3 F.3d 816 (5th Cir. 1993), 92-1718, Brewer v. Wilkinson

Docket Nº:92-1718.
Citation:3 F.3d 816
Party Name:Van Lee BREWER, et al., Plaintiffs, Van Lee Brewer and Claude Harris, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. B. WILKINSON, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:September 22, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 816

3 F.3d 816 (5th Cir. 1993)

Van Lee BREWER, et al., Plaintiffs,

Van Lee Brewer and Claude Harris, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

B. WILKINSON, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 92-1718.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 22, 1993

Page 817

Van Lee Brewer, pro se.

Claude Harris, pro se.

Louis Victor Carrillo, Asst. Atty. Gen., Dan Morales, Atty. Gen., Austin, TX, for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before KING, HIGGINBOTHAM and DEMOSS, Circuit Judges.

KING, Circuit Judge:

Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates Van Lee Brewer and Claude Harris brought this Sec. 1983 civil rights action against the mail-room supervisor and a mail-room clerk at TDCJ's Price Daniel Unit, alleging constitutional violations arising from the handling of their mail. Concluding that the inmates had failed to state a cognizable constitutional claim for denial of access to the courts, the district court granted the Appellees' motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action. Brewer and Harris appeal. We affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

Proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) inmates Van Lee Brewer and Claude Harris (Appellants) filed this Sec. 1983 civil rights action against Brenda Wilkinson and several other unnamed employees of the mailroom at the TDCJ Price Daniel Unit (Appellees) seeking money damages for alleged violations of the Appellants' constitutional rights. Specifically, Appellants allege

Page 818

that Appellees violated their constitutional rights by opening incoming legal mail from various courts, attorneys, and government officials and inspecting it for contraband outside of their presence. Brewer complains that thirteen such items of incoming legal mail were opened and inspected outside of his presence between January 1990 and March 1991; Harris complains of one such instance, which allegedly occurred on November 15, 1990. 1 Appellants contend that Appellees' conduct infringed upon their First Amendment rights and their right of access to the courts, which is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

According to Appellants, the Appellees' acts with regard to their incoming legal mail "denied [Appellants'] [right] to be free from arbitrary and unjustified governmental interference [and] denied [Appellants'] rights to have 'confidential communications' with the Courts and Attorneys." Appellants do not, however, specifically allege that Appellees censored their incoming legal mail.

Appellants also allege constitutional violations arising from the handling of their non-legal mail. Brewer complains that, on "numerous" occasions, incoming and outgoing correspondence with his wife was not delivered. Harris complains that ten specific items of incoming general correspondence were intentionally "withheld" for over seventy-two hours before delivery. According to Appellants, these actions violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Appellants further allege that Appellees' handling of their mail, legal and non-legal, violated TDCJ correspondence rules. 2

Wilkinson filed an answer in which she denied Appellants' allegations and raised the defense of qualified immunity. Wilkinson also moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that Appellants' claims against her in her official capacity were barred by the Eleventh Amendment, that Appellants had failed to plead facts sufficient to overcome her plea of qualified immunity, and that Appellants had failed to state a cognizable claim for violation of any constitutionally protected right. The district court then referred the matter to a magistrate, who permitted Appellants to supplement their complaint in response to Wilkinson's plea of qualified immunity.

After considering Wilkinson's motion in light of the supplemental pleading, the magistrate issued proposed findings, conclusions, and recommendations, in which he concluded that Appellants' allegations regarding the opening of incoming legal mail stated a claim for "a violation of a clearly established law." The magistrate therefore found that Appellants had pleaded facts that, if proven, would be sufficient to overcome Wilkinson's claim of qualified immunity. Accordingly, the magistrate recommended that Appellants be allowed to proceed with their action. Wilkinson objected, and, after a de novo review of the record, the district court adopted the magistrate's report and scheduled the case for trial. 3

Page 819

Wilkinson subsequently moved for summary judgment. Wilkinson argued that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Appellants' access-to-the-courts claim because Appellants had alleged no actual prejudice or harm resulting from Appellees' conduct. Wilkinson also reasserted her Eleventh Amendment and qualified immunity defenses. Appellants responded to Wilkinson's motion and, with the permission of the court, amended their complaint, adding C. Calloway, a mail-room clerk, as a named defendant, adding allegations that Appellees' conduct had caused Appellants "mental and emotional distress," and dropping all claims against Appellees in their official capacities. The Amended Complaint also added an allegation by Brewer that Calloway had opened two items of outgoing--as opposed to incoming--legal correspondence and, at least with respect to one of those mailings, removed a "writ of mandamus," thereby not "allow[ing] the Court to receive said materials." 4 According to Brewer, Calloway's conduct infringed upon his right of access to the courts and his First Amendment right of free speech. Calloway filed a timely answer, in which she raised the defense of qualified immunity, and joined in the pending motion for summary judgment.

On August 10, 1991, the district court granted Appellees' motion for summary judgment as to all of Appellants' claims. In granting the motion, the court first concluded that Appellees were not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity. The court reasoned that prisoners have a constitutionally protected right of access to the courts, and that this court, in Guajardo v. Estelle, 580 F.2d 748 (5th Cir.1978), had established, as a corollary of this right of access, the right of TDCJ prisoners to have legal mail opened and inspected only in their presence. The district court therefore found that Appellants had alleged "a violation of a clearly established constitutional right" and concluded that Appellees were not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law because the summary judgment evidence raised a fact issue as to whether Appellants' legal mail in fact had been opened outside of their presence.

Notwithstanding its conclusion that Appellants had alleged a violation of a clearly established constitutional right, the district court then concluded that summary judgment was proper because Appellants had failed to make out a cognizable constitutional claim. Following Henthorn v. Swinson, 955 F.2d 351 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2974, 119 L.Ed.2d 593 (1992), the court held that "a denial-of-access-to-the-courts claim is not valid if a litigant's position is not prejudiced by the alleged violation." The court reasoned, therefore, that Appellees were entitled to summary judgment because "none of [the Appellants] have alleged any harm or prejudice resulting to them because of the alleged misconduct on the part of Appellees in handling their legal mail." Thus, without ever expressly addressing Appellants' other constitutional claims, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Appellees and dismissed the case. This appeal ensued.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Proceeding on appeal pro se, Appellants argue that the district court erred in granting summary judgment. Specifically, Appellants challenge the district court's conclusion that they failed to make out a cognizable claim for denial of their right of access to the courts. Appellants also argue that the district court improperly dismissed their other First and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as a district court. Hanks v. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp., 953 F.2d 996, 997 (5th Cir.1992). Summary judgment is proper only if the record discloses that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Harbor Ins. Co. v. Trammell Crow Co., 854 F.2d 94, 98

Page 820

(5th Cir.1988) (quoting FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c)), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1054, 109 S.Ct. 1315, 103 L.Ed.2d 584 (1989). Moreover, in reviewing the record, we are not bound to the grounds articulated by the district court for granting summary judgment, for we may affirm the judgment on other appropriate grounds. Harbor Ins. Co. v. Urban Constr. Co., 990 F.2d 195, 199 (5th Cir.1993); Coral Petroleum, Inc. v. Banque Paribus-London, 797 F.2d 1351, 1355 n. 3 (5th Cir.1986); see also Davis v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 525 F.2d 1204, 1207 (5th Cir.1976).

III. QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

Although the district court concluded that Appellees were not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity, we review that conclusion here because the determination of such immunity is a threshold question which must be resolved inasmuch as it determines a defendant's immunity from suit rather than merely immunity from damages. See Siegert v. Gilley, --- U.S. ----, ---- - ----, 111 S.Ct. 1789, 1793-94, 114 L.Ed.2d 277 (1991); Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817-18, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2737-38, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982).

To determine whether a defendant official is entitled to qualified immunity, a court must first ascertain whether...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP