Giarratano v. Johnson

Decision Date25 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. 06-7890.,06-7890.
Citation521 F.3d 298
PartiesJoseph M. GIARRATANO, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Gene JOHNSON, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections; Tracey S. Ray, Warden of Red Onion State Prison, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Steven David Rosenfield, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. William Eugene Thro, State Solicitor General, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Rebecca K. Glenberg, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Foundation, Inc., Richmond, Virginia; R. Frazier Solsberry, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. Robert F. McDonnell, Attorney General, Stephen R. McCullough, Deputy State Solicitor General, William C. Mims, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Maria Graff Decker, Deputy Attorney General, Mark R. Davis, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.

Before WILLIAMS, Chief Judge, DUNCAN, Circuit Judge, and JOHN PRESTON BAILEY, United States District Judge for the Northern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge BAILEY wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge WILLIAMS and Judge DUNCAN joined.

OPINION

BAILEY, District Judge:

Joseph M. Giarratano (Giarratano) is a Virginia state prisoner infected by Hepatitis C. Giarratano twice requested, at his own expense, that the Red Onion State Prison, of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), provide him copies of the prison treatment protocols for inmates with Hepatitis C so that he could make informed decisions about his health and to aid in any litigation arising from VDOC's treatment of his condition. Both times, VDOC denied Giarratano's requests. Additionally, Giarratano attempted to obtain the requested protocols through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA);1 however, he was denied access because prisoners are specifically excluded from obtaining information under the Act. Giarratano alleges that he has never filed a frivolous request for information, and he is willing to pay the costs associated with obtaining the protocols.

Giarratano brought his § 1983 action against the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, Gene Johnson, challenging the constitutionality of the statutory exclusion of prisoners from making requests for public records under VFOIA. In his complaint, Giarratano raised three claims before the district court, both facial and as-applied challenges to the VFOIA under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as an as-applied challenge under the First Amendment.

In dismissing the complaint, the district court ruled that the statutory exclusion of prisoners from making requests for public records under VFOIA was rationally related to a legitimate state interest and that Giarratano's right of access to the courts was not violated. On appeal, Giarratano argues that the VFOIA prisoner exclusion violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection, and that the court must determine whether prisoners are prone to filing frivolous VFOIA requests at a higher rate than members of the general public. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

VFOIA provides citizens the right of ready access to all public records held by the State and its officers and employees. See Va.Code Ann. §§ 2.2-3700-3704 (2005). The State may deny access to a public record only by invoking one of the narrowly drawn exemptions enumerated by the statute. To this end, Section 2.2-3703(C) excludes all persons incarcerated in any state, local, or federal correctional facility from enjoying any of the rights afforded under VFOIA to make requests for public records.

Giarratano alleges that the VFOIA prisoner exclusion violates the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, claiming that the court must make a determination in fact whether prisoners are prone to filing frivolous VFOIA requests at a higher rate than members of the general public. Giarratano additionally alleges that, as applied to him, VFOIA's prisoner exclusion violates his right of access to the courts under the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this argument, Giarratano represents that he has a clean history of never filing frivolous requests.

Giarratano brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, challenging VFOIA's prisoner exclusion under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and under the First Amendment. As in Fisher v. King, 232 F.3d 391 (4th Cir.2000), the district court analyzed the claim as both a facial challenge attacking the constitutionality of the statute2 in all situations and as an as-applied challenge, which consists of a challenge to the statute's application only to the party before the court.

The district court granted VDOC's motion to dismiss the Giarratano's 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 claim, which sought to determine whether Virginia's statutory exclusion of prisoners from making FOIA requests is constitutional. See Giarratano v. Johnson, 456 F.Supp.2d 747 (W.D.Va. 2006). The court held that, on its face and as applied to Giarratano's individual request, the prisoner exclusion provision of VFOIA was rationally related to a legitimate state interest.

II.

On appeal, Giarratano seeks reversal of the district court's Rule 12(b)(6) ruling in favor of the VDOC based upon Giarratano's failure to allege any facts that would indicate his rights had been violated. Specifically, Giarratano argues that although the VFOIA prisoner exclusion had been in place for nearly ten years at the time of final disposition, the VDOC failed to show that prisoners are more prone to filing frivolous VFOIA requests and that he should have been provided an opportunity to prove that prisoners do not make frivolous requests at a higher rate than members of the general public. According to Giarratano, the only evidence relating to Virginia prisoners' VFOIA filings is wholly in the possession of the VDOC and its employees; accordingly, Giarratano claims the only way to disprove the exclusion's rationale would derive from the district court's providing him with the opportunity to conduct discovery.

On appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we review de novo and focus only on the legal sufficiency of the complaint. In conducting this review, we "take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff," but "we need not accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts," and "we need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." Eastern Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs, Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir.2000); see also Bass v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir.2003). Additionally, the complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (emphasis added).

III.

Our careful review of the record in this case reveals no reversible error. Giarratano's facial challenge to the VFOIA prisoner exclusion rests on its violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, which states, in relevant part, that "[n]o State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." U.S. Const, amend. XIV, § 1. The Clause requires that similarly-situated individuals be treated alike. City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 439, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 87 L.Ed.2d 313 (1985).

Under an Equal Protection analysis, courts generally hold that "legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest." Id. at 440, 105 S.Ct. 3249. Indeed, upon rational basis review, a classification in a statute such as VFOIA comes before the Court bearing a strong presumption of validity. See Lyng v. Automobile Workers, 485 U.S. 360, 370, 108 S.Ct. 1184, 99 L.Ed.2d 380 (1988). In fact, "[l]aws are presumed to be constitutional under the equal protection clause for the simple reason that classification is the very essence of the art of legislation." Moss v. Clark, 886 F.2d 686, 689 (4th Cir.1989) (citing City of Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 440, 105 S.Ct. 3249). As such, the challenged classification need only be rationally related to a legitimate state interest unless it violates a fundamental right or is drawn upon a suspect classification such as race, religion, or gender. City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303, 96 S.Ct. 2513, 49 L.Ed.2d 511 (1976). However, we do not recognize prisoners as "a suspect class." Roller v. Gunn, 107 F.3d 227, 233 (4th Cir.1997). Accordingly, we will review the VFOIA prisoner exclusion under the rational basis standard.

Under this deferential standard, the plaintiff bears the burden "to negate every conceivable basis which might support" the legislation. Lehnhausen v. Lake Shore Auto Parts Co., 410 U.S. 356, 364, 93 S.Ct. 1001, 35 L.Ed.2d 351 (1973); see Mitchell v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 182 F.3d 272, 274 (4th Cir.1999). Further, the State has no obligation to produce evidence to support the rationality of the statute, which "may be based on rational speculation unsupported by any evidence or empirical data." FCC v. Beach Comms., Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 315, 113 S.Ct. 2096, 124 L.Ed.2d 211 (1993). Rather, "a State does not violate the Equal Protection Clause merely because the classifications made by its laws are imperfect. If the classification has some `reasonable basis,' it does not offend the Constitution simply because the classification `is not made with mathematical...

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