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Human Rights Defense Center v. Baxter County

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

December 5, 2017

BAXTER COUNTY, ARKANSAS; JOHN MONTGOMERY, Sheriff, in his individual and official capacities; BRAD LEWIS, Jail Administrator, in his individual and official capacities; SGT. ERIC NEAL, in his individual and official capacities; and DOES 1-10, in their individual and official capacities DEFENDANTS



         Currently before the Court are two Motions and a multitude of briefs. First, Defendants Sheriff John Montgomery, Jail Administrator Brad Lewis, Sergeant Eric Neal, and Baxter County (collectively, "Defendants") have filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) and Brief in Support (Doc. 19) asserting that Plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center ("HRDC") lacks standing to sue and that the individual capacity claims against these county officials should be dismissed on qualified immunity grounds. In addition to these two filings, the Court has also received HRDC's Response (Doc. 25), the Defendants' Reply (Doc. 31), and HRDC's Sur-Reply (Doc. 35). The second motion is HRDC's First Motion for a Preliminary Injunction and Brief in Support (Doc. 26). On that Motion, the Court has received the Defendants' Response (Doc. 33) and HRDC's Reply (Doc. 43).

         The Court heard oral argument on both motions during a case management hearing held on November 28, 2017. As the Court explained in its rulings from the bench and as further explained below, the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, and HRDC's First Motion for a Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 26) is DENIED. To the extent anything in this Order differs from the rulings the Court made from the bench during that hearing, this Order shall control.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         HRDC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with principal offices in Lake Worth, Florida. HRDC's purpose is to "educate prisoners and the public about the destructive natures of racism, sexism, and the economic and social costs of prisons to society." (Doc. 1, p. 3). HRDC communicates this message through Prison Legal News ("PLN"), which is the "publishing arm of the HRDC." Id.

         HRDC, through PLN, publishes and distributes Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights, a monthly magazine which contains news about prisons, prisoners' rights, and prison facilities and conditions, among other things.[1] HRDC distributes its magazines to monthly subscribers and to prisoners in 2, 600 correctional facilities across the country, including in Arkansas. In addition to Prison Legal News, HRDC also publishes and distributes different books about the criminal justice system, self-help books for prisoners, and informational packets that contain subscription order forms and a book list.

         The named defendants in HRDC's complaint are Baxter County, Arkansas (the "County"), which operates the Baxter County Jail and Detention Center ("BCDC"), Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery, Lieutenant Brad Lewis, and Sergeant Eric Neal. HRDC alleges that Defendants implemented and adhered to an unconstitutional mail policy that prohibited the delivery of HRDC's publication materials to BCDC prisoners. Specifically, HRDC claims that Defendants refused to deliver issues and sample issues of Prison Legal News, The Habeas Citebook, informational packets, legal letters, and court opinions sent by HRDC to prisoners held in the BCDC. Since 2016, HRDC has identified at least one hundred ten (110) items of mail sent to BCDC prisoners that Defendants allegedly censored. This includes twenty-one (21) issues of Prison Legal News, eleven (11) sample issues of Prison Legal News, twenty-one (21) informational packets, and twenty-four (24) copies of The Habeas Citebook. Id. at 6. Defendants sent these items back to HRDC with "Refused" or "Return to Sender Post Cards Only" notations, id. at 7, and allegedly failed to return other mailings. HRDC alleges that Defendants' actions violated its constitutional rights, limited its ability to distribute its political message and obtain new customers, and thereby frustrated its organizational mission.

         B. Procedural Background

         On August 21, 2017, HRDC filed suit in this Court. Principally, HRDC alleges that Defendants' mail policy unconstitutionally prohibits HRDC from delivering its materials to BCDC prisoners, thereby violating its First Amendment rights. HRDC also alleges that Defendants' policies violate its right to Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment by not giving it adequate notice of Defendants' decisions or an opportunity to object to or challenge those decisions. As such, HRDC seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against all Defendants as well as damages.

         On September 21, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss all of HRDC's claims (Doc. 18) and a Brief in Support (Doc. 19). Specifically, Defendants' motion argues that HRDC lacks standing to bring this suit and that the individual capacity claims against these three officials should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity. After filing a response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, HRDC, on October 9, 2017, filed its First Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 26), where it requested that this Court prohibit Defendants from continuing to violate its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Responses and Replies, including a Sur-Reply, were submitted to the Court, and both of these motions are ripe for decision.


         A. Motion to Dismiss

         1. Standing

         Because standing goes to the heart of the Court's jurisdiction to hear a case, Tarsney v. O'Keefe, 225 F.3d 929, 934 (8th Cir. 2000), the Court will first take up Defendants' argument that the Complaint should be dismissed because HRDC lacks standing to sue over these alleged violations. Article III standing requires an "'injury in fact' to the plaintiff that is 'fairly traceable to the challenged act of the defendant, ' and 'likely [to] be redressed by a favorable decision.'" Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 591 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992)). An injury in fact occurs when there "is an invasion of a legally cognizable right" and it "generally requires injury to the plaintiff's personal legal interests. Id. (citing Vt. Agency of Natural Res. v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 771-72 (2000)).

         The Supreme Court has recognized that "publishers who wish to communicate [with prisoners], through subscriptions . . . have a legitimate First Amendment interest in access to prisoners." Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 408 (1989) (discussing the standard to use when reviewing prison regulations that limit access to prisoners). Thus, even though that First Amendment right is "qualified of necessity by the circumstance of imprisonment, " Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 418 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401 (1989), "the decision to censororwithhold delivery of a particular letter must be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards." Id. at 417. Therefore, HRDC's allegations that it did not receive these minimum procedural safeguards, in violation of its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, is sufficient to allege an injury that could be redressed were this Court to ultimately rule for it on the merits.

         Defendants argue that HRDC lacks standing because some of its injuries may occur in the future and because it has no First Amendment right to distribute unsolicited materials to prisoners. See Doc. 19, pp. 7-8. Defendants' arguments impermissibly seek to graft merits-based considerations into the requirements for standing. See, e.g., Prison Legal News v. Livingston, 683 F.3d 201, 212 (5th Cir. 2012) ("[A] plaintiff need not prevail on the merits before he can establish his standing to sue.").

         Here, HRDC alleges First and Fourteenth Amendment violations that flow directly from the BCDC's postcard-only policy, and it alleges that this policy damaged HRDC and will continue to cause damage unless enjoined. (Doc. 19, p. 9). Thus, even if the Court ultimately finds in favor of Defendants on the merits of this case, HRDC still has standing to bring this suit. To the extent Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is premised upon an argument that HRDC lacks standing, it will be DENIED.

         2. Qualified Immunity

         Defendants next argue that even if the entire lawsuit is not dismissed, the individual capacity damage claims against these three named officials should be dismissed because they are entitled to qualified immunity. See Doc. 19, p. 3. "Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct." Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012) (citing Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011)). Government officials sued in their individual capacity are "entitled to qualified immunity unless the right asserted by [the plaintiff] was established 'beyond debate.'" Scott v. Tempelmeyer, 867 F.3d 1067, 1070 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 741). In short, qualified immunity "gives ample room for mistaken judgment by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Durham v. Horner, 690 F.3d 183, 190 (4th Cir. 2012) ("[Qualified immunity protects public officials from bad guesses in gray areas.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Qualified immunity, however, does not serve as a defense to an equitable claim, such as a claim for injunctive relief. Williams v. Delo, 49 F.3d 442, 445 (8th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted); Grantham v. Trickey, 21 F.3d 289, 295-96 (8th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted) ("There is no dispute that qualified immunity does not apply to claims for equitable relief . . . and that state officials may be sued in their official capacity for equitable relief[.]"). Therefore, the individually named officials may be compelled to act if the Court grants HRDC's request for a preliminary injunction. Thus, at the outset, it is important for the Court to note that the official capacity claims against these individuals will remain regardless of the Court's decision below on whether the individual capacity claims should be dismissed.

         Turning to the qualified immunity analysis, "[t]he first step ... is to determine 'whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.'" Cox v. Sugg, 484 F.3d 1062, 1065 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). HRDC sufficiently alleges that the individual Defendants violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by limiting its ability to communicate with BCDC prisoners, so the first step is satisfied.

         Next, the Court must decide whether HRDC's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were clearly established when the BCDC rejected its attempts to communicate with prisoners. See Serna v. Goodno, 567 F.3d 944, 952 (8th Cir. 2009). As the Court noted above, for a right to have been clearly established, "existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Smith v. City of Minneapolis, 754 F.3d 541, 546 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 741). Because Defendants assert that they should be protected by qualified immunity on both HRDC's First and Fourteenth Amendment claims, the Court will consider each claim in turn.

         a. First Amendment

         Regarding the First Amendment claim, the Court finds that the individually named defendants, Sheriff Montgomery, Jail Administrator Lewis, and Sergeant Neal, are entitled to qualified immunity. The law was not clearly established in August 2016 to the point that these officials knew or should have known that enforcing BCDC's postcard-only policy violated HRDC's First Amendment rights. As an initial matter, the Court has previously considered a nearly-identical policy that came to it on a Report and Recommendation of Judge Ford in Brown v. Hickman. In his Report and Recommendation, Judge Ford undertook a careful and thorough search for cases within the Eighth Circuit that addressed the constitutionality of a postcard-only policy, finding none. 2015 WL 1097392, at *9 (W.D. Ark. Mar. 11, 2015). In addition, he noted that district courts outside of the Eighth Circuit had come to divergent opinions on the constitutionality of such a policy. Id. (collecting cases). This Court reviewed Judge Ford's opinion carefully, adopting it in its entirety and concluding that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at *1.

         As the Court stated during oral argument, this fact alone is sufficient in the Court's opinion to find that these officials are entitled to qualified immunity on HRDC's First Amendment claim. Nevertheless, the Court would additionally note that despite the fact that HRDC cherry-picked cases that had ruled against such policies, it ignored other cases from around the country that had been decided the other way. In short, HRDC has not demonstrated that it was clearly established at the time of the alleged rejections of HRDC's mailings that such a postcard-only policy violated HRDC's First Amendment rights.

         As the Court noted previously, qualified immunity is meant to protect all but the plainly incompetent, Hunter, 502 U.S. at 228, and serves as a shield for officials who make "bad guesses in gray areas, " Durham, 690 F.3d at 190. Given the Court's review of case law in this area, the constitutionality of this type of policy is certainly, at best, a gray area. Therefore, these individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the First Amendment claim, and the individual capacity damage claims asserted against them on this basis are DISMISSED.

         b. Fourteenth Amendment-Due Process

         These officials are also entitled to qualified immunity on HRDC's Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim. A due process violation requires the denial of a protected liberty or property interest. See Senty-Haugen v. Goodno,462 F.3d 876, 885-86 (8th Cir. 2006). In its landmark decision in Procunier v. Martinez, the Supreme Court held that "the addressee as well as the sender of direct personal correspondence derives from the First and Fourteenth Amendments a protection against unjustified governmental interference with the intended communication." 416 U.S. 396, 408-09 (1974) (emphasis added). Since that opinion, appellate courts around the country have concluded that a certain level of due process "must accompany various decisions to exclude prison mailings." Prisoner Legal News v. Livingston,683 F.3d 201, 222-23 (5th Cir. 2012) (noting that the Fourth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits had extended Martinez's logic to other types of publications). However, the Fifth Circuit's decision in Livingston, which ultimately held that initial but not subsequent denials of identical publications required notice and an opportunity to appeal, suggested in dicta the precise problem the Court ...

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