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PA Legal Assistance Suit Remanded

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the lower court had
erred when it dismissed, on summary judgment, a Pennsylvania state
prisoner's claims that he was not allowed to assist other prisoners with
legal claims, had been denied use of the copy machine, and was threatened
with punishment in retaliation for filing a lawsuit against the DOC.
The prisoner was a law library worker at the Pennsylvania State
Correctional Institution. The Court of Appeals vacated and remanded summary
judgment on four claims for further proceedings. One claim was tried before
a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the prisoner for the removal
of legal materials and personal property from his cell; the jury awarded
him damages in the amount of $5.00.

The appellate court reversed on the following claims: (1) The court held
that restrictions on the prisoner's duties as a clerk in the prison law
library to assist other prisoners in preparing their legal materials was a
violation of their constitutional rights under due process. (2) The court
held that denial of use of the copy machine to copy a guard's criminal
history amounted to censorship of his speech under the First Amendment. (3)
The court held that the lower court had no jurisdiction to dismiss the
claim that statements were made to the hearing committee by a guard after
the prisoner and his assistant had left the area of the hearing committee.
(4) The court held that the lower court erred when it granted the
defendants summary judgment on the issue of threatened punishment, when the
defendants had allegedly threatened punishment in retaliation for filing
lawsuits and trying to contact public officials.

The appeals court affirmed the lower court's judgment on the prisoner's
claims of DOC profiteering on the photocopy machine, emotional harm caused
by the beating of another prisoner, destruction of law books that were
discarded from the law library, an impartial hearing committee, and a claim
that he was excessively punished for a misconduct hearing. See: Rhodes v.
Robinson, 612 F.2d 766 (3rd Cir. 1979).

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Related legal case

Rhodes v. Robinson

Rhodes v. Robinson, 612 F.2d 766 (3rd Cir. 12/28/1979)


[2] No. 78-2525

[3] 612 F.2d 766

[4] decided: December 28, 1979.



[7] Jerry Wayne Rhodes pro se.

[8] Michael H. Garrety, Deputy Atty. Gen., Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, J. Andrew Smyser, Deputy Atty. Gen., Gerald Gornish, Atty. Gen., Dept. of Justice, Harrisburg, Pa., for appellees.

[9] Before Seitz, Chief Judge, and Gibbons and Weis, Circuit Judges.

[10] Author: Seitz

[11] Opinion OF THE COURT

[12] Appellant, Jerry Wayne Rhodes, a prisoner at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, filed this suit Pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976) to redress a series of violations of his constitutional rights. The complaint includes ten claims and names as defendants the commissioner of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Corrections, the superintendent and two deputy superintendents of the Huntingdon facility, and several of Huntingdon's officers and guards. The complaint prayed for declaratory and injunctive relief and for damages.

[13] The defendants moved for summary judgment on all ten claims. The district court granted their motion on nine and allowed Rhodes to proceed to trial on the remaining claim.*fn1 With the trial now completed, Rhodes appeals from the grants of summary judgment.

[14] Because Rhodes bases each claim on allegations of largely distinct facts, we shall consider each separately.

[15] I. Prohibition of Legal Assistance to Other Prisoners

[16] In the first claim of his complaint, Rhodes objects to a restriction on his duties as a clerk in the prison law library. The restriction prohibited him from assisting other prisoners in the preparation of their legal materials while on duty. Rhodes argues that this restriction is a barrier to other prisoners' access to courts and a violation of their rights under the due process clause. See Wolff v. McDonnell,418 U.S. 539, 577-80, 94 S. Ct. 2963, 41 L. Ed. 2d 935 (1974); Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S. Ct. 747, 21 L. Ed. 2d 718 (1969). The district court dismissed the claim on the ground that Rhodes lacked standing to assert the due process rights of his fellow prisoners.

[17] The Supreme Court has disregarded the rule against Jus tertii, the vicarious assertion of rights, in numerous cases involving constitutional rights. One important exception arises when enforcement of a legal rule will interfere with the rights of third parties who lack an effective means of asserting their own rights, but the person against whom the rule is enforced does not. An example of this exception is Eisenstadt v. Baird,405 U.S. 438, 443-46, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972). In a prosecution of a seller of contraceptive foam for violating a statute that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives, the Court permitted the seller to challenge the statute on the grounds of the privacy rights of unmarried users. The Court noted that enforcement against the seller would "materially impair the ability of single persons to obtain contraceptives." Id. at 446,92 S. Ct. at 1034. Since the users were not themselves subject to prosecution, they lacked a similar forum in which to assert their own rights. Id. See also Craig v. Boren,429 U.S. 190, 195-97, 97 S. Ct. 451, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397 (1976); Barrows v. Jackson, 346 U.S. 249, 73 S. Ct. 1031, 97 L. Ed. 1586 (1953). In Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S. Ct. 747, 21 L. Ed. 2d 718 (1969), the Court heard a prison writ writer assert the rights of his fellow prisoners to receive assistance necessary for effective access to habeas corpus relief. Although the Court made no mention of the standing aspect of the case, it implicitly recognized Jus tertii in a situation closely analogous to the present case.

[18] The circumstances of the present case justify a recognition of Rhodes's standing. We can take notice of the fact that many prisoners are unable to prepare legal materials and file suits without assistance. The record contains some examples of Rhodes having provided the assistance required by a few such prisoners. The challenged restriction, therefore, might materially impair the ability of some prisoners to file civil rights actions. Suits by these prisoners to protect their own rights of access to courts would be difficult because, as alleged, they would require the assistance of someone like Rhodes to bring such a suit.

[19] Appellees argue that the challenged restriction does not, in fact, impede any prisoner's access to courts in civil rights actions. Because the district court relied entirely on its ruling on the standing issue to dismiss this claim, we decline to consider this argument. The responsibility for finding that no genuine issue of fact exists on any element of the plaintiff's claim lies initially with the district court. Accordingly, we will vacate the grant of summary judgment.

[20] II. Denial of Use of the Photocopying Machine

[21] In his second claim, Rhodes objects to a denial of his request to photocopy certain papers concerning a prior criminal conviction of a guard named Dean Forshey. He claims that he intended to send copies of the papers to members of the Pennsylvania legislature who were investigating conditions at the Huntingdon facility. However, the superintendent was informed that Rhodes intended to distribute copies to other prisoners and feared that the distribution would reduce Forshey's effectiveness as a guard. Pursuant to a general policy to permit prisoners to photocopy documents only if necessary for a lawsuit, communication with public officials, or a rehabilitation program, the superintendent refused to allow the photocopying.

[22] The selective denial of photocopying privileges amounts to censorship of a prisoner's speech. With any such denial, the superintendent reduces a prisoner's ability to communicate through written materials. The reason for the action is the superintendent's disapproval of the communication itself. Consequently, this action is subject to scrutiny under the first amendment: it must further "an important or substantial governmental interest . . . unrelated to the suppression of free expression," and the restriction must be "no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest." United States v. O'Brien,391 U.S. 367, 377, 88 S. Ct. 1673, 1679, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672 (1968). In the case of a restriction on prisoners' speech, the recognized governmental interests are: "the preservation of internal order and discipline, the maintenance of internal security against escape or unauthorized entry and the rehabilitation of the prisoners." Procunier v. Martinez,416 U.S. 396, 412, 94 S. Ct. 1800, 1811, 40 L. Ed. 2d 224 (1974). See also Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union, 433 U.S. 119, 97 S. Ct. 2532, 53 L. Ed. 2d 629 (1977). Furthermore, when a prison official exercises discretion to restrict prisoners' free speech, the first amendment might require the existence of written regulations to govern his discretion. See Main Road v. Aytch,522 F.2d 1080, 1088-90 (3d Cir. 1975).

[23] Nothing in the record disputes the superintendent's statement that he acted on information that Rhodes intended to distribute copies of the papers to other prisoners. Rhodes does not allege that the superintendent was aware of his intention to send copies to state legislators. Rather, he admits that he concealed this intention. Before the denial of the photocopying privileges, the prison librarian, acting on behalf of the superintendent, asked Rhodes how he planned to use the copies. Rhodes refused to answer the question.

[24] In this situation, Rhodes's asserted intention to send copies to state legislators cannot supply the basis of a first amendment violation. There will arise instances in which prison officials may restrict prisoners' speech to serve some countervailing interest. See Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Union, supra. We would unnecessarily restrict the ability of prison officials to take such actions if we did not allow them to base their decisions on information reasonably available to them. Here, the superintendent gave Rhodes a fair opportunity to explain his need for the copies, and he declined to take advantage of that opportunity. We will not then require the superintendent to justify his action in light of Rhodes's secret intention.

[25] There remains an issue of the validity of the superintendent's decision as a restriction on the distribution of copies to other prisoners. The district court seems to have overlooked the first amendment basis of Rhodes's objection to this action. The court dismissed the claim because Rhodes failed to show "some interference with an inmate's right of access to the Court" and because prisoners, as a matter of law, "have no absolute right of access to a photocopy machine." There is no indication that the court applied the first amendment criteria which justify the restriction on the distribution of copies. Consequently, we must vacate the grant of summary judgment.

[26] III. Destruction of Law Books

[27] Rhodes's fourth claim alleges that prison officials interfered with his access to courts by discarding eleven or more volumes from the prison law library. The volumes appear to have been all out-of-date advance sheets and supplementary pamphlets.

[28] The controlling case is Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828, 97 S. Ct. 1491, 1498, 52 L. Ed. 2d 72 (1977), which held that a prisoner's right of effective access to courts included a right to "adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." In applying Bounds, the focus should not be on the volumes that were discarded but on the adequacy of the volumes that remain in the library, or, in the absence of an adequate law library, on the sufficiency of alternative legal assistance. Rhodes alleges no facts relevant to either of these matters, and we cannot, even with a generous reading of his complaint, infer such allegations. Rhodes plainly relies on the premise that a prison law library never may discard a law book, even if the book is replaced with a more current volume. This proposition has no arguable support in the Constitution or federal law. The district court properly granted summary judgment for defendants on this claim.