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Williams v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

February 9, 2018

Fontel Williams, Plaintiff,
South Carolina Department of Corrections, Defendant.


          Bristow Marchant, United States Magistrate Judge

         The Plaintiff, Fontel Williams, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff is an inmate at the McCormick Correctional Institution, part of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC).

         Plaintiff alleges that his First and Eighth Amendment rights were violated because paperwork from the South Carolina Department of Social Services concerning his son was received by SCDC on November 3, 2017, but was not "served" on Plaintiff until November 28, 2017, which was after a family court merits hearing concerning a treatment and placement plan for Plaintiffs son (held on November 14, 2017). Plaintiff claims that because he was not informed about the hearing and was not transported by SCDC to the hearing, he "lost" his son and now has to pay child support.[1] ECF No. 1 at 3-4. Plaintiff requests monetary damages for emotional damages and child support, that his good-time credits be restored so he can be released from SCDC custody, and that "everybody that took part in this be su[s]pended without pay." ECF No. 1 at 6.


         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of the pro se Complaint pursuant to the procedural provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915 and § 1915 A, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321(1996), and in light of the following precedents: Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25 (1992), Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989), Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972), Nasim v. Warden. Maryland House of Com, 64 F.3d 951 (4th Cir. 1995), and Todd v. Baskerville, 712 F.2d 70 (4th Cir. 1983). Pro se complaints are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978), and a federal district court is charged with liberally construing a pro se complaint to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)); Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980). However, even when considered pursuant to this liberal standard, for the reasons set forth herein below this case is subject to summary dismissal. The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) [outlining pleading requirements under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure].

         Initially, this action is subject to summary dismissal because Plaintiff has only named the SCDC as a defendant. Any request for monetary damages against the SCDC is barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, which divests this court of jurisdiction to entertain a suit for damages brought against the State of South Carolina or its integral parts. As a state agency, the SCDC is considered an integral part of the State of South Carolina. See S.C. Code Ann. § 24-1-30 [statute creating the agency of SCDC]; Florida Dep't. of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc., 458 U.S. 670, 684 (1982) [state agencies are arms of the state and entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity]; Ram Pitta v. Md. Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 822 F.2d 456, 457 (4th Cir. 1987)[Eleventh Amendment shields a state entity from suit in federal court "if, in [the entity's] operations, the state is the real party in interest, " in the sense that the "named party [is] the alter ego of the state."]; Laudman v. Padula, No. 3:12-2382-SB, 2013 WL 5469977, at *7 (D.S.C. Sept. 30, 2013)[dismissing claims against state agency]; see Alden v. Maine. 527 U.S. 706 (1999); College Savs. Bank v. Florida Prepaid Educ. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984)[although express language of Eleventh Amendment only forbids suits by citizens of other States against a State, Eleventh Amendment bars suits against a State filed by its own citizens]: Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978); Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police. 491 U.S. 58, 61-71 (1989); Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663 (1974)[stating that "when the action is in essence one for the recovery of money from the state, the state is the real, substantial party in interest and is entitled to invoke its [Eleventh Amendment] sovereign immunity from suit even though individual officials are nominal defendants"] (quoting Ford Motor Co. v. Dep't. of Treasury, 323 U.S. 459, 464 (1945)); see also Harter v. Vernon, 101 F.3d 334, 338-39 (4th Cir. 1996); Bellamy v. Borders, 727 F.Supp. 247, 248-50 (D.S.C. 1989).

         While the United States Congress can override Eleventh Amendment immunity through legislation, Congress has not overridden the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity in § 1983 cases.[2] See Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 343 (1979). Further, although a State may itself consent to suit in a federal district court, Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99 & n. 9 (1984), the State of South Carolina has not consented to such actions. To the contrary, the South Carolina Tort Claims Act expressly provides that the State of South Carolina does not waive Eleventh Amendment immunity, consents to suit only in a court of the State of South Carolina, and does not consent to suit in a federal court or in a court of another state. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-78-20(e).

         Of course, Plaintiff may amend his Complaint once before a responsive pleading is filed. Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 15; see also Brockington v. South Carolina Dep't of Soc. Servs., No. 17-1028, 2017 WL 1531633 (4th Cir. 2017)[Noting that pro se Plaintiff should be provided an opportunity to amend his complaint to cure defects prior to a dismissal]. However, even assuming Plaintiff moved to amend his Complaint to substitute proper party defendants(s) for his 1983 claims for the current Defendant SCDC, as discussed below the relief requested by the Plaintiff cannot be awarded by this Court. Therefore, even allowing Plaintiff to amend to substitute a proper party Defendant would not save this case from dismissal.

         Plaintiff requests that those persons who took part in the alleged actions be suspended without pay. However, this Court cannot suspend or remove SCDC personnel from their jobs. See Maxton v. Johnson, 488 F.Supp. 1030, 1032 n. 2 (D.S.C.1980) [a federal district court lacks inherent power to remove or reassign officials not within the executive control of that federal district court] [citing United States v. White County Bridge Commission, 275 F.2d 529, 535 (7th Cir. I960)). Plaintiff also requests the return of good-time credits so that he can be released from SCDC custody. However, to the extent that Plaintiff is attempting to attack the disciplinary conviction(s) for which his good-time credits were taken away from him, this requested relief is barred by Heck v. Humphrey. 512 U.S. 477 (1997).[3] See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997)[Heck precludes a § 1983 claim relating to a prison disciplinary hearing which has not been previously invalidated, where the challenge would necessarily imply the invalidity of the deprivation of good-time credits]; see also Kerr v. Orellana, 969 F.Supp. 357 (E.D.Va. 1997)[holding that prisoner's § 1983 claim for monetary damages and injunctive relief related to his disciplinary hearing was precluded under Heck]; cf Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 751 (2004) ["Heck's requirement to resort to state litigation and federal habeas before § 1983 is not.. . implicated by a prisoner's challenge that threatens no consequence for his conviction or the duration of his sentence."]. Plaintiff has not alleged that he has successfully attacked his disciplinary hearing conviction(s). Therefore, reinstating Plaintiffs good-time credits would necessarily imply the invalidity of the outcome of his disciplinary hearing(s) and thus any such relief is barred under Heck and Edwards. Moreover, Plaintiff s request for release from incarceration is also subject to dismissal because such relief is not available under § 1983. Instead, his exclusive federal remedy for such relief is to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, after full exhaustion of his state remedies. See Heck, 512 U.S. at 481 (1994) [holding that "habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for a state prisoner who challenges the fact or duration of his confinement and seeks immediate or speedier release"]; Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973)[complaint or petition challenging the fact or duration of confinement should be construed and processed as a habeas corpus petition, while a complaint or petition challenging the conditions of confinement should be construed and processed as a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983].

         To the extent Plaintiff is complaining about the delay in his receipt of his mail from DSS about a family court hearing, an occasional, negligent delay or interference with personal or legal mail, without more, does not impose a deprivation of constitutional proportions. See Pink v. Lester, 52 F.3d 73, 75 (4th Cir. 1995) [legal mail]; Pearson v. Simms, 345 F.Supp.2d 515, 519 (D. Md. 2003), affd. 88 F. App'x. 639 (4th Cir. 2004)[outgoing mail]. Rather, to state a claim under § 1983 based upon a delay in sending or receiving legal mail, an inmate must allege facts showing that the delay interfered with his constitutional right of access to the courts by causing an actual injury to his ability to attack his criminal sentence or challenge to conditions of his confinement. Bryant v. Lee, No. 92-6571, 1993 WL 188302, at *1 (4th Cir. June 2, 1993) (citations omitted) (citing White v. White, 886 F.2d 721, 723-24 (4th Cir. 1989)); Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 348-55 (1996).[4] Here, Plaintiffs allegations do not involve an action attacking his sentence or challenging his conditions of confinement, and the Supreme Court has stated that "[i]mpairment of any other litigating capacity is simply one of the incidental (and perfectly constitutional) consequences of conviction and incarceration." Lewis, 518 U.S. at 355; see, e.g., Wagner v. Gober, No. 4:15-CV-1789 CAS, 2017 WL 2984841, *4 (E.D. Mo. July 13, 2017) [finding no denial of access to courts based on defendant's alleged interference with plaintiffs divorce case]; King v. Hunt County, No. 3:08-CV-1253-K(BF). 2010 WT, 4314738 (N. D.Tex. Oct. 1, 2010)[aprisoner's inability to access the law library to litigate his child custody case did not demonstrate "actual injury" to support an access to courts claim], adopted by 2010 WL 4321572 (Oct. 26, 2010); but see Cohen v. Longshore, 621 F.3d 1311, 1317 (10th Cir. 2010)["although Lewis limits the types of cases in which the prison must provide affirmative assistance, it does not give free reign to prison authorities to interfere with and impede a prisoner's pursuit of other legal actions"].

         Finally, Plaintiff may also be attempting to assert that Defendant did not follow certain SCDC policies or rules as to his mail or as to transporting him to a custody hearing. However, such allegations do not state a constitutional claim. See Keeler v. Pea, 782 F.Supp. 42, 44 (D.S.C. 1992); cf Johnson v. S.C. Dep't of Corrs., No. 06-2062, 2007 WL 904826, at *12 (D.S.C. Mar. 21, 2007)[The plaintiffs allegation that defendants did not "follow their own policies or procedures, standing alone, does not amount to a constitutional violation."](citing Riccio v. County of Fairfax. Virginia, 907 F.2d 1459, 1469(4thCir. 1990)[if state law grants more procedural rights than the Constitution requires, a state's failure to abide by that law is not a federal due process issue].


         Based on the foregoing, it is recommended that the Court dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint without prejudice and without issuance and service of process. Plaintiffs attention is directed to the important notice on the next page.”]

         Notice of Right to File Objections to Report ...

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