal harassment he allegedly suffered by the LSCC defendants also caused him to experience emotional distress, but federal law prevents inmates from asserting claims of emotional distress absent some type of accompanying physical injury. "No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). See also Wilson v. Yaklich , 148 F.3d 596, 601 (6th Cir. 1999) (citing Wilson v. Seiter , 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991)) ("[A] claim of psychological injury does not reflect the deprivation of the minimal civilized measures of life's necessities, ' that is the touchstone of a conditions-of-confinement case"); Jarriett v. Wilson , 162 F.Appx. 394, 400 (6th Cir. 2005). Because Bruin does not allege that he sustained any type of physical injury, his claims alleging emotional distress will be dismissed as frivolous.

Bruin next alleges that LSCC Correctional Officer Laura Dennis, Warden Joseph P. Meko, and/or Deputy Warden James David Green failed to respond to his various administrative grievances in a manner which he deemed appropriate, and that the LSCC's grievance process was unsatisfactory or unresponsive to his concerns. Bruin thus alleges that he was denied due process of law guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as applied to prisoners held in state custody. On this issue Bruin states no claim because prisoners have no inherent constitutional right to an effective prison grievance procedure. See Hewitt v. Helms , 459 U.S. 460, 467 (1983); Overholt v. Unibase Data Entry, Inc. , 221 F.3d 1335, 2000 WL 799760, at *3 (6th Cir. June 14, 2000) (Unpublished Table decision); Antonelli v. Sheahan , 81 F.3d 1422, 1430 (7th Cir. 1996); Flick v. Alba , 932 F.2d 728, 729 (8th Cir.1991).

Bruin admits that on January 31, 2014, he told Defendant Laura Dennis that because he was dissatisfied about her failure to respond to his complaints that Barker was verbally harassing him, he had "taken matters into his own hands, " [D. E. No. 1, p. 5, ¶ 35] Bruin contends that Dennis misinterpreted his remark as a threat, and he takes issue with the fact that Dennis reported his comment to Crouch and Holbrook. As a result of his verbal statement to Dennis, Bruin was charged with making a threatening or intimidating statement. See Disciplinary Report Form, LSCC-2014-00167 [D. E. No. 4-1, pp. 3-4]. The disciplinary hearing transpired on February 19, 2014, after which Bruin was found guilty of the charged offense and ordered to forfeit 60 days of statutory good time credits. [ Id. , pp. 5-6;] Bruin appears to be collaterally challenging his disciplinary conviction in this § 1983 proceeding.

Because Bruin was convicted of a prison disciplinary offense, he cannot seek damages under § 1983 unless and until he can demonstrate a favorable termination of his disciplinary convictions. In Heck v. Humphrey , the Supreme Court established the so-called "favorable termination rule." ...


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