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Youngblood v. Alabama Department of Corrections

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

March 6, 2018



          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Gary W. Youngblood is a former[1] inmate of the Alabama Department of Corrections at Easterling Correctional Facility (“Easterling”) in Clio, Alabama. He filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that prison officials unconstitutionally prevented him from using money in his prison account to pay a patent application fee, did not mail the complaint in this case in time to meet a patent application deadline, and prevented him from using the law library.[2] Docs. 1, 2, 14, 15. Plaintiff names as defendants the Alabama Department of Corrections, Willie Bryant, Carter Davenport, Derrick Carter, Nathaniel Lawson, Gerald Wagner, and Phelix Woods, in their official and individual capacities. Id. He requests injunctive relief and damages.[3] Doc. 1 at 1, 13-14; Doc. 14 at 3.

         Defendants filed an answer, special report, supplemental reports, and evidentiary materials addressing Plaintiff's claims for relief. Docs. 18, 25, 31, 55, 91, 115. Upon receipt of the defendants' reports, the court directed Plaintiff to file a response, including sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioning Plaintiff that “at some time in the future the court may treat the defendants' reports and the plaintiff's response as a dispositive motion and response.” Doc. 33. Plaintiff responded to the defendants' reports and materials. Docs. 21, 22, 28, 29, 32, 36, 40, 41, 44, 47, 48, 107, 116, 117, 118. The court denied Plaintiff's requests to file a motion for summary judgment, but advised that prior to disposition of the case, the court would reconsider Plaintiff's motion. Docs. 101, 109.

         The court now reconsiders Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and it will also treat the defendants' reports as a motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of the motions, the parties' responses, and the evidentiary materials filed in support and in opposition to the motion, the court concludes that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is due to be denied, and the defendants' motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.


         “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). “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 [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) (citation to former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 omitted; “issue” altered to “dispute” to reflect the stylistic change in the current rule). 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 the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-24.

         The defendants have met their evidentiary burden and demonstrated the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Thus, the burden shifts to Plaintiff to establish, with appropriate evidence beyond the pleadings, that a genuine dispute material to the case exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3) (“If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact [by citing to materials in the record including affidavits, relevant documents or other materials], the court may … grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials-including the facts considered undisputed-show that the movant is entitled to it … .”); see also Caldwell v. Warden, FCI Talladega, 748 F.3d 1090, 1098 (11th Cir. 2014) (court considers facts pled in a plaintiff's sworn complaint when considering his opposition to summary judgment”). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263. The evidence must be admissible at trial, and if the nonmoving party's evidence “is merely colorable … or is not significantly probative … summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). “A mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice … .” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252). Conclusory allegations based on subjective beliefs are likewise insufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact. Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1564 n.6 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam). Only disputes involving material facts are relevant, and what is material is determined by the substantive law applicable to the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. To demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact, the party opposing summary judgment “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts… . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine [dispute] for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Although factual inferences must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and pro se complaints are entitled to liberal interpretation by the court, a pro se litigant does not escape the burden of sufficiently establishing a genuine dispute of material fact. Brown v. Crawford, 906 F.2d 667, 670 (11th Cir. 1990). Thus, a plaintiff's pro se status alone does not mandate this court's disregard of elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case. In this case, Plaintiff fails to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact so as to preclude summary judgment on his claims against the defendants. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587.


         For purposes of considering the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the nonmoving party.

         Plaintiff was an inmate at Easterling in 2015. He now resides at an address outside the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Docs. 1, 119. During the time relevant to his claims, the defendants were employed by the Alabama Department of Corrections at Easterling. Davenport was a Correctional Warden III, Carter was a Correctional Warden I, Woods was a Correctional Lieutenant, Lawson and Bryant were Correctional Captains, and Wagner was a Correctional Officer. Docs. 25-1, 25-2, 25-4, 25-5, 25-6, 26-7.

         A. Patent Application

         In his verified complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he developed an idea he wanted to patent while he was at Easterling, and he filed an application for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), application number 62/125, 184, on October 31, 2014.[4] Docs. 1 at 17, 2 at 1. Plaintiff's patent “would allow First Responder, wrecker, escort, and road work vehicles, stopped school buses, even trains to give motorist in vicinity advance notice of their presence and or approach, using radio frequency technology.” Id. at 4. “Due to the substantial impact to public safety possible from such a system, ” Plaintiff tested his theory using electronics he purchased at Easterling. Id. Plaintiff states that he desired to protect his patent, which he views as his personal intellectual property. Id. at 4-5. He wanted to ensure that prison personnel, other inmates, and others could not steal it. Doc. 21-1 at 1. Plaintiff believes that his invention may have commercial potential, but he also indicates that his patent application is a means to protect his personal intellectual property. Doc. 1 at 11. Plaintiff says that “patent could prove to be extremely valuable to plaintiff and public safety as well, ” and represents that he is not subject to any forfeiture proceedings that would permit his property to be taken. Doc. 14 at 3.

         Plaintiff tried to obtain a waiver of the fees for the patent, but the agencies he contacted wanted to be involved in development, and Plaintiff did not want to share the idea until he had patent protection. Doc. 1 at 5-6. He asked his sentencing court to alter his consecutive sentences to run concurrently so that he could prosecute and fund his patent application and process. Id. at 6. Plaintiff did not pay all the filing fees for his patent, and he states that his patent was subject to abandonment for failure to pay the fees on April 3, 2015. Doc. 1 at 2.

         On March 3, 2015, the USPTO sent Plaintiff a Notice of Incomplete Reply (Provisional), indicating that he was required to pay an $80 balance for fees within two months to avoid abandonment of the application. Doc. 1 at 17. On March 7, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a request to the Easterling business office to deduct money from his Prisoners' Money on Deposit (“PMOD”) account for the filing fees and send it to the USPTO in a stamped envelope that Plaintiff provided. Doc. 21-3 at 1-2. Plaintiff states that Lieutenant Woods verified and approved the request on March 9, 2015. Id. at 1.

         According to Woods, Warden Carter asked Woods to question Plaintiff about the request to withdraw funds, and Plaintiff said he needed $250.00 to pay legal fees to the USPTO to protect his personal property. Doc. 25-4. Woods states that he verified Plaintiff's account and withdrawal slip, then initialed the request and turned it over to Carter for further review. Id. Woods maintains that Warden Carter's decisions are not Woods' responsibility. Doc. 55-4 at 9.

         On four more occasions in March 2015, Plaintiff requested that the USPTO fees be deducted from his PMOD and mailed. Doc. 1-1 at 1-4. Carter denied the requests. Id. Carter states that the requests were denied because institutional rules do not list patent applications among the items that inmates may purchase, the transaction was not labeled legal mail, Plaintiff did not follow institutional rules and standard operating procedures or have prior authorization for an exception to the rules, and the administrative regulations “indicate[] no provisions for incarcerated felons to engage in business transactions.” Doc. 25-2 at 1. In his answers to Plaintiff's interrogatories, Carter reiterates that “[a]ccording to ADOC policies and procedures, inmates are NOT allowed to engage in business transactions.” Doc. 55-4 at 3.

         Carter states that he briefed Davenport that the transaction was seen as a business transaction, and that according to ADOC policy, inmates are not allowed to engage in business transactions. Doc. 55-4 at 3. Davenport states that he did not deny Plaintiff's request for a fund withdrawal from his PMOD account. Doc. 25-1. In his answer to Plaintiff's interrogatories about the PMOD withdrawal, Davenport says that he did not have a belief relevant to the matter. Docs. 38-1, 55-4 at 1-2.

         On April 14, 2015, the USPTO sent Plaintiff a Notice of Incomplete Reply (Provisional), stating that he was required to pay an $80 balance for fees within two months. Doc. 116-1 at 4. On April 21, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request to deduct $265 from his PMOD account and mail it to the USPTO. Doc. 116-1 at 1-6. On May 22, 2015, the USPTO sent Plaintiff a Notice of Incomplete Reply, indicating that Plaintiff's May 15, 2015, reply was late and that extensions would not be granted more than five months after the Notice of Incomplete Reply. Docs. 36-1 at 4, 116-2 at 4. Plaintiff's Notice was first mailed February 3, 2015, so the last date for his extension was September 3, 2015. Id. The May 22, 2015 Notice included a schedule of fees for extensions, from $50 for a one-month extension, to $750 for a five-month extension. Id.

         Plaintiff asserts that the defendants restricted his PMOD account so that no one could put funds in it. Doc. 21-3 at 1. When a friend tried to put money in it, he was told the account had the maximum amount of funds in it. Id. Plaintiff disputes the statement that his PMOD had the maximum amount of funds in it. Of the $265.27 then in the account, $265.00 was earmarked for the USPTO. Id. at 2. Plaintiff believes that the defendants intended Plaintiff to spend some of his PMOD funds, which would make him unable to pay the USPTO fee, which would in turn cause him to lose his patent application and moot his claims. Id.

         Under Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”) D-52 § III(D)(2), which regulates inmate PMOD accounts, funds may be deducted from the PMOD account for “[b]ooks, magazines, newspapers, etc.[, ] [h]obbycraft supplies[, ] [t]ennis shoes[, and] [o]ccasional personal expenses (attorney fees, etc.) or expenses of a family member... . ” Docs. 25-2 at 5, 55-2 at 33 (dated Feb. 26, 2003). Regulations also specifically allow inmates to sell hobbycraft items. Docs. 38-1 at 3, 55-4 at 2, 4. Alabama Department of Corrections Administrative Regulation (“AR”) 112 regulates procedures for court-ordered withholding from PMOD accounts. Doc. 115-2 at 1-7 (dated July 26, 2004). According to the Inmate Handbook, inmates “are not allowed to enter into contracts, business agreements or participate in any business activity while you are an inmate at an ADOC institution.” Doc. 55-2 at 40 (dated Aug. 1, 2013) (capitalization and boldface removed).

         Under AR 338 § III(F), which regulates inmate property and items that inmates may keep as property, “legal papers” are defined as “[p]leadings and resource documents relevant to current cases, such as case law, court rules, statutes, transcripts, or legal forms.” Doc. 25-2 at 8, 55-2 at 2 (dated Sept. 9, 2009). Under AR 448 § III(G), which regulates inmate mail, “legal mail” is defined as “[l]etters to and from attorneys, courts, judges, clerks, and other officials of the court and government agencies.” Doc. 55-2 at 19 (dated Oct. 20, 2008). According to the Inmate Handbook, “‘[l]egal mail' is ...

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