Oscura v. Melton et al
MEMORANDUM Signed by District Judge Kevin H. Sharp on 5/2/14. (xc:Pro se party by regular and certified mail.)(DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(dt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
JUAN CARLOS OSCURA,
W.B. MELTON AND SHANNON HARVEY,
Plaintiff Juan Carlos Oscura, a state inmate presently incarcerated at the Overton County Jail in
Livingston, Tennessee, has filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (ECF No. 1). The plaintiff
proceeds in forma pauperis. The complaint is before the Court for an initial review pursuant to the Prison
Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e.
Standard of Review
Under the PLRA, the court must conduct an initial review of any civil complaint filed in forma
pauperis, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), or brought by a prisoner-plaintiff against government entities or officials,
28 U.S.C. § 1915A, or challenging the conditions of confinement, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). Upon conducting
this review, the court must dismiss the complaint, or any portion thereof, that fails to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted, is frivolous, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from
such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Sixth Circuit has confirmed
that the dismissal standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009),
and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), “governs dismissals for failure to state a claim
under those statutes because the relevant statutory language tracks the language in Rule 12(b)(6).” Hill v.
Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470–71 (6th Cir. 2010). Thus, to survive scrutiny on initial review, “a complaint
must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its
face.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “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.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
In reviewing the complaint, the Court is mindful that a pro se pleading must be liberally construed
and “held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551
U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citing Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)).
The plaintiff names as defendants Overton County Sheriff W.B. Melton and Overton County Jail
Administrator Shannon Harvey, in both their official and individual capacities. The plaintiff alleges that he
has been denied the right to send and receive mail from his family, because he and his family
communicate with each other in Spanish, their native language. He states that the jail does not employ
any persons who are fluent in Spanish and that his mail has been rejected solely on the basis that it is
written in Spanish. Jail officials have told him that jail rules prohibit sending or receiving mail in a foreign
language because it poses a security threat. The plaintiff states that his inability to communicate with his
family causes him extreme fear and anxiety, and he believes the jail’s policy is discriminatory and violates
his constitutional rights.
The plaintiff seeks relief in the form of nominal and punitive damages. Curiously, he does not
request injunctive relief, such as a court order requiring the jail to hire a translator or to allow him to send
and receive mail in Spanish.
The plaintiff seeks to bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to vindicate alleged violations of his
federal constitutional rights. Section 1983 confers a private federal right of action against any person who,
acting under color of state law, deprives an individual of any right, privilege or immunity secured by the
Constitution or federal laws. Wurzelbacher v. Jones-Kelley, 675 F.3d 580, 583 (6th Cir. 2012). Thus, to
state a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) a deprivation of rights secured by the
Constitution and laws of the United States, and (2) that “the deprivation was caused by a person acting
under color of state law.” Tahfs v. Proctor, 316 F. 3d 584, 590 (6th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted); 42
U.S.C. § 1983.
The Court finds, for purposes of the initial review required by the PLRA, that the plaintiff has
stated a colorable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his First Amendment right to
communicate with family and friends. See Washington v. Reno, 35 F.3d 1093, 1100 (6th Cir. 1994)
(“[F]ederal court opinions have previously held that persons incarcerated in penal institutions retain their
First Amendment rights to communicate with family and friends.”); Kikumura v. Turner, 28 F .3d 592, 598
(7th Cir. 1994) (holding that “summary exclusion of foreign language materials is unconstitutional”);
Thongvanh v. Thalacker, 17 F.3d 256, 259 (8th Cir. 1994) (prison’s “English only” mail rule as applied to
inmate’s correspondence in foreign language violated the First Amendment where inmate showed the
prison had access to cost-free translation services). The plaintiff potentially states a claim under the Equal
Protection Clause as well. Cf. Kikumura, 28 F .3d at 599 (where the plaintiff alleged he had as a matter of
prison policy been denied access to all Japanese-language materials, holding that the complaint
presented an equal-protection question of whether this policy “is a classification that discriminates based
on Japanese nationality”). Of course, prison regulations on an inmate’s ability to send and receive mail
and to receive written materials in a foreign language, generally speaking, will pass constitutional muster
if they are “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89
(1987); Jones v. Caruso, 569 F.3d 258, 267 (6th Cir. 2009). For purposes of the initial review, however,
the Court finds that the plaintiff has articulated a potential violation of his constitutional rights.
Moreover, defendants Melton and Harvey, as jail officials, are clearly state actors for purposes of
a § 1983 claim. Although the plaintiff’s complaint does not include specific allegations against the
defendants, the Court finds that the allegations in the complaint reasonably support an inference that the
plaintiff’s difficulties in sending or receiving mail are the result of a prison policy that was adopted,
implemented, or enforced by the sheriff or the jail administrator, making them potentially liable in either
their official or individual capacity. At this stage in the proceedings, the Court will permit the claims
against both defendants to proceed.
An appropriate order is filed herewith.
Kevin H. Sharp
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?