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$6,500 Settlement After Eleventh Circuit Affirms Denial of Qualified Immunity to Florida Jail Officials Who Repeatedly Opened Detainee’s Legal Mail

by David M. Reutter

On November 12, 2021, a settlement was reached under which four officials at the Duval County Jail (DCJ) in Jacksonville agreed to pay $6,500 to a detainee who alleged they repeatedly opened his legal mail outside his presence. That followed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirming denial of qualified immunity to those officials, emphasizing that the right at issue has been clearly established for almost 50 years.

The Court’s opinion was issued on August 26, 2021, in an appeal brought by defendant DCJ employees to a lower court’s ruling against them in a lawsuit filed by the detainee, Rico Mitchell. He claimed that while he was held in pre-trial detention at DCJ, Det. Eileen Simpson took a particular interest in his mail, telling guard Sgt. Peoples to “obtain,” “seize,” and “confiscate and review” all of Mitchell’s incoming and outgoing correspondence.

When mail clerk J.M. Perkins delivered a letter in October 2016 from Mitchell’s attorney marked “legal mail” that had already been opened, Perkins asked specific questions about his case. From the guard’s queries, it was “evident” that she had read at least part of the letter, Mitchell claimed.

Over the next year, Mitchell continued to experience issues with his mail. For instance, one of his outgoing letters somehow switched envelopes with another detainee’s letter. When Mitchell tried to complain about the mail tampering, DCJ staff “frustrated” the grievance procedure, he said. Sgt. Clark, the mailroom supervisor, tried to “intimidate” Mitchell by intercepting his grievances and warning him to stop filing complaints.

On June 29, 2017, Mitchell filed suit pro se U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, accusing Simpson, Perkins, Clark and Peoples of violating his constitutional rights. The claim against Peoples was dismissed because it hadn’t been properly served. But the district court denied the motion to dismiss filed by Simpson, Perkins, and Clark, finding Mitchell stated a claim and that they were not entitled to qualified immunity. The defendants appealed.

Taking up the case, the Eleventh Circuit said that “[a]ny plaintiff suing a government official under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has a steep hill to climb.” But Mitchell’s case made it over that hurdle because a right of access to courts that includes the protection of “uninhibited, confidential communications” with attorneys was clearly established almost 50 years ago in Taylor v. Sterret, 532 F.2d 462 (5th Cir. 1976). That decision—which predates the 1981 split of the Eleventh Circuit from the Fifth Circuit, so the ruling is considered binding on the Court—held that jail officials could open mail to satisfy security concerns, but they had to do so in the prisoner or detainee’s presence without reading the content.

That ruling was later reaffirmed by the Court in Al-Amin v. Smith, 511 F.3d 1317 (11th Cir. 2008). Al-Amin alleged prison officials violated his rights by repeatedly opening his legal mail outside his presence. Because Al-Amin failed to show “a denial or dismissal of a direct appeal, habeas petition, or civil rights case that results from the actions of prison officials,” his access-to-courts claim failed. However, he had stated a right-to-free-speech claim that stemmed from the repeated opening of his legal mail.

Like Al-Amin, Mitchell alleged a “pattern and practice” of opening his legal mail outside his presence, the Court noted, adding that Mitchell’s complaint further alleged that “Simpson ordered Perkins to do so, and that Clark knew about the policy and did his best to keep it going.”

Because that conduct “chills, inhibits, or interferes” with Mitchell’s speech, he rightly stated a free-speech claim. As that right was clearly established at the time of the events at issue, the defendants were properly denied quailed immunity. Thus the district court’s order was affirmed. See: Mitchell v. Duval County Jail, 10 F.4th 1226 (11th Cir. 2021).

As part of the settlement, the parties agreed to bear their own attorney’s fees. Mitchell was represented in the appeal by attorney Michael R. Baumrind of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore in Atlanta. See: Mitchell v. Perkins, USDC (M.D.Fla.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00751. 

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Related legal case

Mitchell v. Perkins