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Sixth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Michigan Legal Mail Case

The Sixth circuit court of appeals affirmed a lower court’s sua spente dismissal of a Michigan prisoner’s suit against a guard for reading his legal mail two times and issuing him a misconduct report.

Michigan prisoner Aubrey Stanley sued guard Randy Vining and others, alleging that Vining violated his constitutional rights when he read Stanley’s legal mail in his presence on October 11, 2007 and October 29, 2007 in violation of prison policy. He also alleged that Vining violated his constitutional rights when he issued a misconduct charge against him. The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim pursuant to 28 USC§1915(e)(2)
The Sixth circuit affirmed, rejecting Stanley’s procedural and substantive due process claims. The court noted that Stanley did “not allege that the guards conduct in any way affected his access to the courts.” The court also rejected Stanley’s first Amendment claim, explaining “there must be some allegation that the prison officials conduct amounted to denial of access to the courts or some form of censorship of speech.”

Similarly, the court affirmed the dismissal of Stanley’s Sixth Amendment deprivation of counsel claim, noting that he “does not allege that the guard’s conduct created any barrier to the prisoner’s relationship with counsel, there is no allegation that any of the mail read by the prison guard was mail from his lawyer or in anyways pertained to legal representation.”

Turning to the misconduct charge, the court concluded that the dispute does not rise to the level of valid §1983 claim, because “no facts or the ones are stated from which we can devise a plausible constitutional claim.”

Recognizing “that a pro se prisoner is unlikely to understand the complexity of federal law regarding prisoner rights,” the court acknowledged that it must liberally construe the complaint, but having done so, it was “unable to derive any set of facts or legal theory that would give rise to a valid, federal, §1983 cause of action.” Ultimately, the court held “that no constitutional provision flatly prohibits as unlawful censorship a prison from opening and reading a prisoner’s mail unless it can be shown that the conduct interferes with the prisoner’s right to counsel or access to the courts or violates his rights of equal protection or procedural due process.”

One judge dissented, believing “that Stanley has made out a cognizable legal-mail claim.” Noting that “legal-mail claims rest primarily on First amendment grounds, but often also implicate the Sixth Amendment, the attorney-client privilege, and access to the courts rights.” The dissent found the majority’s analysis flawed because it imposed a higher standard for making out a legal mail claim than is required, “by treating Stanley’s claim as a standard access to the courts or Sixth Amendment claim.” The dissent also felt the majority did not liberally construe Stanley’s complaint and “the majority opinion departs from clearly established precedent on this issue and denies Stanley the opportunity to litigate what appear to be valid constitutional claims.” This creates the risk of a “chilling effect on prisoner rights.”

Given that the complaint was dismissed under §1915(e)(2), “Stanley not only has been denied his day in court in this case,” noted the dissent, “but he may be barred from filing future complaints in federal court during his incarceration,” because the courts decision is a “strike” which “potentially, and unjustly, exposes him to the penalty provisions created by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. See 28USC§1915(g).”

The majority responded, finding “no general rule prohibiting censorship, as our dissenting colleague seems to imagine.” See: Stanely v. Vining, 602 F.3d 767 (6th Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Stanely v. Vining