JAILS / CORRECTIONS
Inmate Mail – PLRA and Allegations of Rights Violations
by Jack Ryan, J.D.
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A case from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Inidiana provides an example of the interplay between the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and allegations of rights violations in jails and prisons.i
The court outlined the claims of Romine, the prisoner as follows:
“In his Complaint, the Plaintiff alleges that Chief Deputy Gaunt opened and read his legal mail, even though it was clearly marked as attorney-client correspondence. He also alleges that Officer Kevin McIntosh delivered his legal mail to him already opened on one occasion…. [In response to these allegations], Defendant McIntosh states that ‘[a]t no time did I open Nathan Romine's mail outside of his presence.’ (Defendant Gaunt states in his Affidavit that, as chief deputy, he reviews all mail concerning sheriff's sales. He states that on November 16, 2006, he ‘received a batch of mail concerning Sheriff's Sales ('Mail Batch'). An envelope addressed to Nathan Romine was inadvertently included in the Mail Batch by the sorter.’ Gaunt states that he did not notice the mistake and ‘mistakenly opened it,’ that ‘[i]t was not apparent to me that the envelope was intended for Nathan Romine until after I read a few lines of a document in the envelope, and that upon realizing his mistake he ‘immediately took the envelope to Nathan Romine and apologized for accidentally opening it’ Additionally, the Defendants have submitted evidence demonstrating that the mail Defendant Gaunt accidentally opened did not contain any confidential documents.
The court in its review cited United States Supreme Court precedent in observing
Prison and jail officials may not read an inmate's privileged legal mail, although they may open it and inspect it for contraband in the inmate's presence.ii
In rejecting the jail’s argument that the case should be dismissed because Romine did not suffer a physical injury, the court asserted:
“The Defendants first argue that they should be granted summary judgment because the Plaintiff has conceded that he did not suffer any physical injury from the Defendants' actions. The Defendants assert that ‘[t]he Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 1997e ('PLRA') requires inmates to show that the alleged conduct complained of resulted in a physical injury. The Plaintiff cannot show any physical injury as a result of either [*8] incident alleged. Consequently, his claims are barred by the PLRA.’ (Defs.' Memo. in Support 5.) The Defendants rely on 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) for the proposition that physical injury is a requisite for establishing any constitutional claim by a prisoner, but their reliance on this statute is misplaced. The Seventh Circuit has instructed:
As we have observed before and reemphasize here, it would be a serious mistake to interpret section 1997e(e) to require a showing of physical injury in all prisoner civil rights suits. On several occasions we have explained that § 1997e(e) may limit the relief available to prisoners who cannot allege a physical injury, but it does not bar their lawsuits altogether. As its title suggests, § 1997e(e) is a "limitation on recovery." Accordingly, physical injury is merely a predicate for an award of damages for mental or emotional injury, not a filing prerequisite for the federal civil action itself.
Calhoun v. Detella, 319 F.3d 936, 940 (7th Cir. 2003) (quotation marks and internal citations omitted). Section 1997e(e) precludes any claim by the Plaintiff for mental and emotional injury because he does not allege a physical injury from having his mail opened outside his presence. This section, however, does not authorize the granting of summary judgment on the federal civil action itself, and if the Plaintiff prevails, he may be awarded nominal damages or any actual damages he may be able to prove.”
The court ultimately granted summary judgment to the jail officials but not as the result of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Instead the court reviewed the fact that the only evidence indicated that the mail was opened inadvertently and thus, was at the most negligent. Negligent conduct is insufficient in all cases to make out a civil rights claim, thus the claim was dismissed.
i Romine v.Gaunt, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29682 (N. Dist. Indiana 2009).
ii Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974) (upholding prison procedure of inspecting but not reading legal mail in part because no threat of chilled communications). See also, Gaines v. Lane, 790 F.2d 1299 (7th Cir. 1986) (upholding policy allowing prison officials to open and inspect but not to read privileged mail in inmate's presence).