by John E. Dannenberg
In an important denial-of-access-to-the-courts ruling, a U.S. District Court (S.D. Ohio) held that a juvenile ward who was denied access to the courts after suffering injury from an Ohio Department of Youth Services (ODYS) guard was entitled to a state-provided attorney to pursue a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights complaint for damages devolving from the denial-of-access. This ruling expands a prior Sixth Circuit ruling that had entitled similarly-situated Tennessee juvenile wards to attorneys (See: John L. v. Adams, 969 F.2d 228 (6th Cir. 1992)).
In July 2004, a juvenile identified as "S.P." and three others filed a § 1983 complaint alleging that as ODYS wards, they were entitled to attorneys to pursue conditions-of-confinement suits. Defendant ODYS challenged their standing to bring such an action. Separately, another juvenile, T.M., claimed to have been injured in a brutal assault by a guard. He asked in an ODYS grievance for an attorney to represent him, alleging that he wanted to take the issue "to court."
In considering the defendants' third motion for summary judgment, the district court first addressed the threshold issue of standing, relying upon Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403 (2002), which distinguished "forward-looking" claims [present issues frustrated by official action] from "backward-looking" claims [issues not triable because a remedy is no longer available].
As to forward-looking claims, T.M. passed a standing-test because at the time he was denied access to the courts, he was prevented from bringing his assault claim. The court ruled that T.M. also met the standing requirements of actual injury and non-frivolousness.
As to T.M.'s "backward-looking" claim that he was denied adequate medical treatment, the court found he did not have standing because he admitted he did receive "some" medical care, and thus had not alleged sufficient facts to defeat defendants' summary judgment motion which attested that he had received "adequate" medical care. The next backward-looking claim, unconstitutional conditions of confinement, turned first on whether T.M.'s claims were non-frivolous, which the court determined they were. Next, T.M. stated adequate facts to maintain standing as to actual injury. However, before the court ruled, T.M. was paroled and therefore no remedy remained available in relation to his efforts to obtain injunctive and declaratory relief to gain an attorney as to those claims.
T.M. was then left with another hurdle to cross -- a mootness bar. Since he was now no longer in custody, his remaining claims would have to survive under one of the two exception doctrines to mootness. Under the first doctrine, "capable of repetition yet evading review," the court ruled that because there was no "reasonable expectation" that T.M. would come back to ODYS custody and again be denied access to the courts, that exception did not apply. However, under the other exception to mootness, the "voluntary cessation" doctrine, the court held that the plaintiffs succeeded in establishing that their case was "worthy of judicial intervention." Here, the defendants would have the heavy burden of showing that there was "no reasonable expectation that [the denial of access] will be repeated."
Finally, the defendants argued that T.M. had failed to adequately exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The court found that as a juvenile prisoner, when T.M. filed a grievance requesting that his assault claim be resolved "in court," he met the PLRA's exhaustion requirements.
Accordingly, the district court found that T.M. had exhausted his administrative remedies, had standing to pursue his forward-looking denial-of-access claim, and could challenge the defendants' mootness defense under the "voluntary cessation" doctrine. The court therefore denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment and permitted the case to proceed. The plaintiff class was represented by the Children's Law Center and the ACLU. See: J.P. v. Taft, 439 F.Supp.2d 793 (S.D. Ohio 2006).
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Related legal case
J.P. v. Taft
|439 F.Supp.2d 793 (S.D. Ohio 2006)