Burd v. Sessler

Decision Date17 December 2012
Docket NumberNo. 12–1337.,12–1337.
Citation702 F.3d 429
PartiesBrian S. BURD, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Gail SESSLER, et al., Defendants–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit


Richard Patrick Darke (argued), Attorney, Duane Morris LLP, Chicago, IL, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Evan Siegel (argued), Attorney, Office of the Attorney General, Chicago, IL, for DefendantsAppellees.

Before FLAUM, RIPPLE and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

Brian Burd alleges in this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that prison officials deprivedhim of access to the courts by preventing him from using library resources to prepare a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. As the case comes to us, he seeks damages from the prison officials. The district court held that such a claim is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994). We agree with the district court and therefore affirm its judgment.


On December 7, 2009, Mr. Burd pleaded guilty in Illinois state court to attempted burglary. Under Illinois practice, he had thirty days to file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. For the first twenty-nine days of this period, he was held at prison facilities that lacked library resources of any kind. On the thirtieth day, Mr. Burd was transferred to Sheridan Correctional Center. He immediately asked to use its library, but Sheridan officials told him the library was closed.

Mr. Burd missed the deadline to file his motion, but he continued to seek access to Sheridan's law library. He filled out request slips, but each time he was denied access because the library was closed. When he explained to defendant Gail Sessler, the educational administrator at Sheridan, that he wanted to research a motion to withdraw his guilty plea or an appeal of his sentence, she told him that any such action would be untimely and denied him access to the library. Mr. Burd also requested that a fellow inmate, Todd Howell, be permitted to assist him with his motion. He never received a response to his request, and when he filed a grievance about the failure to respond, he was told that the matter was moot because Howell had been transferred from Sheridan.

Mr. Burd did not seek to set aside his conviction through federal or state habeas corpus before filing this § 1983 action. In November 2011, Mr. Burd was paroled from prison. The mandatory supervised release portion of his sentence was scheduled to expire in November 2012.


In his complaint, Mr. Burd alleges that prison officials at Sheridan and other Illinois correctional officials denied him his right of access to the courts by depriving him of the library materials that he needed to file his motion and to research possible grounds for appealing his sentence. The district court, after dismissing Mr. Burd's claim for injunctive relief,1 invited the parties to address whether, under Heck, a favorable determination on the damages claim necessarily would imply the invalidity of Mr. Burd's conviction and therefore warrant the dismissal of the damages claim as well. The defendants subsequently moved to dismiss the claim for damages, arguing that Heck barred such a claim. The district court granted the motion.


As this case comes to us, it presents the question of whether Mr. Burd may seek damages against the defendants in their individual capacities for the alleged violation of Mr. Burd's right of access to the courts, despite Heck's “favorable termination requirement.” See Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 646–47, 124 S.Ct. 2117, 158 L.Ed.2d 924 (2004). In Nelson, the Supreme Court explained succinctly that requirement:

Although damages are not an available habeas remedy, ... a § 1983 suit for damages that would necessarily imply the invalidity of the fact of an inmate's conviction, or necessarily imply the invalidity of the length of an inmate's sentence, is not cognizable under § 1983 unless and until the inmate obtains favorable termination of a state, or federal habeas, challenge to his conviction or sentence.

Id. at 646, 124 S.Ct. 2117 (quoting Heck, 512 U.S. at 487, 114 S.Ct. 2364) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648, 117 S.Ct. 1584, 137 L.Ed.2d 906 (1997). The Court reasoned that, because habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for a challenge to the fact or duration of one's confinement, see Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 488–90, 93 S.Ct. 1827, 36 L.Ed.2d 439 (1973), an inmate must first seek to set aside his conviction through habeas corpus before initiating a § 1983 action that necessarily calls that conviction into doubt. Heck, 512 U.S. at 487, 114 S.Ct. 2364.

Mr. Burd submits that the favorable termination requirement does not bar his claim for monetary damages because, in this situation, such a judgment would not necessarily call into question the validity of his conviction or sentence. He further argues that the unavailability of collateral relief at this point in the litigation makes Heck's favorable termination requirement inapplicable. We shall examine each of these arguments in turn.


We address first Mr. Burd's contention that the favorable termination requirement of Heck and its progeny is inapplicable because an award of damages for having been denied an opportunity to research his motion to withdraw his plea or his right to appeal his sentence would not necessarily imply that his conviction or sentence is invalid. Mr. Burd submits that his situation is analogous to those presented to the Supreme Court in Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 125 S.Ct. 1242, 161 L.Ed.2d 253 (2005), and in Skinner v. Switzer, ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 179 L.Ed.2d 233 (2011). In Dotson, the Court examined the application of Heck to a suit challenging procedures in a prison parole hearing; in Skinner, the Court examined the application of Heck to a suit seeking DNA testing. In both cases, the Court held that Heck did not bar the § 1983 action for injunctive relief. In Dotson, the Court concluded that a successful challenge to the procedures used in prison parole hearings would not necessarily entail immediate or speedier release. 544 U.S. at 82, 125 S.Ct. 1242. In Skinner, the Court noted that DNA testing “may prove exculpatory, inculpatory, or inconclusive.” 131 S.Ct. at 1293.

In both of these cases, the plaintiff was seeking prospective relief to ensure that he was treated fairly in the underlying proceedings. In Dotson, the plaintiff sought a change in parole procedures under which his case would be heard. He asked for no alteration in his confinement status, only that any adjudication of that status be conducted in a manner that comported with federal constitutional standards. In Skinner, the plaintiff sought access to biological evidence for the purpose of forensic testing. 131 S.Ct. at 1296. He planned to use the tests to seek relief from a criminal conviction. In both cases, the Justices held that the favorable termination requirement of Heck was not implicated because, should the plaintiff obtain the relief requested, the validity of his underlying conviction or confinement would not be put in question. Dotson, 544 U.S. at 82, 125 S.Ct. 1242;Skinner, 131 S.Ct. at 1298. Rather, the prisoner simply would have been afforded procedural pathways that, if successfully employed, might lead to the overturning of the underlying conviction. Dotson and Skinner simply apply the principle described in Heck: [I]f the district court determines that the plaintiff's [§ 1983] action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed, in the absence of some other bar to the suit.” 512 U.S. at 487, 114 S.Ct. 2364.

Mr. Burd sees the principle articulated in Skinner and Dotson as controlling in his case. He points out that his access-to-courts claim does not challenge directly his underlying criminal conviction, despite the fact that he admits that he sought access to the courts to withdraw his guilty plea. Invoking Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 116 S.Ct. 2174, 135 L.Ed.2d 606 (1996), and Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 122 S.Ct. 2179, 153 L.Ed.2d 413 (2002), Mr. Burd further argues that “the loss of an opportunity to seek some particular order of relief” can form the basis of an access-to-courts claim. Harbury, 536 U.S. at 414, 122 S.Ct. 2179 (emphasis added). Consequently, Mr. Burd maintains that he need only demonstrate that his lost, underlying claim—here, a lost opportunity to withdraw a guilty plea or to appeal—would have been non-frivolous or “arguable,” not that it would have been successful. See id. at 415, 122 S.Ct. 2179;Lewis, 518 U.S. at 353 n. 3, 356, 116 S.Ct. 2174;In re Maxy, 674 F.3d 658, 660–61 (7th Cir.2012).

This argument gives too crabbed a reading to the scope of the bar established in Heck: [T]he district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” 512 U.S. at 487, 114 S.Ct. 2364 (emphasis added). This bar requires us to evaluate the substantive requirements for obtaining the particular remedy—damages—that Mr. Burd seeks on his access-to-courts claim. We addressed the problem of damages in a prisoner access-to-courts claim in Hoard v. Reddy, 175 F.3d 531 (7th Cir.1999). In Hoard, an inmate alleged that prison officials had prevented him from mounting a state-court collateral attack on his conviction. He therefore brought an action against them for damages. We concluded “that only prospective relief is available in a prisoner's suit complaining of denial of access to the courts unless he has succeeded in getting his conviction annulled, since otherwise an effort to obtain damages would be blocked by Heck. Id. at 533.Hoard acknowledged that this ruling seemed paradoxical alongside Lewis's holding that a § 1983 plaintiff in an access-to-courts case...

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    • Detention and Corrections Caselaw Quarterly No. 60, June 2014
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