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Blake v. Lea County Correctional Facility

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 18, 2019



         Plaintiff Preston Blake, a New Mexico inmate proceeding pro se, asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Lea County Correctional Facility, Geo Group Inc., Lea County Correctional Facility wardens R. Smith and J. Beaird, and correctional officers L. Rivas and Puente.[1] PRISONER'S CIVIL RIGHTS COMPLAINT (“Complaint”) (Doc. No. 1). In Count I, Plaintiff alleges due process violations arising from a prison disciplinary hearing and appeal. Id. at 2-3. In Count II, Plaintiff alleges First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment violations stemming from the purported confiscation and destruction of his property, including legal documents. Id. at 3. Finally, in Count III, Plaintiff claims that Defendants interfered with his access to the courts by prohibiting him from accessing the prison law library. Id. at 4. For the reasons below, the Court sua sponte will dismiss Plaintiff's claims against defendants Lea County Correctional Facility and Geo Group Inc. The Court further concludes that Plaintiff states valid claims in Count II, specifically with respect to Plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment access to the courts and retaliation claims. The Court will dismiss Plaintiff's remaining claims without prejudice.


         On August 1, 2016, Plaintiff received a visitor at Lea County Correctional Facility. Complaint at 13. Correctional officers, suspicious that the visitor may be attempting to smuggle contraband into the prison, interviewed the visitor. Id. During the interview, the visitor confessed to carrying contraband on her person. Id. Following a search, correctional officers discovered that the visitor carried thirteen strips of suboxone and 2.32 grams of methamphetamine into the prison. Id. Subsequently, correctional officers filed an inmate misconduct report charging Plaintiff with dealing in dangerous drugs. Id. Plaintiff asserts that on the same day correctional officer Defendant Puente confiscated Plaintiff's personal property, including a television, headphones, game console, clothes, supplies, and documents. Id. at 3.

         On August 9, 2016, Plaintiff was the subject of a disciplinary hearing on the charge of dealing in dangerous drugs. Id. at 19. Plaintiff contends that Defendant Rivas, a disciplinary officer, prevented Plaintiff from calling witnesses at the disciplinary hearing. Id. 1-3. Plaintiff maintains that Defendant Rivas denied Plaintiff assistance in the preparation of his defense and prevented Plaintiff from collecting evidence in advance of the hearing. Finally, he alleges that Defendant Rivas did not present any of the evidence identified on the inmate misconduct report. Id. at 3, 13. Even so, Defendant Rivas ultimately found Plaintiff guilty of dealing in dangerous drugs. Id. at 19. As sanctions, Defendant Rivas recommended thirty days of disciplinary segregation and 365 days of visitation, commissary, and phone suspension. Id. Plaintiff also claims he “lost approximately six weeks of good time.” Id. at 8.

         Plaintiff filed an appeal of Defendant Rivas's disciplinary determination. Plaintiff claimed that: (1) the officers did not follow disciplinary polies; (2) the evidence did not support the decision; (3) the sanctions were excessive; and (4) new information would change the outcome of the decision. Id. at 27. Defendant Smith, Lea County Correctional Facility warden, denied Plaintiff's appeal on all four grounds. Id.

         Following thirty days in disciplinary segregation, on August 1, 2016, Plaintiff received two trash bags containing the documents confiscated by Defendant Puente. Id. at 8. The documents purportedly included legal papers such as an alleged statement from an alibi witness and a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Id. at 3. Those documents, however, were “torn and trashed.” Id. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Puente acted with a retaliatory motive-Plaintiff had filed grievances against Defendant Puente in the past. Id. at 8. Plaintiff also claims that Defendant Beaird, warden secretary, saw the trashed documents after correctional officers returned them to Plaintiff. Id. at 8-9. According to Plaintiff, Defendant Beaird later returned to Plaintiff's cell and confiscated the documents in an alleged conspiracy to cover up Defendant Puente's actions. Id. at 9.

         Plaintiff has since been transferred to a different correctional facility. See Id. at 4. Even so, Plaintiff claims that from August 1, 2016, to the date he was transferred, he was denied access to the law library at Lea County Correctional Facility. Id. Specifically, he asserts that while in segregation he could not access computers for legal research. Id. He further claims that most books have been removed from the law library or are on restricted access. Id.

         On August 8, 2017, Plaintiff filed a complaint in federal district court asserting that Defendants violated his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 2. In Count I, Plaintiff claims that Defendants Rivas and Smith violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment based on their conduct during the disciplinary hearing and appeal. Id. at 8. He also appears to challenge his sanctions under the Due Process Clause. Id. In Count II, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Puente violated his equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and denied him access to the courts in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 8-9.[2] Finally, in Count III, Plaintiff claims that Defendants injured his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they denied him access to the prison law library. Id.

         Legal Standard

         The Court has the discretion to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2) “at any time if . . . the action . . . is frivolous or malicious; [or] fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.” The Court also may dismiss a complaint sua sponte under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim if “it is ‘patently obvious' that the plaintiff could not prevail on the facts alleged, and allowing him an opportunity to amend his complaint would be futile.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991) (quoting McKinney v. Oklahoma, Dep't of Human Services, 925 F.2d 363, 365 (10th Cir. 1991)). A plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “[A] court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint, ” and those factual allegations must “allow[ ] 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) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In reviewing Plaintiff's pro se complaint, the Court liberally construes the allegations. See Garrett v. Selby Connor Maddux & Janer, 425 F.3d 836, 840 (10th Cir. 2005). The Court will not, however, “assume the role of the advocate for the pro se litigant.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110.


         1. Section 1983 requirements

         “A cause of action under section 1983 requires the deprivation of a civil right by a ‘person' acting under color of state law.” McLaughlin v. Bd. of Trustees, 215 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2000). The plaintiff must allege that each government official, through the official's own individual actions, has personally violated the Constitution. See Trask v. Franco, 446 F.3d 1036, 1046 (10th Cir. 1998). Here, Plaintiff alleges that the individual defendants, [3] acting under color of state law, deprived him of his civil rights. Complaint at 1-2, 7. Accordingly, Plaintiff satisfies the preliminary requirements under § 1983 to bring claims against the individual defendants.

         With respect to the remaining two defendants, Plaintiff has failed to state a valid claim. Lea County Correctional Facility is a detention center and, thus, is not a suable entity for purposes of § 1983. See White v. Utah, 5 Fed.Appx. 852, 853 (10th Cir. 2001) (upholding dismissal of suit against county jail because there was “no statutory or case authority supporting a direct action against a county's subdivisions, including its jails”).[4] Geo Group Inc. is a private entity. Generally, private entities are only liable if they promulgated a policy that caused a deprivation of constitutional rights. See Hinton v. City of Elwood, Kan., 997 F.2d 774, 782 (10th Cir. 1993); Dodd v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1195 (10th ...

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