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Youngblood v. Dunn

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

February 4, 2019

GARY W. YOUNGBLOOD, Youngblood,
v.
JEFFREY DUNN, et al., Defendants.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Gary Youngblood, formerly an inmate in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections (“ADOC”), files this pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging that prison officials at the Easterling Correctional Facility (“Easterling”) are liable on constitutional claims arising from Defendants' processing and handling of Plaintiff's legal mail and their failure to provide him with adequate assistance in filing meaningful legal papers. Youngblood brings suit against Commissioner Jefferson Dunn, Captain Nathaniel Lawson, Gerald Wagner, Laura Morgan, Sharon Blakely, Warden Derrick Carter, Warden Carter Davenport, Lieutenant Phelix Woods, and Captain Willie Bryant. He requests actual and punitive damages, court costs, and legal fees. Doc. 1.

         Defendants filed special reports and supporting evidentiary materials addressing Youngblood's claims for relief. Docs. 28, 42. In these filings, Defendants deny they acted in violation of Youngblood's constitutional rights. Id. Upon receipt of Defendants' special reports the court issued an order directing Youngblood to file a response, including sworn affidavits and other evidentiary materials, and specifically cautioning Youngblood that “the court may at any time thereafter and without notice to the parties (1) treat the special reports and any supporting evidentiary materials as a motion for summary judgment.” Doc. 30, 46. Youngblood filed responses to Defendants' special reports, see Docs. 34, 36, 38, 44, 47, but these responses fail to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact. Doc. 30 at 2. The court will treat Defendants' reports as motions for summary judgment, and it recommends that these motions be resolved in favor of Defendants.

         I. 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 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 Youngblood 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 Youngblood'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). 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). Only disputes involving material facts are relevant, and materiality 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; see also United States v. Stein, 881 F.3d 853 (11th Cir. 2018) (holding that a plaintiff's self-serving and uncorroborated, but not conclusory, statements in an affidavit or deposition may create an issue of material fact which precludes summary judgment); Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, 707 F.3d 1244, 1253 (11th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted) (“To be sure, [plaintiff's] sworn statements are self-serving, but that alone does not permit us to disregard them at the summary judgment stage… . ‘Courts routinely and properly deny summary judgment on the basis of a party's sworn testimony even though it is self-serving.'”). “Conclusory, uncorroborated allegations by a plaintiff in an affidavit or deposition will not create an issue of fact for trial sufficient to defeat a well-supported summary judgment motion.” Solliday v. Fed. Officers, 413 Fed. App'x 206, 207 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Earley v. Champion Int'l Corp., 907 F.2d 1077, 1081 (11th Cir. 1990)); see also Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1564 n.6 (11th Cir. 1997) (holding that conclusory allegations based on subjective beliefs are likewise insufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact).

         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). Youngblood's pro se status alone does not compel this court to disregard elementary principles of production and proof in a civil case.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Youngblood previously sued prison officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging, in part, that they unconstitutionally prevented him from using money in his prison account to pay a patent application fee. Youngblood v. Ala. Dept. of Corrections, Civil Action No. 2:15-cv-214-MHT (M.D. Ala. 2018). Youngblood desired a patent for an invention he developed and which he believed would have commercial potential. Id. He sought a patent to protect his intellectual property. Id.

         In the present action, Youngblood challenges Defendants' conduct in processing inmate mail under Administrative Regulation [“AR”] 448, and specifically, their failure to maintain proper legal mail logs for outgoing and incoming inmate legal mail. This failure, Youngblood claims, prevented him from submitting copies of legal mail logs to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) to support a petition to withdraw a holding of abandonment.[1]Youngblood maintains that this conduct also prevented him from producing legal mail logs as evidence in a prior civil suit to support his motions arguing that Defendants were not complying with AR 448's requirement that: (1) inmates be provided two stamps per week for legal mail, and (2) the names of inmates receiving free stamps be maintained in a log. Additionally, Youngblood complains that Defendants' failure to process correspondence considered legal mail properly under AR 448 prevented him from providing evidence to the Alabama Department of Revenue that he had not received prior mailings from the state agency regarding false tax returns filed in his name. Although he provided proof to the Department of Revenue that he was incarcerated when the false tax returns were filed in his name, Plaintiff maintains that he could not provide the agency with copies of prison legal mail logs as evidence he had received no notices from them prior to receiving a notice of possible penalties and sanctions for failing to reply to the agency's previous mailings. Doc. 1.

         III. DISCUSSION [2]

         A. Absolute Immunity

         To the extent that Youngblood requests monetary damages from Defendants in their official capacities, they are entitled to absolute immunity. 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). As the Eleventh Circuit has held,

the Eleventh Amendment prohibits federal courts from entertaining suits by private parties against States and their agencies [or employees]. There are two exceptions to this prohibition: where the state has waived its immunity or where Congress has abrogated that immunity. A State's consent to suit must be unequivocally expressed in the text of [a] relevant statute. Waiver may not be implied. Likewise, Congress' intent to abrogate the States' immunity from suit must be obvious from a clear legislative statement.

Selensky v. Alabama, 619 Fed. App'x 846, 848-49 (11th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Thus, a state official may not be sued in his or her official capacity unless the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984), or Congress has abrogated the State's immunity, see Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 59 (1996).

Neither waiver nor abrogation applies here. The Alabama Constitution states that “the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity.” Ala. Const. Art. I, § 14. The Supreme Court has recognized that this prohibits Alabama from waiving its immunity from suit.

Selensky, 619 Fed. App'x at 849 (citing Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978) (consent is prohibited by the Alabama Constitution). “Alabama has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity in § 1983 cases, nor has Congress abated it.” Holmes v. Hale, 701 Fed.Appx. 751, 753 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Carr v. City of Florence, Ala., 916 F.2d 1521, 1525 (11th Cir. 1990)). In light of the foregoing, Defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment for claims seeking monetary damages from them in their official capacities. Selensky, 619 Fed. App'x at 849; Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1277 (11th Cir. 1998) (holding that state officials sued in their official capacities are protected under the Eleventh Amendment from suit for damages); Edwards v. Wallace Community College, 49 F.3d 1517, 1524 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that damages are unavailable from state official sued in his official capacity); Jackson v. Georgia Department of Transportation, 16 F.3d 1573, 1575 (11th Cir. 1994).

         B. Injunctive Relief

         To the extent that Youngblood requests declaratory and/or injunctive relief against Defendants, such request is due to be dismissed as moot. Youngblood 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).

         C. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity offers complete protection from civil damages for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity is not merely a defense against liability but rather immunity from suit, and the Supreme Court “repeatedly [has] stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231-32 (2009) (quotation marks and citations omitted). To receive qualified immunity, the public official must first prove he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). There is no dispute that Defendants here were acting within the course and scope of their discretionary ...


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