United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division
OPINION AND ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
ROBERTO A. LANGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
William Cody ("Cody"), an inmate at the South Dakota State Penitentiary ("SDSP"), filed a pro se complaint against the above-captioned SDSP officials (collectively "Defendants"), alleging that Defendants deprived him of adequate legal assistance, denied him access to certain of his own medical reports, and improperly intercepted his mail, all in violation of his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Doc. 1. Both parties filed their own motions for summary judgment. Docs. 26, 41. The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Veronica Duffy, who issued a Report and Recommendation on November 12, 2015. Doc. 58. Judge Duffy recommended that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted as to the denial-of-access-to-the-courts claims and denied as to the interference-with-mail claim. Doc. 58 at 55. Judge Duffy also recommended that Cody's motion for summary judgment be denied in its entirety. Doc. 58 at 55.
Within the appropriate time periods, both parties filed objections to the Report and Recommendation. Docs. 60, 64. Each objects to Judge Duffy's recommendation that summary judgment be denied on the interference-with-mail claim. Doc. 60 at 1-2; Doc. 64 at 17-22. Additionally, Cody objects to Judge Duffy's recommendation that summary judgment be granted for Defendants on the denial-of-access-to-the-courts claims. Doc. 64 at 4-10.
This Court reviews a report and recommendation pursuant to the statutory standards found in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), which provides in relevant part that "[a] judge of the [district] court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." "In the absence of an objection, the district court is not required 'to give any more consideration to the magistrate's report than the court considers appropriate.'" United States v. Murrillo-Figueroa, 862 F.Supp.2d 863, 866 (N.D. Iowa 2012) (quoting Thomas v. Am. 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985)). This Court has conducted a de novo review of the record, and for those reasons explained below, this Court overrules the objections and adopts the Report and Recommendation.
A. Denial-of-Access-to-the-Courts Claims
In his Verified Complaint, Cody's first two counts allege that Defendants failed to provide him with the legal assistance he needed in order to prepare a complaint regarding medical treatment and medications and that Defendants denied him access to outside provider Dr. Griess's medical report dated March 28, 2014, and certain utilization management ("UM") reports where Cody was denied various medical treatments. Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 35-45, 51-52. As to these two counts, Judge Duffy recommended that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted because Cody had failed to show an "actual injury." Doc. 58 at 55.
In order to prove a violation of the right of meaningful access to the courts, Cody must show that the Defendants did not provide him an opportunity to litigate a claim '"which resulted in actual injury, that is, the hindrance of a nonfrivolous and arguably meritorious underlying legal claim.'" Hartsfield v. Nichols, 511 F.3d 826, 831-32 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting White v. Kautzky, 494 F.3d 677, 680 (8th Cir. 2007)); see also Klinger v. Dep't of Corrs., 107 F.3d 609, 617 (8th Cir. 1997) (concluding that even though plaintiffs showed complete and systematic denial of access to law library and legal assistance, their claim failed as matter of law because none suffered actual injury or prejudice). "To prove actual injury, [a plaintiff] must 'demonstrate that a nonfrivolous legal claim had been frustrated or was being impeded.'" Hartsfield, 511 F.3d at 832 (quoting Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 353 (1996)); see also Johnson v. Missouri, 142 F.3d 1087, 1089 (8th Cir. 1998) ("[I]t is not sufficient for standing to show that court access could be impeded. Rather, a prisoner must show that it actually has been." (quotation omitted)); Goff v. Nix, 113 F.3d 887, 890-91 (8th Cir. 1997) (holding that inability of co-defendants to work together to recruit witnesses for upcoming trial "impeded" access to the courts).
The Supreme Court of the United States in Lewis v. Casey, stated that because precedent "did not create an abstract, freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance, an inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison's law library or legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical sense." 518 U.S. at 351. The Supreme Court continued that:
[An] inmate therefore must go one step further and demonstrate that the alleged shortcomings in the library or legal assistance program hindered his efforts to pursue a legal claim. He might show, for example, that a complaint he prepared was dismissed for failure to satisfy some technical requirement which, because of deficiencies in the prison's legal assistance facilities, he could not have known. Or that he had suffered arguably actionable harm that he wished to bring before the courts, but was so stymied by inadequacies of the law library that he was unable even to file a complaint.
More recently, the Supreme Court, in Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 412-14 (2002) stated that denial-of-access-to-courts cases have emerged into two separate categories which include either "forward-looking" or "backward-looking" claims. Forward-looking claims are those where a "systemic official action frustrates a plaintiff... in preparing and filing suits at the present time." Id. at 413. The object of this type of suit "is to place the plaintiff in a position to pursue a separate claim for relief once the frustrating condition has been removed." Id. On the other hand, backward-looking claims involve those allegations that "cannot now be tried . . . no matter what official action may be in the future." Id. at 414. "The ultimate object of [backward-looking] claims, then, is not the judgment in a further lawsuit, but simply the judgment in the access claim itself, in providing relief obtainable in no other suit in the future." Id.
In the Report and Recommendation, Judge Duffy reasoned that Cody did not prove he suffered an actual injury because he never filed a complaint regarding Defendants' alleged denials of his medical care and Cody apparently could still file such a complaint. Doc. 58 at 44-45, 47. If a complaint may still be filed, Judge Duffy concluded that "it is impossible for the court to see how claims in that complaint have already been frustrated or impeded by defendants." Doc. 58 at 45. Cody objects to Judge Duffy's recommendation and argues that he did suffer an actual injury because he "was denied the opportunity to present his claims." Doc. 64 at 8. Cody maintains that the actual injury in both of his denial-of-access claims is forward-looking and thus he is not required to show that he lost a case which alleged medical denials due to the ...