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Third Circuit Agrees With Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Access-to-Courts Claim, But Grants Defendants Qualified Immunity

by David M. Reutter

On June 15, 2022, in a precedential ruling that might help the next prisoner plaintiff, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that “a prisoner has a valid access-to-courts claim” when “denial of access to legal materials — before and/or during trial — caused a potentially meritorious claim to fail.” However, since the right was not previously established, the Court granted Defendants qualified immunity (QI) and affirmed dismissal of the case.

The ruling was issued in an appeal by Pennsylvania prisoner Michael Rivera, who was transferred in July 2017 to the State Correctional Institution at Retreat to represent himself in a trial challenging his conditions of confinement. There he was assigned to the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), from which prisoners may access a satellite “mini law library.”

Trial was scheduled to start on a Monday. The Friday before that, Rivera submitted a request slip to Lt. Kevin Monko asking for access to the mini law library. Monko approved the request, and that evening Sgt. Wynston Gilbert escorted Rivera to the library. However, once there he discovered it contained no books and only two computers, both inoperable. Gilbert said he would get with Monko and the librarian Monday to get the computer fixed.

Rivera next asked to borrow paper copies of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence. But Monko said that request was denied because “the Law Librarian said no.” Rivera renewed his request after his trial started and was denied again. At trial, the judge refused to admit an unsworn declaration and medical records, and the jury entered a verdict for the defendants.

Rivera then filed an access-to-courts grievance, alleging that he could not know he needed to provide foundational testimony to admit the rejected documents because he was denied access to the Federal Rules of Evidence. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Rivera filed a pro se complaint in federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing Monko, Gilbert and Rivera of denying his access to courts in violation of his civil rights.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing (1) that Rivera’s complaint did not state a viable access-to-courts claim, and (2) that they were entitled to QI. The district court granted the motion, finding no legal authority that would have established Rivera’s right to access his prison’s law library at the time of trial. Rivera appealed.

At the Third Circuit, Rivera alleged he had a potentially meritorious conditions of confinement claim that survived pretrial proceedings. However, he was denied the tools, both before and at trial, to help him introduce important records into evidence.

“We know of very few lawyers who could litigate such an action without being able to refer to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence,” the Court agreed. “A pro se prisoner is much less likely to be able to do so.”

Finding Rivera stated a valid claim, the Court said that “[t]hrough the denial of access to the law library materials, his right of access to the courts was terminated before he achieved his remedy.”

“It is clear to us that when a prisoner asserts a potentially meritorious conditions of confinement claim,” the Court continued, “his access to the court must encompass continuing access to copies of court rules and procedures.”

But while Rivera showed Defendants caused actual injury, the Court found they could not be held liable because the right they denied him was not clearly established. First the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), protects a prisoner’s access to court only through the pleading stage, the Court decided. Also, just two circuits have held this right extends past the filing of the prisoner’s complaint — the Seventh Circuit, in Marshall v. Knight, 445 F.3d 965 (7th Cir. 2006), and the Ninth Circuit in Silva v. Di Vittorio, 658 F.3d 1090 (9th Cir. 2011).

Absent a more “robust consensus,” the Court was reluctant to say Defendants were on notice that Rivera had a right of access to courts that they interfered with. So the district court’s dismissal was affirmed. But the Court’s ruling changed the legal landscape on the issue.

“Once in court, a prisoner’s need to access legal materials is just as great — if not greater — than when a prisoner initially filed a complaint,” the Court said. “Thus, while qualified immunity unfortunately bars Rivera’s claims today, it will not bar such claims in the future.”

Rivera was represented on appeal by attorney Devi Rao of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, DC. See: Rivera v. Monko, 37 F.4th 909 (3d Cir. 2022). 

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