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Pronin v. Johnson

United States District Court, District of South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

March 31, 2015

DMITRY PRONIN, Plaintiff,
v.
LT. TROY JOHNSON, OFFICER FLOURNEY, KENNETH ATKINSON, REX BLOCKER, JOHN BRYANT, BRANDON BURKETT, JAKE BURKETT, OFFICER CRAWFORD, DANIEL FALLEN, LOUISA FUERTES-RASARIO, EDWARD HAMPTON, WILLIAM JOHNSON, SANDRA K. LATHROP, OFFICER MIDDLEBROOK, EDA OLIVERA-NEGRON, HENRI WALL, PATINA WALTON-GRIER, and OFFICER WILSON, Defendants.

ORDER

DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter is before the court on Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West’s Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) that this court grant the motion for summary judgment filed by all eighteen defendants of record. Plaintiff Dmitry Pronin (“Pronin”), an inmate who alleges that defendants violated his constitutional rights, filed written objections to the R&R. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Pronin’s complaint and supporting affidavits document a number of incidents that he alleges occurred while he was incarcerated at the Federal Corrections Institution in Edgefield, South Carolina (“FCI Edgefield”). Specifically, Pronin alleges that defendants: (1) denied his right of access to the courts by, among other actions, failing to provide him access to the prison law library; (2) retaliated against him by treating him like an animal and denying him access to courts; (3) violated his constitutional rights by failing to timely send him certain incident reports and treating him differently than his Spanish-speaking cellmate; (4) violated the Eighth Amendment by showing deliberate indifference to his medical needs and creating filthy prison conditions; and (5) violated his constitutional rights under a theory of supervisory liability. Defendants deny that the allegations amount to constitutional violations and assert the defense of qualified immunity.

Pronin filed the present action on December 3, 2012. Pronin filed an amended complaint on February 13, 2013 and a second amended complaint on April 29, 2013. On August 21, 2013, defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Pronin filed a response on September 24, 2013. On January 13, 2014, the magistrate judge issued an R&R, treating the motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment and recommending that the court grant the motion because Pronin failed to exhaust his administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”). This court rejected the magistrate judge’s recommendation, finding a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants hindered Pronin’s ability to obtain grievance forms. The case was then remanded back to the magistrate judge for further consideration of defendants’ motion.

Defendants subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment on May 27, 2014. Pronin filed responses on June 16, 2014, August 4, 2014, and August 18, 2014. The magistrate judge issued an R&R on September 5, 2014. Pronin filed objections to that R&R on September 22, 2014, and filed supplemental objections on September 25, 2014. The matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for the court’s review.

II. STANDARDS

A. Objections to R&R

This court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the magistrate judge’s R&R to which specific, written objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). A party’s failure to object is accepted as agreement with the conclusions of the magistrate judge. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149–50 (1985). In absence of a timely filed objection to a magistrate judge’s R&R, this court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must “only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee’s note). The recommendation of the magistrate judge carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination rests with this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270–71 (1976). This court may accept, reject, or modify the report of the magistrate judge, in whole or in part, or may recommit the matter to him with instructions for further consideration. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

B. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine, ’ that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. At the summary judgment stage, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Id. at 255.

C. Pro Se Plaintiff

Plaintiff is proceeding pro se in this case. Federal district courts are charged with liberally construing complaints filed by pro se litigants to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. See Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9–10 (1980). Pro se complaints are therefore held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Id. Liberal construction, however, does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts that set forth a cognizable claim. See Weller v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390–91 (4th Cir. 1990).

III. DISCUSSION

Pronin objects to the R&R on eight grounds. Pronin asserts that the magistrate judge erred in finding that: (1) there is no independent constitutional right to library access, legal supplies, or legal assistance; (2) Pronin’s retaliation claim should fail as a matter of law; (3) Pronin failed to demonstrate a due process claim; (4) finding that Pronin failed to demonstrate a medical indifference claim; (5) Pronin failed to demonstrate a cause of action for cruel and unusual punishment; (6) Pronin failed to demonstrate an equal protection violation; (7) Pronin failed to demonstrate a cause of action for supervisory liability; and (8) defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. The court will address each objection in turn.

A. Access to Courts

Pronin’s first objects to the magistrate judge’s finding that there is no independent constitutional right to library access, legal supplies, or legal assistance. Pl.’s Objections 2. Pronin further objects to the magistrate judge’s finding that he failed to allege a cause of action for denial of access to courts based on the loss of his legal paperwork. Id. at 3.

In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1977), the Supreme Court explained that “prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts.” However, “Bounds did not create an abstract, freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 351 (1996). A prisoner claiming a Bounds violation must show: (i) that shortcomings in the prison’s library or legal assistance program hindered his efforts to attack his sentence, directly or collaterally, or to challenge the conditions of his confinement; and (ii) that he was actually injured as a result of these shortcomings. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351–53, 355. To establish a prima facie case of denial of access to the courts, the inmate cannot rely on conclusory allegations; he must identify with specificity an actual injury resulting from official conduct, Cochran v. Morris, 73 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1996); see also White v. White, 886 F.2d 721, 723–24 (4th Cir. 1989), by demonstrating “that his nonfrivolous, post-conviction or civil rights legal claim has been frustrated or impeded.” Jackson v. Wiley, 352 F.Supp.2d 666, 679–80 (E.D. Va. 2004).

Plaintiff objects to the magistrate judge’s reliance on Cobb v. Ozmint, which states that a prisoner “has no independent constitutional right to library access, legal supplies, or legal assistance.” No. 0:08-cv-3978, 2010 WL 2943073, at *4 (D.S.C. July 1, 2010) report and recommendation adopted, 2010 WL 2990013 (D.S.C. July 27, 2010). However, given that the magistrate judge was referring to Pronin’s allegation that envelopes, paper, and other supplies were not made available to him, compl. ¶ 13, the court finds that the magistrate judge properly relied on Cobb to dispose of this part of Pronin’s denial of access to courts claim.

As for Pronin’s allegation that defendants Jake Burkett (“Burkett”) and Troy Johnson (“Johnson”) “successfully got rid of [Pronin’s] legal paperwork, ” Pl.’s Objections 3, this claim relates to an incident in which Burkett allegedly placed certain legal paperwork in Pronin’s old cell, cell 236, which Pronin’s former cellmate later destroyed on November 11, 2012 by throwing the paperwork on the floor and flushing part of it down the toilet. Compl. ¶ 6; Am. Compl. ¶ 10–12. Pronin alleges that Burkett then “maliciously and deliberately left [his] legal paperwork in cell 236 for another six hours, so that [his] paperwork was mostly ruined by [his] then-cellmate.” Compl. ¶ 8(a).

Defendants have attached the declaration of Burkett to their motion for summary judgment. In his declaration, Burkett avers that he did not place the legal paperwork in cell 236 with the intention that Pronin’s cellmate destroy the paperwork and that when he was notified of the water in cell 236, he “gathered all of Mr. Pronin’s property that could be identified as his property from cell 236, and gave Mr. Pronin his property.” Def.’s Mot. Ex. 23 ¶ 4–5. Burkett further avers that he “did not leave any of Mr. Pronin’s documents, including any envelopes which could clearly be identified as Mr. Pronin’s paperwork in cell 236 for any reason.” Id. Ex. 23 ¶ 5.

Thus, in light of Burkett’s uncontested declaration, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether he intentionally destroyed Pronin’s legal paperwork. Therefore, Burkett’s actions amount to, at most, negligence, which is not actionable under § 1983. See Pink v. Lester, 52 F.3d 73, 77 (4th Cir. 1995) (finding that “negligent denials of access” are not actionable under § 1983); Wise v. Lexington Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, No. 4:06-cv-1842, 2008 WL 551618, at *5 (D.S.C. Feb. 26, 2008) aff’d, 283 F. App’x 155 (4th Cir. 2008) (“Prisoners do not have a ...


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