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Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Prisoner's Law Library Access Claim

Illinois state prisoner Brian Burd filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint for damages in 2010, alleging that officials at the Sheridan Correctional Center had denied him reasonable access to the facility’s law library; consequently, he was unable to research and timely file a motion to withdraw his guilty plea or appeal his sentence.

Burd “missed the [30-day] deadline to file his motion, but he continued to seek access to Sheridan’s law library. He filled out request slips, but each time he was denied access because the library was closed. When he explained to defendant Gail Sessler, the educational administrator at Sheridan, that he wanted to research a motion to withdraw his guilty plea or an appeal of his sentence, she told him that any such action would be untimely and denied him access to the library.”

In affirming the district court’s dismissal of Burd’s claims, the Seventh Circuit relied upon Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) [PLN, Sept. 1994, p.12].

According to the appellate court, Heck mandates a “favorable termination requirement,” whereby “a favorable determination on the damages claim [under § 1983] necessarily would imply the invalidity of Mr. Burd’s conviction and therefore warrant the dismissal of the damages claim as well.”

In other words, the Court of Appeals found that “a § 1983 suit for damages that would necessarily imply the invalidity of the fact of an inmate’s conviction, or necessarily imply the invalidity of the length of an inmate’s sentence, is not cognizable under § 1983 unless and until the inmate obtains favorable termination of a state, or federal habeas, challenge to his conviction or sentence,” quoting Heck, 512 U.S. at 487.

Without considering Burd’s argument that he had been damaged by deprivation of access to the courts, the Seventh Circuit wrote he “could have sought collateral relief” under federal habeas corpus but “declined the opportunity” to do so, and may not now file a § 1983 action for damages as a means of skirting Heck’s favorable termination requirement.

In conclusion, the appellate court joined the Sixth and Ninth Circuits “in holding that Heck bars a § 1983 action where: (1) favorable judgment would necessarily call into question the validity of the underlying conviction or sentence and (2) the plaintiff could have pursued collateral relief but failed to do so in a timely manner.” Accordingly, the district court’s judgment of dismissal was affirmed.

Burd petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which was denied on June 10, 2013. See: Burd v. Sessler, 702 F.3d 429 (7th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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