A. Interference with Legal Mail
Plaintiff's claim regarding interference with his legal mail is meritless. While this Court is fully aware that the protections of the constitution do not end at the prison walls, Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407, 104 L. Ed. 2d 459, 109 S. Ct. 1874 (1989), the Supreme Court has acknowledged that "the fact of confinement and the needs of the penal institution impose limitations on constitutional rights . . . ." Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc. 433 U.S. 119, 125, 53 L. Ed. 2d 629, 97 S. Ct. 2532 (1977); see Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822, 41 L. Ed. 2d 495, 94 S. Ct. 2800 (1974); Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 555, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974). Accordingly, while inmates have a constitutional right to receive and send mail, including legal mail, Heimerle v. Attorney General, 753 F.2d 10, 12-13 (2d Cir. 1985), interference with a prisoner's mail is allowed to the extent that it is "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89, 96 L. Ed. 2d 64, 107 S. Ct. 2254 (1987). Legitimate penological interests include preserving prison security and maintaining order and discipline. Security and Law Enforcement Employees v. Carey, 737 F.2d 187, 203 (2d. Cir. 1984). Moreover, in noting the delicate nature of prison management, the Supreme Court has "afforded considerable deference to the determinations of prison administrators who, in the interest of security, regulate the relations between prisoners and the outside world." Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 408 (citation omitted).
Under the version of prison directive 4421 effective when this cause of action accrued, prison officials could open an inmate's mail outside of the inmate's presence for security purposes, unless it was recognized as a privileged correspondence -- such as mail sent to inmates from attorneys, judges, courts or commissioners. In those instances, the mail could only be opened in the inmate's presence. Billups contends that the letter at issue here was privileged because he addressed it to an attorney. Upon its return due to improper addressing, he argues that directive 4421 required that the letter be inspected in his presence.
Directive 4421 was designed to further the prison institution's legitimate penological interests in security and order. Under the directive, incoming mail returned to the sender was not recognized as privileged under the directive as it was not from an attorney, judge, court, or commissioner. Accordingly, because the defendants acted within the boundaries of the directive, the opening of Billups' letter did not infringe upon his constitutional rights.
Moreover, the privilege of qualified immunity provides an additional reason for denying this claim. In actions brought under Section 1983, qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded by the defendant officials. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 815, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396, 102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982); Carey, 737 F.2d at 210. Once qualified immunity is pleaded, as it has been in this action, public officials performing discretionary functions are protected from personal liability unless their conduct "violate[s] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818 (citations omitted). However, "the boundaries of the supposed 'right' must be sufficiently definite so that the official understood that his actions violated it . . . ." Eng v. Coughlin, 858 F.2d 889, 895 (2d Cir. 1988).
At the time this cause of action accrued, an inmate did not have a clearly established right to be present when prison officials open his returned mail, notwithstanding the fact that the inmate addressed it to an attorney. Accordingly, because the defendants had no forewarning that opening Billups' letter would violate his rights, the doctrine of qualified immunity shields them from liability.
Billups' claim that he was removed from the welding program in retaliation for using the library is equally meritless. Inmates do not have a constitutional right to any particular job or vocational program. Gill v. Mooney, 824 F.2d 192, 194 (2d Cir. 1987); Lane v. Reid, 575 F. Supp. 37, 39 (S.D.N.Y. 1983). Prison officials, however, may not retaliate against an inmate because he has exercised his constitutional right to access to the courts. Mawhinney v. Henderson, 542 F.2d 1, 3 (2d Cir. 1976); see also Purcell v. Coughlin, 790 F.2d 263, 265 (2d Cir. 1986) (prison officials' retaliation against inmate due to inmate's exercise of his constitutional rights states a valid claim for relief). Yet, in order to prevail on a claim for retaliation for the exercise of constitutional rights, plaintiff must show that the allegedly retaliatory action would not have taken place but for the exercise of such rights. Jones v. Coughlin, 696 F. Supp. 916, 920 (S.D.N.Y. 1988). Thus, if an action is taken "on the basis of both valid and invalid motivations, [the action] is not constitutionally tainted by the invalid motive if the action in any event would have been taken on the constitutionally valid basis." Sher v. Coughlin, 739 F.2d 77, 82 (2d Cir. 1984) (citing Mt. Healthy City School Dist. Brd. of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 50 L. Ed. 2d 471, 97 S. Ct. 568 (1977).
Here, nothing in the record supports Billups' contention of retaliation. Even after taking extensive discovery, Billups has no more factual basis for his claim than the existence of an adverse administrative decision. As the Second Circuit has held, conclusory statements do not create a sufficient foundation on which to base a retaliation claim. Flaherty v. Coughlin, 713 F.2d 10, 13 (2d Cir. 1983).
Clearly, Billups' inadequate attendance rate, coupled with a waiting list for enrollment, was a valid reason for removing him from the program. Although Billups unquestionably had a right to spend time in the law library, he did not have a concomitant right to preserve his place in a vocational program that he did not regularly attend, thereby depriving another inmate of an opportunity to learn a trade.
For the foregoing reasons, Billups' motion for summary judgment is DENIED, and defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.
Date: New York, New York
March 15, 1995
Harold Baer, Jr.
United States District Judge
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