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Michigan Jail Sanctioned for Denying Access to Paralegals

by Derek Gilna

On June 23, 2016, jail officials in Genesee County, Michigan entered into a federal consent decree that required them to provide detainees with bottled water to replace water at the jail that was contaminated by lead. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.22]. As part of the consent decree, counsel for the prisoners, Trachelle Young, was allowed to communicate with her clients to monitor compliance. However, when Young sent her paralegals to interview the prisoners they were denied entry, with jail staff stating only licensed attorneys would be granted access.

Young filed suit, claiming there had been a violation of the consent decree and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In her complaint, she “cited Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974) and Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969) as a basis for jurisdiction, i.e. standing to challenge the jail’s refusal to allow her paralegals access to the jail.”

The district court issued a sua sponte order to show cause which stated “the complaint, on its face, did not appear to state an injury to her...,” and that Young apparently lacked standing. In her response, Young argued she had a right to monitor compliance with the consent decree and that her paralegals, as her agents, were entitled to access to the jail to perform that task.

As noted by the district court, “standing has three elements ... plaintiff must show [that] she has suffered an injury in fact...,’ an invasion of a legally protected interest which is ... actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical ... [plus] there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of ... [and] it must be likely ... that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-561 (1992).’”

The district court found that Procunier controlled. “The Supreme Court held that the prison rule restricting attorney-client interviews to members of the bar and licensed private investigators inhibited adequate professional representation of indigent inmates and therefore was an unjustifiable restriction on the right of access to the courts...,” the court wrote. “Procunier makes clear that students and paralegals should be given access to correctional facilities to conduct prisoner interviews.”

As a result, on November 8, 2016 the district court dismissed its order to show cause. The court found that Young had “suffered an injury in fact when her agents – the paralegals – were denied access to the jail because (1) Young had a right to enter based on the consent decree..., and (2) Young had the right to use paralegals as her agents. Second, Young’s injuries were caused by her agents not being allowed into the Jail. Third, a favorable decision by this court would redress her injury because Young has asked for declaratory and injunctive relief that would require defendant to permit her agents to have access to the jail.”

On February 14, 2017 the district court entered a stipulated order of dismissal in the case, in which Genesee County jail officials agreed to recognize “the use of assistants by attorneys to perform legal tasks and, with proper controls and exceptions enumerated in the policy, accord[] such assistants the same status as attorneys with respect to visiting and correspondence.” Young was represented by attorney Dan Manville, who directs the Civil Rights Clinic at the MSU College of Law. See: Young v. Pickell, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:16-cv-12459-AC-SDD. 

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Related legal case

Young v. Pickell