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Ronald Edward Williams v. Eric Holder

August 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. Mcavoy United States District Judge



Plaintiff commenced this civil rights action in December, 2011. See generally Dkt. No. 1. By his complaint, plaintiff claimed that his confinement was unconstitutional and that he was denied meaningful access to the courts. Id. By Decision and Order of this Court, dated April 20, 2012 ("April Decision and Order"), plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis was granted, and he was directed to submit an amended complaint if he wished to proceed with this action. Dkt. No. 9. Presently before the Court is plaintiff's amended complaint. Dkt. No. 12.


Having previously found that plaintiff meets the financial criteria for commencing this case in forma pauperis, the Court must now consider the sufficiency of the allegations set forth in the amended complaint in light of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) and 1915A. The legal standards governing the dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e) and 1915A were discussed at length in the April Decision and Order (Dkt. No. 9 at 2-4), and will not be restated here.

Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).*fn1 Section 1983 establishes a cause of action for "'the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States." German v. Fed. Home Loan Mortgage Corp., 885 F. Supp. 537, 573 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) (citing Wilder v. Virginia Hosp. Ass'n, 496 U.S. 498,508 (1990) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983)). "Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights, [but] . . . only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere." Sykes v. James, 13 F.3d 515, 519 (2d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted).

As with his original pleading, the amended complaint again claims that plaintiff was denied meaningful access to the Courts while confined as a federal pretrial detainee at the Cayuga County Jail. See generally Dkt. No. 12. More specifically, plaintiff claims that the law library did not contain sufficient legal materials and he was not provided with adequate legal assistance. Id. Plaintiff identifies defendants McNulty, Holder, Gould, and Sciliman,*fn2 as the individuals responsible for failing to properly stock the law library and/or assist him with his legal research. Id. Furthermore, after "request[ing] help from an outside source," Scilliman (the librarian) allegedly retaliated against plaintiff "by ignoring [his] requests [for legal materials] altogether." Id. at 5. Plaintiff effectively claims that because he was denied meaningful access to a law library and legal materials, he "is facing a term of 60-years [imprisonment in] . . . US[A] v. Williams, Docket No. 11-CV-0062."*fn3 Id. at 7. As relief for these violations, plaintiff is seeking monetary and injunctive relief. Id. at 8. The sufficiency of the claims raised in the amended complaint is discussed below.

As this Court discussed in the April Decision and Order, access to the courts is a fundamental right that 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). More recently, the Supreme Court held that an inmate alleging a denial of access to the courts must show "actual injury" as a result of the deficient access to the courts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996). The cause of the injury must be the inadequacy of the access. Id. at 350-51. A plaintiff must show that a non-frivolous claim has been frustrated or was being impeded by prison officials. See, e.g., Warbuton v. Underwood, 2 F.Supp.2d 306, 312 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (14 day dely in service not itself sufficient to establish actual injury); Gillard v. Burge, No. 9:03-CV-1537, 2007 WL 1074789, at *9 (N.D.N.Y. Apr. 5, 2007) (TJM/RFT) (missed deadline in federal case not sufficient to demonstrate actual injury). Accordingly, a plaintiff must assert non-conclusory allegations demonstrating both (1) that the defendant acted deliberately and maliciously, and (2) that a non-frivolous legal claim has been frustrated or impeded as a result of the allegedly inadequate law library. See Lewis, 518 U.S. at 353.

As for an "actual injury," plaintiff effectively claims that if he was provided with adequate materials and assistance, he would not have been "facing a term of 60-years" imprisonment in USA v Williams. Dkt. No. 12. However, despite liberally construing the pleading, nothing in the amended complaint even suggests that proper access to legal materials and/or legal assistance would have provided plaintiff with a non-frivolous basis for defending that criminal proceeding. Plaintiff's wholly conclusory claim is simply insufficient to establish a constitutional violation of denial of meaningful access to the courts. Furthermore, as this Court noted in the April Decision and Order, it is clear that plaintiff was appointed defense counsel for USA v. Williams, prior to commencing this lawsuit.*fn4 See Dkt. No. 12 at 7; USA v. Williams, 5:11-CR-0062, Dkt. No. 15. Appointed counsel defeats plaintiff's claim that the inadequate law library and legal assistance at the Cayuga County Jail prejudiced his rights in his criminal action. See Bourdon v. Loughren, 386 F.3d 88, 93 (2d Cir. 2004) ("confirm[ing] that the appointment of counsel can be a valid means of satisfying a prisoner's right of access to the courts"); Spates v. Manson, 644 F.2d 80, 84-85 (2d Cir. 1981) (The right of access to courts is notinfringed where prisoners are not supplied with an adequate prison library, so long as they were provided with appointed counsel.); United States v. West, 557 F.2d 151, 152 (8th Cir. 1977) (lack of access to a law library failed to state a claim for denial of access to the courts because the plaintiff had been assigned stand-by counsel, which was a reasonable alternative to assure meaningful access to the courts). Moreover, plaintiff did not plead to the charges but, rather, was tried before a jury in January, 2012. See United States v. Williams, 5:11-CR-0062, Dkt. No. 54.

Based on the foregoing, plaintiff's claim of denial of access to the courts is dismissed without prejudice. Accordingly, because plaintiff has not alleged an actionable claim against Gould, Holder, or McNulty, they are hereby dismissed without prejudice as defendants in this action.*fn5

Plaintiff's only remaining claim is that Scilliman retaliated against him when plaintiff sought outside help. Dkt. No. 12 at 5. In light of the requirement to liberally construe the pleadings from pro se plaintiffs, see, e.g., Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 (2d Cir. 2008), the Court finds that the complaint says enough to require a response from Scilliman regarding plaintiff's retaliation claim. However, the Court expresses no opinion as to whether plaintiff's claim can withstand a properly filed motion to dismiss or for summary judgment.


WHEREFORE, it is hereby

ORDERED that the Clerk edit the docket to add Sheriff David Gould and Corporal Scilliman as defendants in ...

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