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Notice Pleading Requirement, Not Factual Pleading, Applies to Access to Courts Claim

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner bringing a right of access to the courts claim need only satisfy the notice pleading requirement, but must allege that the prisoner lost a case or suffered some other legal setback.

Wisconsin prisoner Anthony Pratt brought a civil rights action alleging prison officials "denied him adequate scribe materials, a desk, a chair, and personal property to defend pending litigation in state and federal courts, which caused plaintiff's cases to now be lost and/or dismissed." Prison officials allegedly "violated access to the courts' standards by refusing to release lawbooks, briefs, transcripts, case law materials, [and] carbon paper."

The district court dismissed the action because Pratt failed to "provide more than general allegations that defendants hindered his ability to pursue these or any other non-frivolous legal actions." The Seventh Circuit held that dismissal was improper.

In so ruling, the Court stated "that federal courts are not to supplement the list in Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure of claims that must be pleaded with particularity." That list does not include claims of denial of access to the courts.

To avoid dismissal, a prisoner bringing a denial of access claim must "allege that he had a non-frivolous legal claim that was lost, frustrated, or impeded by defendant's failure to assist him in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers and that he was harmed by defendant's action or lack thereof," the Court stated. This is the language of notice pleading, not fact pleading.

At a minimum, a prisoner's complaint must allege more than the denial of writing materials by prison officials. The prisoner must give prison officials a fair opportunity to form an answer to the complaint, which requires the prisoner to spell out "the connection between the denial of legal materials and an inability to pursue a legitimate challenge to a conviction, sentence, or prison conditions."

In response to the defendants' motion to dismiss, Pratt submitted filings and other documents related to his various lawsuits, thereby identifying the actions he alleged were lost or frustrated by prison officials in this case. The district court found that none of those exhibits showed that withholding of materials affected the outcomes.

The Seventh Circuit said one would not expect such a showing at the pleading stage. Rather, Pratt would later be required to show that the deprived materials affected the outcomes. If prison officials were unclear of the claim, they could have served Pratt with a contention interrogatory or filed a motion for a more definite statement. Likewise, if the district court needed further information, it could have ordered Pratt to file a brief or memorandum explaining the legal basis of his claim.

The district court's order of dismissal was reversed. See: Pratt v. Tarr, 464 F.3d 730 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Pratt v. Tarr