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Lee v. Thomas

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

October 31, 2017

GRADY A. LEE, SR., Plaintiff,
v.
KIM THOMAS - PRISON COMMISSIONER, et al., Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Grady Lee, Sr. [“Lee”], filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action while he was incarcerated at the Ventress Correctional Facility.[1] Lee's suit concerns the alleged opening of three pieces of legal mail outside of his presence at Ventress on July 18 & 22, 2014, and December 4, 2014. Named as defendants are former Commissioner Kim Thomas, Warden Christopher Gordy, and mail room supervisor Elizabeth Howard. Lee requests declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, costs, and trial by jury.[2] Docs. 5, 6.

         Defendants filed an answer, special report, and supporting evidentiary materials addressing Lee's claims for relief. Docs. 13, 14. Upon receipt of Defendants' special report, the court issued an order directing Lee to file a response, including sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioning Lee that “the court may at any time thereafter and without notice to the parties (1) treat the special report and any supporting evidentiary materials as a motion for summary judgment.” Doc. 16 at 2. Lee responded to Defendants' report, see Doc. 19, but his response does not demonstrate there is any genuine issue of material fact. The court will treat Defendants' report as a motion for summary judgment, and it concludes that this motion is due to be resolved in favor of Defendants.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine [dispute] as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a) (“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.”). The party moving for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the [record, including pleadings, discovery materials and affidavits], which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine [dispute] of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant may meet this burden by presenting evidence indicating there is no dispute of material fact or by showing that the non-moving party has failed to present evidence to support some element on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-324.

         Defendants have met their evidentiary burden. Thus, the burden shifts to Lee to establish, with appropriate evidence beyond the pleadings, that a genuine dispute material to his case exists. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3); Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593-594 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that, once the moving party meets its burden, “the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits [or sworn statements], or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ” demonstrate there is a genuine dispute of material fact) (internal quotations omitted). This court will also consider “specific facts” pled in a plaintiff's sworn complaint when considering his opposition to summary judgment. Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1098 (11th Cir. 2014). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the non-moving party produces evidence that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263; Allen v. Bd. of Public Educ., 495 F.3d 1306, 1313 (11th Cir. 2007).

         Although factual inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and pro se complaints are entitled to liberal interpretation by the courts, a pro se litigant does not escape the burden of establishing by sufficient evidence a genuine dispute of material fact. See Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521, 525 (2006); Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990). Lee's pro se status alone does not compel this court to disregard elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case.

         III. THE COMPLAINT

         Lee alleges that on July 18 & 22, 2014, and December 4, 2014, his legal mail was opened by mailroom staff without his being present. On July 23, 2014, Lee sent an inmate request slip to Defendant Gordy complaining about this issue. Defendant Gordy informed Lee that his mail had accidentally been cut open. The mail about which Lee complains originated from this court regarding a lawsuit Lee filed against medical staff at Ventress. Attached to Lee's complaint are two exhibits-Exhibits B and C. The exhibits are copies of envelopes postmarked July 18, 2014, and December 4, 2014, which show this court's return address and the written notation “open in error.” Doc. 5 at 3-5, Doc. 5-1, Doc. 5-2.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Absolute Immunity

         To the extent Lee sues Defendants in their official capacities, they are immune from monetary damages. Official capacity lawsuits are “in all respects other than name, . . . treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985). “A state official may not be sued in his official capacity unless the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100, 104 S.Ct. 900, 908, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984), or Congress has abrogated the state's immunity, see Seminole Tribe v. Florida, [517 U.S. 44');">517 U.S. 44, 59], 116 S.Ct. 1114, 1125, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996). Alabama has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Carr v. City of Florence, 916 F.2d 1521, 1525 (11th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted), and Congress has not abrogated Alabama's immunity. Therefore, Alabama state officials are immune from claims brought against them in their official capacities.” Lancaster v. Monroe County, 116 F.3d 1419, 1429 (11th Cir. 1997).

         In light of the foregoing and under the facts of this case, Defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment for claims seeking monetary damages from them in their official capacities. Lancaster, 116 F.3d at 1429; Jackson v. Georgia Department of Transportation, 16 F.3d 1573, 1575 (11th Cir. 1994); Parker v. Williams, 862 F.2d 1471 (11th Cir. 1989).

         B. Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

         Lee's request for declaratory and injunctive relief against Defendants is due to be dismissed as moot. Lee is no longer incarcerated. The transfer or release of a prisoner renders moot any claims for injunctive or declaratory relief. See County of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979); see also Cotterall v. Paul, 755 F.2d 777, 780 (11th Cir. 1985) (past exposure to even illegal conduct does not in and of itself show a pending case or controversy regarding injunctive relief if unaccompanied by any continuing present injury or real and immediate threat of repeated injury). As it is clear from the pleadings and records before the court that Lee is no longer incarcerated, his request for equitable relief is moot.

         C. ...


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