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Human Rights Defense Center v. Board of County Commissioners

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 20, 2018

BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF THE COUNTY OF SAN MIGUEL, NM, MATT ELWELL, Warden, individually and in his official capacity, ANTONIO PADILLA, Deputy Warden, individually and in his official capacity, JOHN AND JANE DOES 1-10, Staff, individually and in their official capacities, Defendants.


         In the MOTION TO DISMISS IN LIEU OF AN ANSWER (Doc. No. 25), Defendants the Board of County Commissioners of the County of San Miguel, New Mexico (County), and the individual Defendants, Matt Elwell (Warden Elwell) and Antonio Padilla (Deputy Warden Padilla) (together, Defendants) ask the Court to dismiss all claims for injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and damages under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Plaintiff, Human Rights Defense Center (Plaintiff) alleges that Defendants violated Plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by rejecting publications that Plaintiff sent to inmates at the San Miguel County Detention Center (Jail). The Motion is fully briefed. See PLAINTIFF'S OPPOSITION TO DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS IN LIEU OF AN ANSWER (Doc. No. 28) (Response); and DEFENDANTS' REPLY IN SUPPORT OF THEIR MOTION TO DISMISS IN LIEU OF AN ANSWER (Doc. No. 31) (Reply). Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are moot because the Jail has a constitutional mail policy that allows the delivery of Plaintiff's publications to inmates and the Jail has now remedied the misapplication of that policy through retraining of all staff. The Court agrees and will dismiss the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief. The individual Defendants contend that all claims for damages should be dismissed for failure to allege what actions each individual Defendant took in violation of Plaintiff's rights. The Court will grant the Motion on that basis but will allow Plaintiff an opportunity to seek leave to amend the Amended Complaint. The Court will dismiss all claims against the individual Defendants in their official capacities because those claims are duplicative of the claims against the County. The Court will also deny PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND MEMORANDUM OF LAW IN SUPPORT (Doc. No. 2) (Motion for Preliminary Injunction).[1]


         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), Defendants move for dismissal of all claims for injunctive and declaratory relief because those claims are moot. In ruling on a motion under Rule 12(b)(1), a court has wide discretion to allow affidavits and other documents to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts. Pringle v. United States, 208 F.3d 1220, 1222 (10th Cir. 2000). In such instances, a court's reference to evidence outside the pleadings does not convert the motion to a Rule 56 motion. Id. “Mootness is a threshold issue because the existence of a live case or controversy is a constitutional prerequisite to federal court jurisdiction.” Rio Grande Silvery Minnow v. Bureau of Reclamation, 601 F.3d 1096, 1109 (10th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). Defendants' argument that they have remedied the alleged violations of Plaintiff's rights implicates the mootness doctrine's “voluntary cessation” exception. Id. at 1115. Voluntary actions may moot litigation if: “(1) it can be said with assurance that there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur, and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.” Id. (citation omitted). When a party asserts that its own conduct has eliminated any live case or controversy, it bears a “heavy burden” to show that the change in circumstances makes it “absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.” Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envt'l. Servs. (TOC), Inc., 528 U.S. 167, 189-90 (2000).

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), Warden Elwell and Deputy Warden Padilla ask for dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims for damages asserting qualified immunity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Under Rule 12(b)(6), “[a court] must accept all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true and must construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Cressman v. Thompson, 719 F.3d 1139, 1152 (10th Cir. 2014). To survive dismissal, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Thomas v. Kaven, 765 F.3d 1183, 1190-91 (10th Cir. 2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). When a defendant raises qualified immunity in a motion to dismiss, a court must determine whether the plaintiff's allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are adequate to show that (1) a defendant's conduct violated a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) the right was clearly established when the violation occurred. Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011). This requires a court to decide whether the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged what acts were committed by which defendant. Matthews v. Bergdorf, 889 F.3d 1136, 1144 (10th Cir. 2018). Warden Elwell and Deputy Warden Padilla argue that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim that they personally participated in the violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights.


         Plaintiff's executive director, Paul Wright, states that Plaintiff is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating prisoners and the public about “the economic and social costs of prison to society.” (Mot. for Prelim. Injunct. Ex. A, Wright Decl. ¶ 2.) Plaintiff accomplishes its mission “through advocacy, litigation, and the publication and/or distribution of books, magazines, and other information concerning prisons and prisoner rights.” (Id.)

Plaintiff publishes and distributes a soft-cover monthly magazine titled Prison Legal News: Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights, which contains news and analysis about prisons, jails and other detention facilities, prisoners' rights, court opinions, management of prison facilities, prison conditions, and other matters pertaining to the rights and/or interests of incarcerated individuals.

(Id. ¶ 4.) More recently, Plaintiff “began publishing a second monthly magazine, Criminal Legal News[, which] … focuses on review and analysis of individual rights, court rulings, and news concerning criminal justice-related issues.” (Id. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff “also distributes approximately 50 different soft-cover books on subjects of interest to prisoners and others[.] …[Plaintiff] is the publisher and/or book distributor for these books.” (Id. ¶ 6.)

         In the AMENDED COMPLAINT FOR DECLARATORY AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF UNDER THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT 42 U.S.C. § 1983 AND DAMAGES (Doc. No. 7) (Amended Complaint) Plaintiff alleges that over the last two years Plaintiff sent several publications to inmates at the Jail, but nineteen books were returned to Plaintiff in their original packaging marked “Refused.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 24.) In addition, sixteen copies of Prison Legal News and five copies of Criminal Legal News were returned to Plaintiff. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants rejected the publications without notice or a hearing. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.)

         In Count I, Plaintiff asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of Plaintiff's First Amendment right to communicate with inmates at the Jail. (Id. ¶ 39.) In Count II, Plaintiff asserts a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denying Plaintiff's due process rights by failing to notify and inform Plaintiff of its right to appeal each rejection. (Id. ¶¶ 47-49.) Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages, attorneys' fees and costs. (Id. ¶¶ 53-58.)


         A. Plaintiff's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief are moot and will be dismissed.

         Defendants assert that Plaintiff's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief have become moot because (1) the Jail's policy regarding receipt of publications directly from publishers allows inmates at the Jail to receive Plaintiff's publications; (2) the rejection of Plaintiff's publications was a violation of that policy; and (3) upon learning of the violation, Defendants retrained all staff on the proper application of the policy. In his affidavit, Warden Elwell specifies that the Jail's “Inmate Correspondence” policy was drafted and enacted prior to his tenure as Warden, which began on September 18, 2017. (Mot. Ex. A, Elwell Aff. ¶ 5.) Until this lawsuit was filed on April 16, 2018, Warden Elwell “was unaware that its application with respect to publications (such as those referenced in Plaintiff's Complaint) was not being applied consistently.” (Id.) Warden Elwell “was unaware that staff may have been either discarding or returning inmate publication shipments[.]” (Id. ¶ 6.) Warden Elwell was also not aware “that the sender of those publications was not being given the opportunity to grieve these rejections as was (and still is) provided by the policy.” (Id.) Upon learning of the policy violations, Warden Elwell immediately spoke with Jail staff and “reviewed the relevant policy to make sure that it adequately addressed and ensured inmate receipt of Plaintiff's publications[.]” (Id. ¶ 8.) In addition to annual training in April 2018, Warden Elwell “conducted a refresher training directed specifically at the relevant policy and subject of inmate correspondence” in June and July 2018. (Id. ¶ 10.) The Jail's “Inmate Correspondence” policy is attached as Exhibit A to Warden Elwell's affidavit, and copies of the training rosters from June and July 2018 are attached as Exhibit B to Warden Elwell's affidavit. (Id. ¶ 9.)

         According to Warden Elwell, the “retraining of staff as to the proper application of the policy alleviates the issues discussed in the Plaintiff's Complaint.” (Id. ¶ 11.) In the future, Warden Elwell “has no intention of amending” the Jail's policy to make it more restrictive on receipt of Plaintiff's publications. (Id. ¶ 12.) Warden Elwell is “committed to continuing [the] current ...

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