Vaughn v. Trotter

Decision Date16 October 1980
Docket NumberNo. 77-3482-NA-CV.,77-3482-NA-CV.
Citation516 F. Supp. 886
PartiesChester VAUGHN et al. v. Paul TROTTER et al.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee

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Gordon Bonnyman, Legal Services of Middle Tennessee, Inc., Nashville, Tenn., for plaintiffs.

William Leech, Atty. Gen., for the State of Tenn., Nashville, Tenn., for defendants.

MEMORANDUM

MORTON, Chief Judge.

This action was filed on October 4, 1977, by three prisoners at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, Tennessee. Their pro se complaint alleged that they were being harassed and/or punished by the defendant prison officials who were allegedly attempting to obstruct the plaintiffs' constitutionally protected right of access to the courts. The plaintiffs sought damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of their rights under the first and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution. The court has determined that it has jurisdiction to ascertain the merits of the plaintiffs' cause under 28 U.S.C. § 1343.

The three plaintiffs are all former inmates of the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. Plaintiff Chester Vaughn was incarcerated at Tennessee State Prison from January 26, 1977, until February 7, 1978; again from August 1 to August 19, 1978; and finally from January 17, 1979, until his release from the Tennessee prison system on April 10, 1980.1 During the period in 1977 and 1978 when he was at the prison in Nashville, he worked actively as a "jailhouse lawyer," preparing petitions, letters and legal documents for himself and other prisoners in an array of civil and criminal proceedings. Plaintiff George Gregg, who is now confined at Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros, Tennessee, was incarcerated in the Tennessee State Prison at Nashville from the summer of 1976 until sometime in June of 1978. He is illiterate, and in 1977 he sought legal assistance from Chester Vaughn in an attempt to set aside his criminal conviction. Plaintiff Albert Holman, who is currently confined at DeBerry Correctional Institute in Nashville, a correctional institution for mentally handicapped prisoners, was incarcerated in Tennessee State Prison during parts of the years 1977 and 1978. He also sought legal assistance from plaintiff Vaughn in an attempt to challenge his conviction.

Defendant Vinson Thompson was warden at the Tennessee State Prison from January 1976 until February 1979. Defendant John Griggs is now, as he was through 1977 and 1978, a lieutenant at the Tennessee State Prison assigned to the position of internal affairs officer. In that capacity, Lieutenant Griggs has responsibility for investigating criminal violations and infractions of institutional rules by prisoners and staff at Tennessee State Prison. Defendant Paul Trotter is a sergeant of the guard force of the Tennessee State Prison. In 1977 and 1978 he held the rank of corporal and worked in the Operations office at the Tennessee State Prison, where his duties included the notarization of prisoners' legal documents. Defendant Douglas Cluck was employed in the fall of 1977 as staff attorney for the Tennessee Department of Correction, and in that capacity was called upon from time to time to give advice to departmental staff, including the other defendants in this action.

The original complaint centered around an incident which was alleged to have occurred at the business window of that portion of the prison known as "Operations" where notarial services are provided. On September 8, 1977, Vaughn accompanied Holman to Operations to have a power of attorney notarized which would authorize the release of "data, documents or facts from person or agency" to Vaughn. This information was restricted to that which related to Holman's second degree murder conviction which Vaughn was working on in his capacity as law clerk at the prison. See defendants' exhibit D-2. After some delay, defendant Trotter reluctantly notarized the document.

The following day, Vaughn attempted to repeat the procedure with plaintiff Gregg. This time Trotter took the papers and telephoned the staff attorney, Douglas Cluck. Cluck advised Trotter to hold the papers and not to notarize them at that time. Trotter subsequently advised both Holman and Gregg that they did not need Vaughn to file suits for them and, moreover, that the limited power of attorney could permit Vaughn to gain access to their prison accounts and take any funds therein. The papers which were taken by Trotter were eventually returned, but there was testimony that two copies thereof were not returned and that the papers were held for over a month.

Vaughn charged that Trotter and others conformed to a policy of harassment and delay in notarizing documents on behalf of Holman and Gregg and that therefore the constitutional rights of these two plaintiffs were violated in and by the foregoing episode. Vaughn alleged that this act and numerous others infringed upon his own rights as well as his ability to serve as a jailhouse lawyer for others. This latter contention will be more fully developed, infra.

The case was tried without a jury on April 17 and 24, 1980.

At the outset it must be stated that it is the determination of the court that defendant Cluck must be exonerated from any personal responsibility or liability for any of the matters presented here. He acted only on information supplied by other defendants, and he did not render any advice which would have countenanced harassment or invidious treatment of any of the plaintiffs. On the contrary, he repeatedly advised state officials of their responsibilities under the various decisions of the Supreme Court and of this court. Accordingly, judgment will be entered in favor of defendant Cluck.

Plaintiff Holman

At the time of trial, Holman was hospitalized at an institution for mentally handicapped prisoners. It was apparent to the court that Holman was intellectually impaired and that he had difficulty understanding and answering questions by counsel and the court. He also stated that he was taking medication for his nerves. In addition, he recalled little of the events of the fall of 1977.

Nevertheless, this plaintiff testified that he did utilize the services of Chester Vaughn to assist with legal problems because he (Holman) had no money for a lawyer. Holman stated that, although he could read, he often did not understand the papers that Vaughn would prepare, but Vaughn would explain them and Holman would sign them. Holman does not remember a power of attorney but identified his signature on exhibit D-2. Holman also testified that defendant Griggs advised him not to use Vaughn as a jailhouse lawyer because Griggs was afraid that Vaughn would take money from Holman's prison account.

This plaintiff further testified that Trotter never refused to notarize papers for him, nor did Trotter ever seize any papers and refuse to return them. This plaintiff also stated affirmatively that Griggs never discouraged law suits or any legal attempts on behalf of this plaintiff. There was no evidence presented that Vinson Thompson interfered with this plaintiff's right of access to the courts. Accordingly, as for plaintiff Holman, judgment is entered in favor of each of the defendants.

Plaintiff Gregg

The testimony of Gregg concerning his involvement in the September 9, 1977, incident was that the power of attorney was drafted so that Chester Vaughn might obtain various papers from Gregg's former attorney in the hope of getting Gregg's case back in court. Gregg stated that Trotter did not notarize them and kept the papers for "a few days." Thereafter, Trotter returned one copy of three duplicate sets and advised Gregg that the power of attorney would permit Vaughn to take everything Gregg had. Because Gregg was illiterate, Vaughn would act as his jailhouse lawyer, explain papers to Gregg, and submit them on his behalf. Gregg testified that Trotter notarized a number of papers for him, and apparently the power of attorney was the only document which was not notarized. Further, Gregg stated that he did not complain to Trotter about the failure to return two copies of the documents aforementioned. Gregg testified that he really did not know what this suit is about and that he believed that the matter had been dropped long ago. This plaintiff further stated that because of the three-year interval, his memory was such that he does not now recall the truth of his original accusations.

On the basis of the record, the court holds that plaintiff Gregg has failed in his effort to prove a violation of his constitutional rights, and judgment will accordingly be entered for each defendant as to this plaintiff.

Plaintiff Vaughn

The allegations of plaintiff Vaughn and the proof in support thereof are more serious. Before fully examining the pervasive scope of harassment and impediments to reaching the courthouse which Vaughn has alleged, the September 9, 1977, incident will be dealt with since this is the only direct link between Vaughn and defendants Griggs and Trotter. It will not be forgotten, however, that the circumstances must be viewed in their totality; not seriatim or piecemeal. Cf. Russell v. Oliver, 552 F.2d 115 (4th Cir. 1977) (allegations of harassment as a result of exercise of right of access to the courts should be considered as a unit and not as isolated incidents).

The defendant Griggs is not shown by the record to have directly attempted to punish or harass Vaughn. It is argued, however, that statements which Griggs made to Holman had potentially serious implications for Vaughn. Griggs advised Holman that the power of attorney would give Vaughn access to Holman's prison bank account. At the least, such a statement could have deterred Holman from seeking legal assistance from Vaughn, the plaintiff argues, and it also had the potential for fostering a reputation for Vaughn which would deter the prison population in general from seeking Vaughn's aid. However,...

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9 cases
  • Adams v. James
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • March 18, 1986
    ...Cir.1976), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 98 S.Ct. 855, 55 L.Ed.2d 24 (1978); Vaughn v. Trotter, 516 F.Supp. 886, 893 (M.D.Tenn.1980).3 I express no opinion as to whether any inmate should be allowed to assert the claim that other inmates are being den......
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