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Tenth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of New Mexico Prisoner’s First Amendment Claims

by Scott Grammer

Monte Whitehead was incarcerated at the Otero County Prison Facility in New Mexico, operated by for-profit contractor Management & Training Corp. (MTC). He filed suit in state court raising various claims under the federal constitution and New Mexico Tort Claims Act, alleging in part “that certain defendants limited his access to information which prevented him from writing opinion articles, engaging in religious reading, and staying current with developments in the veterinary profession.”

Whitehead said he had requested books on religion and veterinary medicine, but the defendants denied his requests because the books were hardback. The defendants also denied his requests for books from non-approved vendors, newspaper articles sent to him by mail, and Internet access. Additionally, he claimed that he was “transferred for bringing this suit” – a common retaliatory act by prison officials.

The case was removed to federal court, where the district court dismissed the federal claims, declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state claims and remanded those claims back to state court. Whitehead appealed and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit granted limited relief in an April 2, 2019 unpublished ruling.

Specifically, the appellate court reversed and remanded the district court’s denial of Whitehead’s earlier motions to amend his complaint and supplement the pleadings. With regard to the denial of those motions, the appellate court wrote: “Further, the district court denied both motions without an ‘apparent or declared reason’ such as ‘undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [or] futility of amendment.’”

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of several other claims and defendants in the case, and concluded, “We vacate the district court’s dismissal of the First Amendment claims relating to hardback books, internet access, mailed-in newspaper articles, and materials limited to approved vendors.... We remand these claims for further proceedings consistent with this order and judgment. We also remand the equal protection and Commerce Clause § 1983 claims with directions to specify that the dismissal of those claims is without prejudice.” See: Whitehead v. Marcantel, 766 Fed. Appx. 691 (10th Cir. 2019), petition for cert. filed

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Related legal case

Whitehead v. Marcantel