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Brown v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 29, 2015

DERRICK BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Derrick Brown, proceeding pro se, brings this action against the City of New York and several New York City Department of Correction Officers (collectively "the City"), alleging causes of action for violation of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Specifically, Brown alleges that while he was detained on Rikers Island he was deprived of (1) his First Amendment right to receive mail; (2) his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion; (3) his right of access to the law library; and (4) his right to social services. The City moves to dismiss Brown's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the City's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

Brown was a pre-trial detainee on Rikers Island until he was transferred to New York State Custody after his criminal conviction. On January 2, 2014, he brought this lawsuit against several improperly-named defendants. Chief Judge Preska ordered him to amend his complaint to state more specifically the factual grounds undergirding his claims and to name proper defendants. (Dkt. No. 4.) On April 3, 2014, Brown filed an Amended Complaint in this action. (Dkt. No. 5.) Because he named several John and Jane Doe defendants in his Amended Complaint, the Court ordered the City to help him identify the proper Defendants pursuant to Valentin v. Dinkins, 121 F.3d 72, 76 (2d Cir. 1997). (Dkt. No. 8.) Brown amended his complaint again on June 12, 2014, to include allegations against Mrs. Bethea, Mrs. Sandy Valcin, and Mrs. Williams, all employees of the City and officers on Rikers Island. (Dkt. No. 13.)

II. Discussion

Brown specifically alleges (1) that his mail was delayed at least two months; (2) that he has been denied his right to see an Imam; (3) that the law library on Rikers Island was defective in failing to provide him certain requested motions and because of its general unreliability; and

(4) that the social services on Rikers Island are inadequate. The City moves to dismiss[1] the Amended Complaint on the ground that Brown has not added sufficient detail to his original Complaint to comply with Judge Preska's order. (Dkt. No. 4.) For the reasons that follow, the City's motion is granted with respect to Brown's religious exercise, law library, and social services claims; the City's motion to dismiss Brown's mail delay claim is denied; and Brown is granted leave to amend his complaint to state a claim for denial of religious exercise.

A. Legal Standard

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court must "accept all allegations in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in the non-moving party's favor." City of New York v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 524 F.3d 384, 392 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A court will not consider mere conclusory allegations that lack a factual basis. Hayden v. Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 160-61 (2d Cir. 2010). A plaintiff's complaint "must at a minimum assert nonconclusory factual matter sufficient to nudge its claims across the line from conceivable to plausible to proceed." EEOC v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 768 F.3d 247, 254 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted).

A complaint filed pro se "must be construed liberally to raise the strongest arguments it suggests." Walker v. Schult, 717 F.3d 119, 124 (2d Cir. 2013) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). "[A] pro se litigant in particular should be afforded every reasonable opportunity to demonstrate that he has a valid claim." Nielsen v. Rabin, 746 F.3d 58, 62 (2d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, a pro se litigant must nonetheless "plead facts sufficient to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Teichmann v. New York, 769 F.3d 821, 825 (2d Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).

B. Mail

Brown alleges that he is "just receiving mail that was sent a month or two before" and that "the department"-specifically, Mrs. Bethea, a mail officer-is "keeping [his] mail." (Dkt. No. 5, Amended Complaint ("Complaint"), at 3.)[2]

Prison and jail inmates have a First Amendment right to send and receive mail. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 87 (1987); Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 412 (1989). Although jail officials may screen inmate mail and may prohibit certain publications, any restrictions must be "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 404 (quoting Turner, 482 U.S. at 89). In general, legal mail is more closely protected by the First Amendment than non-legal mail, Davis v. Goord, 320 F.3d 346, 351 (2d Cir. 2003), but the latter remains subject to the "reasonableness" standard of Thornburgh, 490 U.S. at 414. And although prison officials enjoy wide discretion in setting mail policy, "a reasonableness standard is not toothless." Id. at 414. Even restrictions wholly unrelated to the content or viewpoint of incoming and outgoing letters are invalid if they do not allow inmates reasonable access to their mail. See, e.g., Antonelli v. Sheahan, 81 F.3d 1422, 1432 (7th Cir. 1996).

The rule in Thornburgh applies to lengthy delays in mail delivery. "Allegations that mail delivery was delayed for an inordinate amount of time are sufficient to state a claim for violation of the First Amendment." Rhinehart v. Gomez, No. C-95-0434-VRW, 1998 WL 118179, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 2, 1998) (citing Antonelli 81 F.3d at 1432). "Any practice or regulation that unduly delays an inmate's incoming mail must be reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." Id. (citing Turner, 482 U.S. at 89). But an isolated or short-term delay is not enough to state a claim. See Sizemore v. Williford, 829 F.2d 608, 610 (7th Cir. 1987) (allegations of relatively short-term, non-content-based disruption in delivery of inmate mail not enough to state First Amendment claim); see also Bartolomeo v. Liburdi, No. 97-0624-ML, 1999 WL 143097, at *3 (D.R.I. Feb. 4, 1999) (report and recommendation) ("Where mail delays are no more than infrequent episodes, and prompt attention is paid to complaints of missing or late mail, there is not a constitutional violation."); Armstrong v. Lane, 771 F.Supp. 943, 948 (C.D. Ill. 1991); Alston v. Coughlin, 668 F.Supp. 822, 847 (S.D.N.Y. 1987) (dismissing constitutional claim on basis of finding that mail delays are "no more than infrequent episodes"). Only an "inordinate" delay will trigger First Amended scrutiny. Rhinehart, 1998 WL 118179. But what constitutes an ...


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