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Indigent Prisoner’s Damages Claim in Legal Mail Case Survives Summary Judgment

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed a grant of summary judgment to defendant prison officials in a civil rights case challenging a policy that requires indigent prisoners to leave their legal mail unsealed for inspection.

The June 6, 2012 ruling came in an appeal by Kentucky prisoner Raymond Miller. His pro se complaint, filed in December 2008, challenged a policy that required prison staff to inspect all outgoing legal mail submitted by indigent prisoners to ensure it was in fact legal mail.

The district court reviewed Miller’s complaint and found that it stated a First Amendment claim. Following discovery the defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Miller “had failed to specify an instance where any of his outgoing mail was actually inspected.” The court agreed and held that Miller lacked standing to sue. It also denied his motion to amend his complaint to include a claim for injunctive relief.

On appeal, Miller, with the assistance of counsel, argued that the mail inspection policy violated his First Amendment right to confidential legal mail, which entitled him to damages. The Sixth Circuit considered Miller’s complaint and second proposed amended complaint – which were both verified (e.g., sworn) – to be affidavits, and thus evidence in support of his claims.

The complaints indicated that Miller qualified as indigent for the six months preceding the filing of his complaint, and since the policy applied to legal mail submitted by indigent prisoners, a reasonable jury could conclude that Miller had been subject to the inspection rule since its inception in September 2008.

The appellate court also found evidence that Miller had sent legal mail since the policy was implemented. Finally, there was evidence that prison officials had been enforcing the policy since its implementation. These findings led the Court of Appeals to conclude that a genuine dispute of fact existed as to whether Miller had standing to pursue his dam-ages claim, which precluded summary judgment.

In remanding the case, the Sixth Circuit also vacated the district court’s denial of Miller’s motion to amend his com-plaint to include injunctive relief that would require the prison to rewrite its mail inspection policy. The appellate court noted that the lower court had not yet determined whether the prison “is currently inspecting [Miller’s legal] mail or that there is an ‘imminent’ threat that the prison will do so,” which the district court must decide on remand. See: Miller v. Jones, 483 Fed.Appx. 202 (6th Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

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Related legal case

iller v. Jones