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Summary Dismissal of Court Access Claim Reversed

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court?s sua sponte dismissal of a prisoner?s access-to-courts lawsuit for failure to state a claim. The appellate court also held that the prisoner was entitled to amend his complaint.

Indiana prisoner Kenneth Marshal filed a handwritten, pro se complaint in federal court on June 25, 2003. He alleged that prison officials implemented a restrictive law library policy which diminished his library access. He claimed that his inability to prepare for a May 29, 2003 court proceeding resulted in denial of ?credit time? to which he was entitled.

Before the defendants were served, on September 3, 2003, Marshall sought leave to amend his complaint to (1) name previous Doe defendants; (2) increase his damages request; (3) demand a jury trial; and (4) attach several exhibits and affidavits. His petition ?also contained new factual allegations that suggested a claim for retaliation.?

On November 24, 2003, the district court issued a single-sentence order denying Marshall?s motion to amend. On December 18, 2003, the court dismissed Marshall?s action pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), finding that Marshall had failed to state a viable claim for relief. The dismissal was based on the court?s interpretation of Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996) as requiring prisoners to allege that they were prevented from filing a complaint or appeal in order to state a valid access-to-courts claim. The court found that Marshall failed to meet this standard.

The Seventh Circuit reversed. The appeals court explained that under the ?notice-pleading system? of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), prisoners need not plead facts or legal theories. They must only set out a ?short and plain statement of the claim? sufficient to notify defendants of the claims against them and enable them to file an answer.
When applied to prisoner access-to-courts claims, however, ?notice pleading requires plaintiffs to ?make specific allegations as to the prejudice suffered because of the defendants? alleged conduct.?? Ortloff v. United States, 335 F.3d 652, 656 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing Martin v. Davies, 917 F.2d 336, 340 (7th Cir. 1990)).

The Seventh Circuit explained, however, that the requirement of alleging ?specific prejudice should not be understood as an onerous fact-pleading burden; it is simply a requirement that a prisoner?s complaint spell out, in minimal detail, the connection between the alleged denial of access to legal materials and an inability to pursue a legitimate challenge to a conviction, sentence, or prison conditions.?

Applying these lenient pleading standards to Marshall?s complaint, the appellate court concluded that ?his allegations sufficiently stated a claim for denial of access to the courts.? The Seventh Circuit also rejected the lower court?s narrow reading of Lewis as confining ?access-to-court claims to situations where a prisoner has been unable to file a complaint or an appeal. Indeed, Lewis explained that a prisoner could prove a denial of access to the courts by showing that a complaint he prepared and filed ?was dismissed for failure to satisfy some technical requirement which, because of deficiencies in the prison?s legal assistance facilities, he could not have known.??

The Seventh Circuit also found that under FRCP 15(a), Marshall ?had a right to amend his complaint ?as a matter of course.? The district court?s summary denial of Marshall?s request to amend was thus contrary to Rule 15(a).? Therefore, ?Marshall should have been permitted to amend his complaint to identify previously unnamed defendants, to make a jury demand, and to increase his damages claim to $10,000.? He also should have been allowed to allege his post-filing retaliation claim. See: Marshall v. Knight, 445 F.3d 965 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Marshall v. Knight