Williams v. GEO Group Inc. et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER by District Judge Martha Vazquez; IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff's Amended Civil Rights Complaint 14 is DISMISSED without prejudice for failure to state a cognizable claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A; and Plaintiff may file an amended complaint within sixty (60) days of entry of this Order. (mjr)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO
TONY ALAN WILLIAMS,
Case No. 19-cv-0468 MV-KBM
GEO GROUP, INC., et al,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Tony Alan Williams’ Amended Pro Se Civil
Rights Complaint (Doc. 14) (Complaint). Plaintiff is incarcerated and pro se. He alleges that Lea
County Correctional Facility (LCCF) wardens violated his First Amendment right to access courts
by providing an inadequate law library. Having reviewed the matter sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. §
1915A, the Court will dismiss the Complaint but grant leave to amend.
In 1988, Plaintiff was convicted of an unspecified crime in the State of Hawaii. (Doc. 14
at 15). He served about 12 years in Hawaii before he was transferred to the Ely Maximum Security
Prison (“Ely”) in Nevada. Id. at 6. Plaintiff was held in Ely pursuant to a contract between Hawaii
and Nevada, which he contends was invalid. Id. During that time, he filed several civil rights
actions in the Nevada Federal Court. Id. at 6-7. On April 16, 2014, while at least one of those
cases was pending, the State of Hawaii transferred Plaintiff from Ely to LCCF in Hobbs, New
Mexico. Id. at 3. Plaintiff alleges that he could not move his cases forward because the LCCF law
library is inadequate. Id. at 2. Specifically, he alleges that he was unable to research issues by
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subject matter, locate controlling precedent, review decisions from New Mexico and other districts,
or shepardize cases. Id. at 3-4. LCCF’s library also purportedly lacks state or federal reporters.
Id. at 4. Without those books, Plaintiff was unable to research legal precedent cited in a proposed
ruling from the Nevada Federal Court. Id.
The Complaint details six different claims (Claims A through F) that were allegedly
frustrated by LCCF’s inadequate law library.1 (Doc. 14 at 6-16). Claims A, B, and C pertain to
Plaintiff’s incarceration at Ely. It appears that he raised those claims in the Nevada Federal Court
before his transfer to LCCF, but it is not entirely clear. Claim A alleges that there was no valid
contract between Hawaii and Nevada to house prisoners and that Plaintiff was therefore wrongfully
imprisoned in Ely between 2004 and 2014. Id. at 6-7. Claim B challenges the handcuffing practices
at Ely between 2004 and 2013. Id. at 8. Claim C alleges that Plaintiff contracted methicillinresistant staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”) at Ely in November 2004 and that Ely medical officials
did not dispense antibiotics to treat the issue for two months. Id. at 10. At least one of those claims
was pending in the Nevada Federal Court when Plaintiff arrived at LCCF, but it is unclear when
and how Claims A through C were resolved. Id. at 4-5.
Plaintiff also contends that LCCF’s inadequate law library frustrated his ability to raise civil
rights violations that occurred at LCCF, which he labels as Claim D. (Doc. 14 at 11). Plaintiff
alleges that he is unable to seek 42 U.S.C. § 1983 relief in this Court for: (1) respiratory issues
stemming from poor ventilation when grinding metal or paint; (2) LCCF’s failure to purchase a
To clarify, Plaintiff lists Claims A through F as part of the pleading standard for his access-to-court claims, rather
than to obtain substantive relief on the underlying violations. See Doc. 14 at 5 (“[W]hat follows are claims Plaintiff
alleges were impeded or frustrated by the inadequacies of the law library at LCCF. Plaintiff understands that he is
required to plead his ‘frustrated’ claims herein.”).
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high quality tray-cleaning machine, which results in dirty food trays; and (3) sleep disturbances,
including too much bright light and a graveyard shift assignment. Id. at 11-13.
Claims E and F finally allege that the inadequate law library frustrated Plaintiff’s postconviction proceedings in Hawaii. When Plaintiff arrived at LCCF in 2014, he was seeking
“[Hawaii] criminal court review of appellate issues and was requesting an evidentiary hearing.” Id.
at 13. Claim E pertains to Hawaii’s alleged refusal to provide records until 2000, which allegedly
caused Plaintiff to miss the one-year federal habeas limitation period. Id. at 14. Claim F raises a
similar claim but provides more details about the timeline of events between the conclusion of
Plaintiff’s direct criminal appeal in 1990 or 1991 and the production of records in 2000. Id. at 1516. He alleges that he was “stymied by the lack of any legal cases or information needed to litigate
his legal claims” in Hawaii state court. Id. at 16. Plaintiff contends that he informed every warden
at LCCF that the deficient law library impeded his access to courts but that none of the wardens
acted. (Doc. 14 at 16). He also filed a grievance with New Mexico Department of Corrections
(“NMDOC”) Director Greg Mercantile on March 6, 2016 and mentioned the issues to NMDOC
administrator Jerry Rourke during a prison visit. Id. at 16-17. No one has improved the law library.
Id. at 17.
Construed liberally, the Complaint raises claims under the First Amendment, the
Fourteenth Amendment, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff appears to seek over $50 million in
damages from the following Defendants: (a) Greg Mercantile and David Jablonski, who both
served as Secretary of Corrections; (b) Jerry Rourke, Deputy Director of NMDOC; and (c) all
current and former wardens of LCCF since 2014, including Wardens Wrigley, Smith, and Janecka.
(Doc. 14 at 18, 20). The Complaint is ready for initial review.
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Standards Governing Initial Review
Section 1915A of Title 28 requires the Court to conduct a sua sponte review of all prisoner
complaints that seek relief from a government official. The Court must dismiss any inmate
complaint that is frivolous, malicious, or “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted.”
28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The Court may also dismiss a complaint sua sponte under Rule 12(b)(6) if “it
is patently obvious that the plaintiff could not prevail on the facts alleged, and allowing [plaintiff]
an opportunity to amend [the] complaint would be futile.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110
(10th Cir. 1991) (quotations omitted).
The plaintiff must frame a complaint that contains
“sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.’”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows
the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Because Plaintiff is pro se, his “pleadings are to be construed liberally and held to a less
stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Hall, 935 F.2d at 1110. While pro
se pleadings are judged by the same legal standards as others, the Court can overlook the “failure
to cite proper legal authority, … confusion of various legal theories, …, or … unfamiliarity with
pleading requirements.” Id. Moreover, if the initial complaint fails to state a claim, courts should
generally grant leave to amend unless amendment would be futile. Id.
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Plaintiff’s constitutional claim must be analyzed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the “remedial
vehicle for raising claims based on the violation of [federal] constitutional rights.” Brown v.
Buhman, 822 F.3d 1151, 1161 n.9 (10th Cir. 2016). “A cause of action under section 1983 requires
the deprivation of a civil right by a ‘person’ acting under color of state law.” McLaughlin v. Bd.
of Trustees, 215 F.3d 1168, 1172 (10th Cir. 2000). The plaintiff must allege that each government
official, through the official’s own individual actions, has personally violated the Constitution. See
Trask v. Franco, 446 F.3d 1036, 1046 (10th Cir. 1998). There must also be a connection between
the official conduct and the constitutional violation. See Fogarty v. Gallegos, 523 F.3d 1147, 1162
(10th Cir. 2008); Trask, 446 F.3d at 1046.
The right to access courts implicates the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the
Due Process Clause. See Smith v. Maschner, 899 F.2d 940, 947 (10th Cir. 1990); Love v. Summit
Cty., 776 F.2d 908, 912 (10th Cir. 1985) (same). An inmate must receive “a reasonably adequate
opportunity to present claim[s] … to the courts.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 350 (1996) (quoting
Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 825 (1977)). The right focuses on the “conferral of a capability –
the capability of bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before
the courts.” Lewis, 518 U.S. at 356. See also Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 (2002)
(a § 1983 plaintiff must demonstrate that he was effectively “shut out of court”). The constitution
does not require jails “to supply legal assistance beyond the preparation of initial pleadings,”
Carper v. DeLand, 54 F.3d 613, 617 (10th Cir. 1995), nor does it guarantee that inmates can
“litigate effectively once in court.” Lewis, 518 U.S. at 354 (emphasis in original). However, prison
officials “may not erect barriers that impede the right of access of incarcerated persons.” Carper,
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54 F.3d at 617.
Claims pertaining to prison law libraries are difficult to establish, as there is no “abstract,
freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance,” provided that the inmate has some method
of filing an opening petition. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 354. See also Penrod v. Zavaras, 94 F.3d 1399,
1403 (10th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he constitutional obligation to provide inmates access to courts does
not require states to give inmates unlimited access to a law library, and inmates do not have the
right to select the method by which access will be provided.”). Said differently, “prison law
libraries and legal assistance programs are not ends in themselves, but only the means for ensuring
a reasonably adequate opportunity to present claimed violations of fundamental constitutional
rights to the courts.” Lewis v. Clark, 577 F. App’x 786, 796 (10th Cir. 2014) (quotations omitted).
Beyond demonstrating a lack of access, a plaintiff must show that the deficient law library
“prejudiced him in pursuing litigation.” Treff v. Galetka, 74 F.3d 191, 194 (10th Cir. 1996).
“Conclusory allegations of injury in this respect will not suffice.” Wardell v. Duncan, 470 F.3d
954 (10th Cir. 2006). Cf. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351 (“[A]n inmate cannot establish relevant actual
injury simply by establishing [that the] … legal assistance program is subpar in some theoretical
sense.”). Plaintiffs must allege specific facts about how the legal research issues prevented them
from attacking “their sentences, directly or collaterally” or challenging “the conditions of their
confinement.” Lewis, 518 U.S. at 355. For example, the Tenth Circuit has held that “general
allegations that [plaintiff] failed to prevail in his collateral attacks on his conviction and restitution
order as a result of [deficient law library] … are too vague and conclusory to state an arguable
claim.” Brooks v. Colorado Dep’t of Corr., 762 F. App’x 551, 558 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 140
S. Ct. 207 (2019). Where a plaintiff alleges that the prison library policies prevented him from
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presenting a claim, the complaint must explain exactly “how this is so.” Id.
Applying these standards, the Complaint fails to allege sufficient facts to state an accessto-court claim under § 1983. It appears that Plaintiff raised Claims A, B, C - which address civil
rights violations at Ely - in the Nevada District Court before his transfer to LCCF. Accordingly, it
is unclear how any issues at LCCF could have prevented him from bringing those civil rights
challenges in a federal court. At most, the lack of legal materials at LCCF prevented Plaintiff from
adequately responding to a proposed ruling by the Nevada District Court recommending dismissal
of his civil rights action. (Doc. 14 at 4). However, as noted above, the Constitution does not
guarantee the right to litigate effectively once in court, and a prison is not required to “supply legal
assistance beyond the preparation of initial pleadings.” Carper, 54 F.3d at 617. Federal law
assumes that “[o]nce an inmate gains access to the court through a properly prepared and filed
initial pleading, the court will then be in a position to determine whether the claim has any merit.”
Carper, 54 F.3d at 617 (quoting Bee v. Utah State Prison, 823 F.2d 397, 399 (10th Cir. 1987)).
Plaintiff therefore has not stated an access to courts claim based on his inability to litigate Claims
A, B, and C after arriving at LCCF.
Similarly, Claims E and F cannot form the basis for an access claim. Plaintiff alleges that
the LCCF library and in particular, the lack of reporters and resources relating to AEDPA/28 U.S.C.
§ 2254, prevented him from filing a post-conviction petition challenging his Hawaii conviction.
To the extent that he suggests he missed his opportunity to seek § 2254 relief, this is controverted
by public records. Williams v. Wright, 106 F.3d 411 (9th Cir. 1997) reflects that Plaintiff sought
habeas relief from his Hawaii convictions in federal court and the Ninth Circuit. He raised § 2254
claims for improper shackling at trial, evidentiary errors, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective
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assistance of counsel. Id. The Hawaii Federal Court denied those claims on the merits, and the
Ninth Circuit affirmed. Id. The Complaint does not demonstrate how LCCF prevented Plaintiff
from pursuing additional non-frivolous § 2254 claims, given that such claims would be time-barred
To the extent that the Complaint alleges that LCCF’s library prevented Plaintiff from
challenging his convictions in Hawaii, the state records also undermine this claim. The Hawaii
state court records, which are subject to judicial notice, reflect that Plaintiff filed three postconviction petitions and appeals after arriving at LCCF on April 16, 2014. See Case Nos. SCPW14-0000924;
http://jimspss1.courts.state.hi.us. All filings were ultimately unsuccessful. Id. Plaintiff attributes
the lack of success in the Hawaii litigation to the lack of legal resources at LCCF. However, as
noted above, such allegation is not actionable under federal law, even assuming that it is true. See
Carper, 54 F.3d at 617; Toevs v. Milyard, 563 F. App’x 640, 646 (10th Cir. 2014) (rejecting access
claim where prison did not “prevent him from preparing initial pleadings in a civil action
regarding his confinement”).
Plaintiff finally alleges that the inadequate law library impeded his ability to raise various
conditions of confinement claims arising at LCCF (together, Claim D). Construed liberally, the
Complaint appears to allege that Plaintiff wants to research applicable law under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
and the constitution before filing a civil action based on his living conditions. While this inclination
is natural, Plaintiff does not need to cite law to file a civil rights complaint. Pro se plaintiffs are
only required to state the facts supporting their claim, i.e., the who, what, where, and why of what
happened. See Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1250 (10th Cir. 2008). It is therefore unclear
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how the inadequate law library prevented Plaintiff from filing a claim relating to his conditions of
confinement, or what materials he needed (such as the § 1983 form) to complete that process. See
McBride v. Deer, 240 F.3d 1287, 1290 (10th Cir. 2001) (rejecting access claim where plaintiff had
“no way of knowing how to file a motion or [post-conviction] appeal” but did not “describe
sufficiently the legal materials he was seeking”).
For these reasons, and in accordance with the exacting Tenth Circuit standards on this
subject, Plaintiff has not stated a cognizable claim for the denial of access to courts. The Court
will dismiss the Complaint (Doc. 14) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The Tenth Circuit counsels
that pro se plaintiffs should ordinarily be given an opportunity to “remedy defects potentially
attributable to their ignorance of federal law.” Reynoldson v. Shillinger, 907 F.2d 124, 126 (10th
Cir. 1990). Accordingly, the Court will permit Plaintiff to amend his complaint within sixty (60)
days of entry of this Order. When drafting an amendment, Plaintiff should ensure that each
Defendant was personally involved in the alleged constitutional violation. For example, Plaintiff
should explain whether the prison wardens dictate the contents of the law library, or whether some
other individual (like a prison librarian) is responsible for maintaining research materials. Plaintiff
is also advised that to recover from a prison supervisor who was not personally involved in the
alleged wrongdoing, the Complaint must allege that the supervisor promulgated a policy or custom
that caused the constitutional violation. See Pahls v. Thomas, 718 F.3d 1210, 1226 (10th Cir. 2013).
Conclusory allegations on that point are typically insufficient to establish supervisory liability. If
Plaintiff declines to timely file an amended complaint or files another complaint that fails to state
a cognizable claim, the Court may dismiss this action with prejudice and without further notice.
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IT IS ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Amended Civil Rights Complaint (Doc. 14) is
DISMISSED without prejudice for failure to state a cognizable claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A;
and Plaintiff may file an amended complaint within sixty (60) days of entry of this Order.
HONORABLE MARTHA VÁZQUEZ
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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