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Cruse v. Burchett

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

July 5, 2018




         Plaintiff Wendell Leonard Cruse is an individual previously confined at the Boyd County Detention Center ("BCDC") in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. Proceeding without an attorney, Cruse has filed a civil rights action against prison officials pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. [D.E. No. 1]

         By separate order, the Court has granted Cruse's motion to proceed without prepayment of the filing fee. [D.E. No. 7] Thus, the Court must conduct a preliminary review of Cruse's complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A. A district court must dismiss any claim that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. McGore v. Wrigglesworth, 114 F.3d 601, 607-08 (6th Cir. 1997). A complaint is subject to dismissal as "frivolous" where "it lacks an arguable basis in either law or fact." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989).

         The Court evaluates Cruse's complaint under a more lenient standard because he is not represented by an attorney. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Burton v. Jones, 321 F.3d 569, 573 (6th Cir. 2003). At this stage, the Court accepts the plaintiffs factual allegations as true, and his legal claims are liberally construed in his favor. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Even so, the principles requiring generous construction of pro se pleadings are not without limits. Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 1989); Wilson v. Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, No. 07-cv-95-KSF, 2007 WL 1136743 (E.D. Ky. April 16, 2007). The Court is not required to create a claim for the Plaintiff, nor to "conjure up unpled allegations." Moorman v. Herrington, No. CIV A 4:08-CV-P127-M, 2009 WL 2020669, at *1 (W.D. Ky. July 9, 2OO9)(citations omitted).

         Cruse's complaint is somewhat illegible and alleges several unrelated claims against different prison officials, thus his allegations are difficult to parse. However, it appears that Cruse seeks to assert: (1) constitutional claims against Defendant Jailer Burchett and Sgt. Brad Roberts alleging violations of Cruse's constitutional rights of access to the Courts; (2) an Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim against Burchett arising from allegations of various poor jail conditions; (3) two separate excessive force claims against Defendant Deputy Jailer "John" King (first name unknown) and against Defendant "John Doe," C.E.R.T. Participant; and (5) an Eighth Amendment claim of deliberate indifference to Cruse's medical needs against Defendants Cristy "Doe" and the "Medical Service Provider." [D.E. No. 1]

         Cruse seeks to bring these claims in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To establish a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show that he was deprived of a constitutional right and that the deprivation occurred at the hands of defendant who was a "state actor," or acted under color of state law. See Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980); Searcy v. City of Dayton, 38 F.3d 282, 286 (6th Cir. 1994). Thus, applying this standard, each of Cruse's claims will be examined in turn.

         1. Denial of Access to the Courts

         The right of access to the courts guaranteed by the First Amendment "requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828 (1977). However, the concern is "a right of access to the courts, not necessarily to a prison law library." Walker v. Mintzes, 771 F.2d 920, 932 (1985) (emphasis in original). See also Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 350 (1996) (noting that Bounds did not establish a right to a law library). Moreover, "[b]ecause Bounds did not create an abstract, freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance, an inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison's law library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical sense." Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351 (1996). Rather, to establish a claim that the jail has interfered with his right of access to the courts, a prisoner must show actual injury to a nonfrivolous claim. Id. at 353-55.

         Cruse's complaint first alleges that, in 2016, he was informed by Burchett that the BCDC does not have a law library or law books for inmates and that any legal questions should be sent to Cruse's attorney or public defender. Cruse then alleges that, in January 2018, he was "forced" to accept a plea agreement and a 90-day jail sentence after consulting with his public defender, but without being able to do his own independent legal research to ascertain if he had a defense to the charges. [D. E. No. 1 at p. 3]

         However, to the extent that Cruse alleges that the BCDC's lack of a prison library harmed him in his criminal case, he concedes that he was provided with counsel to represent him. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has held that, where counsel is appointed to represent the prisoner plaintiff in his criminal action pending against him, as a matter of law, the state has fulfilled its constitutional obligation to provide him with full access to the courts. Holt v. Pitts, 702 F.2d 639, 640 (6th Cir. 1983).

         Moreover, to the extent that Cruse suggests that he was harmed because he could not conduct his own "independent research" to ascertain if he had any viable defenses, Cruse does not have any First Amendment right to meaningful access to the courts with respect to efforts to represent himself in his criminal case. By its terms, the right of access to the courts extends only to an inmate's direct criminal appeal, habeas corpus applications, and civil rights claims related to the conditions of confinement. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 354-55. It does not apply to apro se defendant's efforts to represent himself at his criminal trial. United States v. Smith, 907 F.2d 42, 44 (6th Cir. 1990) (rejecting contention that either the First or the Sixth Amendment require that a criminal defendant who waives his Sixth Amendment right to counsel is entitled to an adequate law library to satisfy his constitutional right of access to the courts); Smith v. Hutchins, 426 Fed.Appx. 785, 788 (11th Cir. 2011) ("... a criminal defendant who seeks to proceed pro se has no right to access a law library to aid him in his own defense at trial where he has already been provided the option of legal counsel.") (collecting cases); Degrate v. Godwin, 84 F.3d 768, 769 (5th Cir. 1996) (affirming dismissal of a § 1983 suit by a prisoner because he "had no constitutional right to access a law library in preparing the pro se defense of his criminal trial.").

         Next, Cruse alleges that, in January 2018, he requested that Sgt. Roberts provide postage for legal mail so that Cruse could file objections to a United States Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation in a civil action pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Cruse v. Blackburn, 3:17-cv-485 (S.D.W.Va. 2017). According to Cruse, he gave legal documents to Sgt. Roberts on January 29, 2018, for which Cruse had a filing deadline of February 1, 2018. However, because Sgt. Roberts placed Cruse's legal mail in the mail without postage, Cruse's mail did not arrive at the Court until February 13, 2018, thus depriving Cruse the opportunity to object to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. [D.E. No. 1 at p. 3-4]

         However, although Cruse claims that he was harmed because he lost the opportunity to object to the Report and Recommendation, a review of the record in Cruse's federal civil action pending in West Virginia shows that, although Cruse did miss the February 1, 2018 deadline for filing objections, the District Court granted his motion to reconsider the Court's acceptance of the Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings and Recommendations granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment and returned the case to the active docket so that Cruse's objections could be considered. See Cruse v. Blackburn, 3:17-cv-485 (S.D.W.Va. 2017) at D.E. No. 92.[1] Thus, contrary to Cruse's allegations, he has not suffered any actual injury to his claims in West Virginia through the loss of an opportunity to file objections to the Report and Recommendation because those objections are now being considered by the District Court in that case. Because Cruse was not prevented from asserting any particular legal claim in his pending civil case, he suffered no actual injury from the conduct about which he complains.

         For all of these reasons, Cruse's allegations fail to state a viable claim for denial of access to the Courts and, accordingly, will be dismissed. As this is the only claim alleging conduct by ...

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