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Human Rights Defense Center v. Baxter County

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

January 22, 2019




         Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff Human Rights Defense Center's (“HRDC”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 67) contends that Defendant Baxter County's (“the County”) adoption of a postcard-only mail policy violates its rights under the First Amendment. It additionally contends that the County's failure to send individual notices each time one of its unsolicited mailings was rejected by the County jail pursuant to this policy and its failure to allow HRDC to challenge each individual rejection amount to due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment. The County's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 70) contends that the First Amendment challenge asserted by HRDC should be dismissed based upon a recent ruling of the Eighth Circuit upholding a similar policy and that HRDC was not denied due process when the County rejected its unsolicited mailings.

         For the reasons explained below, the Court concludes that this is a classic case where both parties have moved for summary judgment as to all claims and where neither party is entitled to complete judgment as a matter of law based on the present record. Nevertheless, it will GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART HRDC's Motion (Doc. 67) and GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART the County's Motion (Doc. 70).

         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 “accomplishes its mission through litigation, advocacy, and publication and/or distribution of books, magazines and other information concerning prisons and prisoner rights.” (Doc. 26-1, p. 1).[1] HRDC 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.[2] 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. As part of its mission, HRDC distributes these mailings to monthly subscribers (civilians and prisoners alike) and to prisoners in 2, 600 correctional facilities across the country, including in Arkansas.

         HRDC alleges that Defendants[3] implemented and adhered to an unconstitutional mail policy that prohibited the delivery of HRDC's publication materials to prisoners at the County's jail. In 2012, the County adopted a new mail policy that requires all incoming mail to be limited to postcards. As a result of this policy, 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 Jail.[4] Defendants allegedly 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 it sent several “waves” of unsolicited mailings to the Jail. Paul Wright, [5] the founder and Executive Director of HRDC, stated in his Declaration that:

• On August 5, 2016, HRDC mailed books, magazines, and enveloped letters to eleven prisoners in the Jail. Those mailings included a copy of The Habeas Citebook, a sample copy of Prison Legal News, an informational brochure containing a list of other HRDC publications and an order form, and a paper copy of a 2004 decision of the Ninth Circuit (Doc. 69-17, ¶ 19). Most[6] of the books, magazines, and letters sent on this date were returned to HRDC. Wright alleges that all of the returned items contained one of two markings: either a hand-written note stating “Refused” or a United States Postal Service (“USPS”) sticker stating “Return to Sender Refused.” Id. at ¶ 21.
• Between September 2016 and January 2017, HRDC also sent monthly subscription issues of Prison Legal News and an annual fundraiser issue to prisoners at the Jail. Id. at ¶ 34. Many of these issues were returned to HRDC.[7]
• On January 6, 2017, HRDC tried again, this time sending the same mailings to seven prisoners in the Jail. Six days later, HRDC mailed follow-up enveloped letters to those same seven prisoners. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 24. This time, however, only some[8] of the mailings sent on January 6 and January 12 were returned to HRDC. All of these returned items had a USPS sticker stating “Return to Sender Insufficient Address.” Id. at ¶ 26.
• On May 12, 2017, HRDC tried yet again. This time, the same mailings were sent to twelve prisoners at the jail. Id. at ¶ 28. HRDC followed-up on these mailings by sending enveloped letters to those same twelve prisoners on May 18. Id. at ¶ 29. Most[9] of these mailings were allegedly returned to HRDC. Of those that were returned, all of the mailings were stamped “RETURN TO SENDER POSTCARDS ONLY.” Id. at ¶ 31. HRDC alleges that these stamps were affixed regardless of whether the inmate was still in the Jail at the time of rejection or not.

Since 2016, HRDC has identified at least one hundred ten (110) items of mail sent to prisoners that Defendants allegedly censored. Id. at ¶ 36. 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. (Doc. 26, p. 4). 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

         HRDC initially sued the County alongside individual officers of the County who were instrumental in enacting the policy or in rejecting HRDC's repeated mailings. It also sought a preliminary injunction enjoining continued enforcement of the policy. However, in ruling on the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) and HRDC's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 26), the Court determined that the individual capacity damage claims against these individuals should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity because the law governing HRDC's First and Fourteenth Amendment claims was not sufficiently clear to put these officials on notice that their actions were unconstitutional. See Doc. 49. In addition, and in part because of the unsettled nature of the law, the Court also denied HRDC's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in that same order. A little less than a month after the Court issued its ruling on these two motions, the Eighth Circuit upheld a very similar postcard-only policy against a First Amendment challenge in Simpson v. County of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. 879 F.3d 273 (8th Cir. 2018). That decision prompted the Defendants to file a renewed motion to dismiss (Doc. 50), wherein they contended that the Eighth Circuit's decision in Simpson sufficiently clarified the law to the point that the Defendants were now entitled to dismissal of the Complaint. The Court construed that “motion to dismiss” as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, ultimately granting it in part and denying it in part. See Doc. 53. As a result of that opinion, the remaining official capacity claims were dismissed as duplicative of the claim against the County, and those individual officials were dismissed from the action.

         The parties filed the present cross-motions for summary judgment on November 2, 2018. After responses and replies were filed, both motions became ripe for decision on November 26, 2018.


         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). When, as here, cross-motions for summary judgment are filed, each motion should be reviewed in its own right, with each side “entitled to the benefit of all inferences favorable to them which might reasonably be drawn from the record.” Wermager v. Cormorant Twp. Bd., 716 F.2d 1211, 1214 (8th Cir. 1983). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and give the non-moving party the benefit of any logical inference that can be drawn from the facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the burden of proving the absence of any material factual disputes. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

         If the moving party meets this burden, then the non-moving party must “come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting then-Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)) (emphasis removed). These facts must be “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The nonmoving party must do more than rely on allegations or denials in the pleadings, and the court should grant summary judgment if any essential element of the prima facie case is not supported by specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial.” Register v. Honeywell Fed. Mfg. & Techs., LLC, 397 F.3d 1130, 1136 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)).


         A. First Amendment Claim

         Both parties contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on HRDC's First Amendment claim against the County.[10]

         As the Court noted in its opinion on HRDC's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, “‘[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,' . . . nor do they bar free citizens from exercising their own constitutional rights by reaching out to those on the ‘inside[.]'” Thornburgh v. Abbott, 490 U.S. 401, 407 (1989). Nevertheless, because these rights must in some cases yield to the decisions of officials who have the difficult undertaking of operating a modern prison, publishers seeking to communicate with prisoners on the inside “enjoy the protections of the First Amendment except to the extent that prison regulations curtailing those protections are ‘reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.'” Prison Legal News v. Livingston, 683 F.3d 201, 222-23 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987)).

         Thus, in assessing a First Amendment challenge to the reasonableness of a prison's policy, the Supreme Court has indicated that courts must consider: (1) whether the regulation is rationally related to a legitimate penological goal; (2) whether alternative means of exercising First Amendment rights remain available; (3) the effect that the asserted right will have on prison employees and other prisoners; and (4) whether there are obvious alternative means of accommodating the asserted right. Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-91. As the Eighth Circuit aptly noted in Simpson, a “Turner analysis is a fact-intensive inquiry requiring careful examination of the policies and institutions at issue in each case.” Simpson, 879 F.3d at 282.

         HRDC contends that the undisputed facts in this case clearly suggest that the Jail's postcard-only policy does not satisfy the Turner test and is therefore unconstitutional. The County, on the other hand, contends that the Eighth Circuit's Simpson decision de facto legitimized its postcard-only policy because it is identical to the policy upheld by the Eighth Circuit. Neither party is correct.

         Despite the best protestations of the parties, there remain numerous genuine disputes of material fact that preclude the Court from granting either party summary judgment on this claim. As noted above, the Turner test is a fact-specific inquiry that turns on a careful examination of the policies and institutions in each case. In looking at the four Turner factors, it is clear why unresolved factual questions preclude a grant of summary judgment on the current record.

         For instance, the resolution of whether the postcard-only policy is rationally related to a legitimate penological goal (Turner factor 1) depends upon an examination of the County's reasons for enacting the policy. Those reasons have been variously described throughout this case but are essentially three-fold: 1) as a security precaution as a proactive measure to decrease the amount of contraband coming into the Jail, 2) as a cost-saving measure to the County, and 3) to promote efficient jail operations. See Aff. of Sheriff Montgomery, Doc. 71-1, pp. 1-2. Thus, the parties have vigorously disputed whether the postcard-only policy is rationally related to those goals by developing testimony during depositions as to whether adoption of a postcard-only policy would in fact be cheaper, whether it would more efficiently enable this specific Jail to conduct its operations (including estimates of the time saved by not having to open envelopes or search thick books for contraband), and whether it is objectively and rationally related to the Jail's interest in safety and security and contraband reduction[11] (i.e., by reducing the number of pieces of paper prisoners have in their cells, thereby preventing the use of this paper to clog the plumbing, by preventing prisoners from gaining access to paper clips, staples, or other items that could present a security problem, etc.).

         Many of those same factual disputes bear directly on Turner factor 3 (the burden that accommodating HRDC's interests would have on jail officials, other inmates, or allocation of resources). Here, too, the Court finds numerous questions incapable of being resolved on the summary judgment record. For instance, unlike a large prison with a stable population, the testimony here reveals that the Jail is a smaller institution, housing a majority of individuals who are there only temporarily and very few individuals who are there for longer than a couple of months. It also has a smaller staff size (how small is another unresolved factual question) which necessitates an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, meaning that there are no officers of the Jail whose primary duties include mail acceptance, review, and distribution. Rather, the testimony is that the officials responsible for sorting, approving, and distributing the mail to the prisoners change constantly, with officers stepping in to perform those functions as they are able.

         Thus, given the smaller staff and resources of this Jail, whether the postcard-only policy could rationally be expected to make those sorting and distributing duties more efficient is a key unresolved question as it bears directly on the reasonableness of the County's stated goals in making operations more efficient and in improving security (as a more efficient inspection means that officials could return to monitoring prisoners sooner).[12] Indeed, the bench trial order that was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit in Simpson devoted substantial time and attention to these variables in assessing the first and third Turner factors. See, e.g., Simpson v. Cnty. of Cape Girardeau, 202 F.Supp.3d 1062, 1069-1071 (E.D. Mo. 2016). This Court is obligated by binding law to do the same.[13]Therefore, because analysis of the Turner factors depends upon factual disputes that are inappropriate for the Court to resolve on summary judgment, the competing cross-motions for summary judgment as to the First Amendment claim will be DENIED.

         B. Due ...

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