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Blackwell v. Cascade County

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

August 3, 2018




         Order and Findings and Recommendations of United States Magistrate Judge Plaintiff Brian Blackwell filed a Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging his conditions of confinement at the Cascade County Detention Facility violated his constitutional rights. Mr. Blackwell claims of failure to protect, denial of access to the courts, and claims regarding housing state prisoners with federal prisoners and the Cascade County Correctional Facility will be recommended for dismissal. Defendants Cascade County, Sheriff Bob Edwards, and Commander O'Fallon will be required to respond to Mr. Blackwell's conditions of confinement claims including overcrowding, lack of heat, exposure to communicable diseases and black mold.


         A. Parties

         Mr. Blackwell is a federal prisoner proceeding without counsel and in forma pauperis. He plead guilty to failure to register as a sex offender in this Court on December 12, 2017. United States v. Blackwell, Criminal Action No. 17-00013-H-CCL, (Doc. 22.) He was sentenced on April 5, 2018. Id. at (Doc. 30). He is currently incarcerated at FCI Sheridan in Oregon. He was incarcerated at the Cascade County Detention Center at all times relevant to his Complaint. (Complaint, Doc. 2.)

         Mr. Blackwell names the following Defendants: Cascade County, Cascade County Correctional Facility, Sheriff Bob Edwards, and Commander O'Fallon. (Doc. 2 at 5.)

         B. Allegations

         Mr. Blackwell was housed at the Cascade County Detention Facility from September 29, 2017 to October 6, 2017 and from December 6, 2017 to January 4, 2018. (Complaint, Doc. 2 at 6.) While there he claims he was forced to live in substandard living conditions including: (1) sleeping on the floor because he was the third inmate in a cell designed for two inmates; (2) being forced to live with inmates with HIV, MERSA, Hepatitis, and other communicable diseases; (3) being held in areas where there was black mold growing on the walls; (4) and living in cold temperatures because the windows had holes in them allowing ice cold air and snow to blow in and form icicles on the walls of his cell. He states the guards refused to give out extra blankets and the inmates barely got enough heat to keep from getting frost bite.

         He also complains that he was housed with state inmates which he alleges violates Bureau of Prison policies and that on December 24, 2017, he was assaulted by a state inmate. He contends that Joshua Racki, Chief Law Enforcement Official for Cascade County stated he would take full responsibility for all federal inmates housed at CCDC. (Doc. 2-1.)

         In his supplement to the Complaint, Mr. Blackwell also alleges he was denied access to the courts to properly defend himself in his current claims against Defendants. He states Defendants only allow legal mail sent to them by attorneys in cases against them. (Doc. 9.)


         Mr. Blackwell is a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis so the Court must review his Complaint under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915, 1915A. Sections 1915A(b) and 1915(e)(2)(B) require the Court to dismiss a complaint filed in forma pauperis and/or by a prisoner against a governmental defendant before it is served if it is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. A complaint is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989). “A case is malicious if it was filed with the intention or desire to harm another.” Andrews v. King, 398 F.3d 1113, 1121 (9th Cir. 2005). A complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if a plaintiff fails to allege the “grounds” of his “entitlement to relief.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quotation omitted).

         Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a complaint “that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the [plaintiff] is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). That is, a complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). A complaint's allegations must cross “the line from conceivable to plausible.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680.

         There is a two-step procedure to determine whether a complaint's allegations cross that line. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556; Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662. First, the Court must identify “the allegations in the complaint that are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 680. Factual allegations are not entitled to the assumption of truth if they are “merely consistent with liability, ” or “amount to nothing more than a ‘formulaic recitation of the elements' of a constitutional” claim. Id. at 679, 681. A complaint stops short of the line between probability and the possibility of relief where the facts pled are merely consistent with a defendant's liability. Id. at 678.

         Second, the Court must determine whether the complaint states a “plausible” claim for relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. A claim is “plausible” if the factual allegations, which are accepted as true, “allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. This inquiry is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679 (citation omitted). If the factual allegations, which are accepted as true, “do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not “show[n]”-“that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         “A document filed pro se is ‘to be liberally construed,' and ‘a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Erickson v. Pardu, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); cf. Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(e) (“Pleadings must be construed so as to do justice”).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Denial of Access to the Courts

         Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, prisoners have a “fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 346 (1996) (quoting Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828 (1977)). In addition, prison officials may not actively interfere with prisoners' right to litigate. Silva v. Di Vittorio, 658 F.3d 1090, 1102 (9th Cir. 2011) overruled on other grounds by Coleman v. Tollefson, 135 S.Ct. 1759, 1765 (2015). Claims for denial of access to the courts may arise from the frustration or hindrance of “a litigating opportunity yet to be gained” (forward-looking access claim) or from the loss of a meritorious suit that cannot now be tried (backward-looking claim). Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 413-15 (2002).

         For backward-looking claims, a plaintiff “must show: 1) the loss of a ‘nonfrivolous' or ‘arguable' underlying claim; 2) the official acts frustrating the litigation; and 3) a remedy that may be awarded as recompense but that is not otherwise available in a future suit.” Phillips v. Hust, 477 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Christopher, 536 U.S. at 413-14), overruled on other grounds by Hust v. Phillips, 555 U.S. 1150 (2009). The right is limited to bringing complaints in direct criminal appeals, habeas petitions, and civil rights actions. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 354. It is not a right to discover such claims or to litigate them effectively once filed with a court. Id.

         To have standing to bring this claim, a plaintiff must allege he suffered an actual injury. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351-52; Vandelft v. Moses, 31 F.3d 794, 798 (9th Cir. 1994). In other words, he must have been denied the necessary tools to litigate a nonfrivolous claim attacking a conviction, sentence, or conditions of confinement. Christopher, 536 U.S. at 415 (citing Lewis, 518 U.S. at 353 & n.3); Lewis, 518 U.S. at 354. A plaintiff need not show that he would have been successful on the merits of his claims, only that they were not frivolous. Allen v. Sakai, 48 F.3d 1082, 1085 & n.12 (9th Cir. 1994). A claim “is frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact.” Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 325. The Ninth Circuit has emphasized that,

[a] prisoner need not show, ex post, that he would have been successful on the merits had his claim been considered. To hold otherwise would permit prison officials to substitute their judgment for the courts' and to interfere with a prisoner's right to court access on the chance that the prisoner's claim would eventually be deemed frivolous.

Allen, 48 F.3d at 1085. To properly plead a denial of access to the courts claim, “the complaint should state the underlying claim in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), just as if it were being independently pursued, and a like plain statement should describe any remedy available under the access claim and presently unique to it.” Christopher, 536 U.S. at 417-18 (footnote omitted).

         In this case, Mr. Blackwell fails to state a denial of access to the courts claim because he fails to cite a specific incident wherein there has been an actual injury or interference with his ability to ...

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