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Pronin v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

April 29, 2019




         The following matter is before the court on defendants Lieutenant Troy Johnson (“Johnson”) and Jake Burkett's (“Burkett”) (collectively, “defendants”) renewed motion to dismiss, ECF No. 287, and plaintiff Dmitry Pronin's (“Pronin”) motion to unfreeze funds, ECF No. 300. For the reasons set forth below, the court denies the renewed motion to dismiss and finds the motion to unfreeze funds moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of defendants' alleged violation of Pronin's right of access to the courts during his incarceration at the Federal Corrections Institute in Edgefield, South Carolina (“FCI Edgefield”).[1] In June 2011, Pronin pleaded guilty in federal court in Delaware for armed bank robbery; carrying, using, and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence; and possession of a firearm by an illegal alien. In preparation for Pronin's sentencing, Pronin's counsel considered submitting to the court Pronin's medical records related to his mental health but eventually decided not to. Pronin was subsequently sentenced in September 2011.

         While serving his sentence, Pronin contends that on November 5, 2012, he received a package from his former attorney which contained-among other things- certain medical records from Russia. Pronin used those records to draft a § 2255 habeas petition for ineffective assistance of counsel based on his counsel's failure to submit his medical records during sentencing. The records allegedly showed that Pronin suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline personality, and that he had been diagnosed with a nervous neck tick and epilepsy. Pronin contends that his draft petition and its attachments, including the medical records, were placed in an envelope by Saturday, November 10, 2012. However, on Sunday, November 11, 2012, before the envelope could be mailed, Pronin was involved in an incident with his cellmate and was subsequently removed from his cell. Crucially, Pronin contends that his legal papers- including his Russian medical records-were left in the cell with his cellmate. Pronin further contends that Burkett, who was eventually tasked with retrieving these documents from the cell, intentionally left a portion of Pronin's documents in the cell, where they were destroyed, and that Johnson subsequently threw out another portion of Pronin's documents two days later. As a result, Pronin filed his complaint in the instant case in December 2012. Then in January 2013, Pronin filed his habeas petition in the District of Delaware with his only remaining medical record, which was related to Pronin's nervous neck tick. The petition was ultimately denied, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit denied Pronin's certificate of appealability.

         This court granted defendants' first motion for summary judgment as to all of Pronin's claims on March 31, 2015. ECF No. 152. Pronin appealed the court's decision. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the court's grant of summary judgment on most of Pronin's claims but found that the court erred in its analysis on the issues of intent and injury in Pronin's access-to-courts claim. Pronin v. Johnson, 628 Fed.Appx. 160, 163 (4th Cir. 2015) (per curiam). First, the Fourth Circuit held that the court erred by relying on defendants' declarations that they did not destroy Pronin's documents and on Burkett's declaration that he did not intend to destroy such documents when those declarations were contested. Id. at 162. In other words, there is a question of material fact as to whether defendants intentionally destroyed Pronin's documents. Next, the Fourth Circuit held that Pronin had raised a material question of fact as to whether he was injured by defendants' actions. Id. at 163. The court recognized that Pronin's § 2255 petition raised a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel based in part on his attorney's refusal to submit Pronin's medical records in connection with his sentencing, and found that “evidence of serious mental illness, including bipolar and borderline disorders, would have supported Pronin's case at sentencing.” Id. at 162-63. Thus, the Fourth Circuit concluded,

the [d]efendants' alleged destruction of [Pronin's] legal materials prevents him from providing the court with his medical history showing that these illnesses had been diagnosed prior to his criminal activity. This evidence could be helpful in showing that his attorney should have investigated his mental health. Without expressing an opinion as to Pronin's likelihood of success in his § 2255 proceeding, we find that Pronin has raised a material question of fact as to whether he can show a nonfrivolous and arguable question regarding whether such materials would result in a successful § 2255 motion.

Id. at 163. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit vacated the court's grant of summary judgment on Pronin's access-to-courts claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id.

         On December 18, 2018, defendants filed a renewed motion to dismiss. ECF No. 287. Pronin responded to the motion on January 2, 2019 before he was appointed counsel, ECF No. 292, and then Pronin's newly appointed counsel filed a response on January 29, 2019, ECF No. 304. Defendants filed a reply on February 5, 2019. ECF No. 307. In addition, on January 11, 2019, Pronin filed a motion to unfreeze funds, ECF No. 300. Defendants have not responded to the motion. The court held a hearing on the motions on April 24, 2019.

         II. STANDARD

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) . . . does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”). To be legally sufficient, a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion should not be granted unless it appears certain that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would support his claim and would entitle him to relief. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court should accept all well-pleaded allegations as true and should view the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ostrzenski v. Seigel, 177 F.3d 245, 251 (4th Cir.1999); Mylan Labs., Inc., 7 F.3d at 1134. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.


         A. Renewed Motion to Dismiss

          Defendants filed a renewed motion to dismiss, arguing that the District of Delaware and Third Circuit's decisions on Pronin's §2255 petition resolve this case through the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Defendants also argue, in a manner more akin to a motion to reconsider than a motion to dismiss, that the development of jurisprudence following Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843 (2017), a case that the court ...

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