Robinson v. Rodarte et al
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT 39 . Signed by District Judge Gershwin A. Drain. (TBan)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
TIMOTHY R. ROBINSON,
Case No. 16-cv-13691
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
GERSHWIN A. DRAIN
EDWARD RODARTE, ET AL.,
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICIA T. MORRIS
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
Plaintiff Timothy Robinson commenced this litigation on October 14, 2016,
asserting claims against several Defendants. Dkt. No. 1. On March 15, 2017, the
Court granted the Defendants’ Motion to Sever claims asserted in the Complaint.
See Dkt. No. 25. Pursuant to that decision, the only Defendant remaining in the
action is the St. Louis, Michigan Correctional Facility Mailroom Staff, 1 and the only
unresolved claim is that the mailroom staff opened Plaintiff’s mail in violation of
the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. See id.
As the St. Louis Correctional Facility Mailroom Staff is the only Defendant still in
the action, the Court will only use the term “Defendant,” as opposed to Defendants,
in this Opinion.
Presently before the Court is the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
on Plaintiff’s First Amendment Claim, which was filed on October 16, 2017, well
over three months ago . The motion is not fully briefed, as the Plaintiff has not
responded to the motion, and accordingly, the Defendant has not filed a reply in
support of the motion. No hearing date has been scheduled for this motion. For the
reasons detailed below, the Court will GRANT the Defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s First Amendment Claim.
The Plaintiff, now free on parole, was previously incarcerated at the St. Louis
Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Michigan. See Dkt. No. 1. While there, mail room
staff opened two of his letters which Robinson alleges were legal mail, and therefore,
should not have been opened outside of his presence. Id. at p. 9 (Pg. ID 9).
Both mailings were sent by Robinson to other individuals, and returned to him
as undeliverable. See Dkt. Nos. 39-2, 39-3. The Plaintiff does not allege that the
Defendant read the contents of the mail. Dkt. No. 1, p. 9 (Pg. ID 9).
The first mailing was addressed to the law offices of Julie Gilfix. Dkt. No.
39-2, p. 2 (Pg. ID 226).
“Attorney-client Confidential Communication” is
handwritten on the envelope enclosing this mail. Id. This mailing is also marked
“RETURN TO SENDER; ATTEMPTED-NOT KNOWN; UNABLE TO
The second mailing is addressed to Jill Price, President of the Criminal
Defense Lawyers of Michigan. Id. It is similarly marked “RETURN TO SENDER;
NOT DELIVERABLE AS ADDRESSED; UNABLE TO FORWARD.” Id.
The Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s
First Amendment claim because the Plaintiff did not have a First Amendment right
regarding the relevant mail, the Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, or both.
The Court agrees. The Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s
First Amendment Claim.
The Court will first take up the First Amendment issue.
“Legal Mail” under the First Amendment
As the Defendant has argued, the Court will find that Robinson’s mail was not
“legal mail.” “ ‘[W]hether particular kinds of correspondence qualify for the
constitutional protection accorded a prisoner’s ‘legal mail’ is a question of law
properly decided by [the] court.’ ” Am. Civil Liberties Union Fund v. Livingston
Cty., 23 F. Supp. 3d 834, 839 (E.D. Mich. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoting
Sallier v. Brooks, 343 F.3d 868, 873 (6th Cir. 2003)). “A prisoner’s right to receive
mail is protected by the First Amendment, but prison officials may impose
restrictions that are reasonably related to security or other legitimate penological
objectives.” Sallier, 343 F.3d at 873 (citing Knop v. Johnson, 977 F.2d 996, 1012
(6th Cir. 1992)). Indeed, “ ‘prison officials may open prisoners’ incoming mail
pursuant to a uniform and evenly applied policy with an eye to maintaining prison
security[.]’ ” Am. Civil Liberties Union Fund, 796 F.3d at 643 (quoting Lavado v.
Keohane, 992 F.2d 601, 607 (6th Cir. 1993)). Yet “ ‘when the incoming mail is
‘legal mail,’ [courts] have heightened concern with allowing prison officials
unfettered discretion to open and read an inmate’s mail[.]’ ” Id. (quoting Sallier,
343 F.3d at 874).
As a “response to prison officials’ security concerns,” the Sixth Circuit
emphasized, “even constitutionally protected mail can be opened (although not read)
and inspected for contraband.” Sallier, 343 F.3d at 874. But, “such activity must
take place in the presence of the recipient, if such a request has been made by the
First, Plaintiff’s claims fail because there is no evidence in the record of a
request that his legal mail only be opened in his presence. Robinson contends that
he “ha[s] the absolute right” to have legal mail opened in his presence, but he is
mistaken. Dkt. No. 1, p. 9 (Pg. ID 9). He must make a request to prison supervisors
to exercise this right—only then does the right become absolute. See Sallier, 343
F.3d at 874. And fatal to his claim is the absence of evidence in the record that he
asked to exercise this right. Dkt. No. 1, p. 9 (Pg. ID 9).
Indeed, the Defendant’s Policy Directive provides that “[a] prisoner may have
his/her incoming legal mail receive special handling-as set forth in Paragraph II by
submitting a written request to the institution’s mailroom Supervisor, or Residential
Reentry Program facility Supervisor or designee, as appropriate.” Dkt. No. 39-4, p.
7 (Pg. ID 245). 2 Because the record reveals that Robinson never issued a request
triggering this right, the Defendant had no obligation to only open Plaintiff’s legal
mail in his presence.
Additionally, with respect to the mail intended for Jill Price, President of the
Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, Sallier forecloses on other grounds
Plaintiff’s argument that this mail was legal mail. In Sallier, the Sixth Circuit found
that correspondence from the American Bar Association was not legal mail. 343
F.3d at 875. The Sallier court reasoned that:
Given that the ABA is not a direct-services legal organization and
generally does not provide legal advice and that the envelope contained
no marking to alert a prison employee that it was to be opened only in
the presence of the prisoner, receipt of this correspondence did not
implicate constitutionally protected legal mail rights.
Id. (citing Boswell v. Mayer, 169 F.3d 384, 388–89 (6th Cir. 1999)).
Paragraph II then establishes that “[i]ncoming legal mail for a prisoner who has
requested special handling of legal mail pursuant to Paragraph HH shall be opened
and inspected for money, controlled substances, and other physical contraband in
the prisoner’s presence. The content of the mail shall not be read or skimmed.” Dkt.
No. 39-4, p. 7 (Pg. ID 245).
The facts here are even less compelling than those in Sallier. To begin, as in
Sallier, the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan is not a direct-services legal
organization and does not ordinarily provide legal advice. See CDAM Mission
Statement, available at https://cdam.wildapricot.org/About (last visited February 6,
2018). And as in Sallier, the mail to Price does not inform a prison employee that
this mail was confidential legal mail. See Dkt. No. 39-3. Put another way, it does
not make clear that Price is a lawyer or that this letter should not be opened outside
of Plaintiff’s presence. See Sallier, 343 F.3d at 875. The Defendant only discovered
that Price was a lawyer after searching the Michigan Bar Journal Directory and
discovering a Jill Price practicing law in Detroit, Michigan, not Lansing, Michigan
as indicated on the envelope. Dkt. No. 39, pp. 5–6 (Pg. ID 224–25).
What is more, the letter was undeliverable, and was therefore marked
“RETURN TO SENDER; ATTEMPTED-NOT KNOWN; UNABLE TO
FORWARD.” Dkt. No. 39-2. Indeed, opening the mail was consistent with the
Defendant’s uniform policy that:
If it is determined that a prisoner’s outgoing mail cannot be processed
due to insufficient postage, failure of the prisoner to sign a
disbursement authorization, or other reason unrelated to the content of
the mail, the mail shall be searched in the same manner as incoming
mail prior to its return to the prisoner.
Dkt. No. 39-4, p. 5 (Pg. ID 243). Second, the mailing was from Robinson to a
professional organization, and not from a professional organization to the prisoner
as in Sallier.
Therefore, the Plaintiff’s claim will not survive summary judgment because
the claim does not relate to legal mail.
Even if the mailings discussed here were legal mail, Robinson’s claims would
still fail: The Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.
“The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability if
their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights
of which a reasonable person would have known.’ ” Richmond v. Huq, 879 F.3d
178, 196 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)).
The qualified immunity framework has two components:
“ ‘(1) whether,
considering the allegations in a light most favorable to the party injured, a
constitutional right has been violated, and (2) whether that right was clearly
established.’ ” Id. (quoting Estate of Carter v. City of Detroit, 408 F.3d 305, 310–
11 (6th Cir. 2005)).
The first inquiry covers “ ‘whether the plaintiff has alleged facts which, when
taken in the light most favorable to her, show that the defendant-official’s conduct
violated a constitutionally protected right.’ ” Id. (quoting Comstock v. McCrary,
273 F.3d 693, 702 (6th Cir. 2001)). As to the second question, “[f]or a right to be
clearly established, ‘the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a
reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.’ ” Id.
(alterations omitted) (quoting Comstock, 273 F.3d at 702). That is, “ ‘in the light of
pre-existing law, the unlawfulness must be apparent.’ ” Id. (quoting Comstock, 273
F.3d at 702). And “[courts] need not ‘find a case in which the very action in question
has previously been held unlawful.’ ” Id. (quoting Comstock, 273 F.3d at 702).
Courts can analyze these two questions in any order. See Merriweather v. Zamora,
569 F.3d 307, 315 (6th Cir. 2009).
The Defendant correctly maintains that it did not violate clearly established
law. First, as described above, legal mail must only be opened “in the presence of
the recipient, if such a request has been made by the prisoner,” and Plaintiff made
no such request here. See Sallier, 343 F.3d at 874.
Second, even if the mailings were considered legal mail, they were sent by the
Plaintiff and marked return to sender. This fact differentiates Robinson’s claim from
cases involving mail sent by lawyers to their prisoner-clients. See, e.g., Kensu v.
Haigh, 87 F.3d 172, 174 (6th Cir. 1996) (observing that “[t]he right of a prisoner to
receive materials of a legal nature, which have impact upon or import with respect
to that prisoner’s legal rights and/or matters, is a basic right recognized and afforded
protection by the courts.”).
Accordingly, the Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.
The Defendant has moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s First
Amendment claim. It asserts that all reasonable minds would agree that Plaintiff’s
mail was not legal mail, the Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, or both.
The Court finds that the Defendant is entitled to summary judgment because the
Plaintiff’s mail was not legal mail and the Defendant is entitled to qualified
immunity. Accordingly, the Court will grant the Defendant’s Motion for Summary
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Dated: February 8, 2018
/s/Gershwin A. Drain
GERSHWIN A. DRAIN
United States District Judge
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
Copies of this Order were served upon attorneys of record on
February 8, 2018, by electronic and/or ordinary mail.
/s/ Tanya Bankston
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