Tenth Circuit Revives Kansas Prisoner’s Claim That He Was Denied Access to Court
by Anthony W. Accurso
On April 18, 2022, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed dismissal of a suit filed by Kansas prisoner Kenneth D. Leek, holding that he met the standard for alleging an access-to-the-court claim in his complaint.
Leek, a prisoner in the state Department of Corrections (DOC) filed three pro se actions while held at Hutchinson Correctional Facility (CF). Two of the lawsuits – one in state court and one in federal court for the District of Kansas – arose from an incident in which Linda Scoggin, a supervisor in the prison’s kitchen, labeled Leek a “snitch” after he reported to her supervisor that she made rude comments. Being “snitch jacketed” in this way, Leek claimed, caused him to face likely reprisal. See: Leek v. Scoggin, USDC (D. Kan.), Case No. 20-cv-03051.
The third case was filed after Leek was transferred to Lansing CF. There the system for obtaining court opinions from the prison law library required an exact citation of each requested case, allegedly preventing him from litigating his other actions. Leek also alleged a breach-of-contract claim against IC Solutions, the private firm with which DOC contracted to provide prisoners access to legal cases via electronic tablets, but which the firm allegedly failed to do.
It was the latter suit that ended up at the Tenth Circuit, after the district court dismissed both Leek’s access-to-court claim and his breach-of-contract claim on October 27, 2021. Taking up the case, the Court noted that in his complaint, Leek – who was still proceeding pro se – made two claims. First, he said that both prisons had prevented him from collaborating with another prisoner about an “out-of-date habeas petition” and a conditions-of-confinement claim. The Court described the first as “frivolous” and the second as not described “well enough… to show that the ‘arguable’ nature of the underlying claim[s] is more than hope,” quoting Christopher v. Harbury, 536 US 403 (2002).
Second, Leek claimed that the exact-cite request system prejudiced his ability to litigate his state case, which was by then on appeal. The Court said this claim failed because the Kansas Court of Appeals appointed him a lawyer, and “[I]t is well established that providing legal counsel is a constitutionally acceptable alternative to a prisoner’s demand to access a law library,” as held in United States v. Taylor, 183 F.3d 1199 (10th Cir. 1999).
However, Leek’s federal case against Scoggin had also been dismissed on September 20, 2021. See: Leek v. Scoggin, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 178252 (D. Kan.). He alleged this was due at least in part to his lack of reasonable access to case-law research materials. While in restrictive housing at Lansing, he was informed that he could submit forms “requesting specific cases by cit[ation],” but that “no law books would be delivered,” and he could get at most “three cases at a time.” Leek contended that he “had no way to research or write” an adequate brief “due to his lack of access to law[-]library resources,” and that he was forced to draft and submit a “suboptimal response with only the few cases, notes, and books he had in his possession.”
The Court noted that Leek need not prove he would have prevailed on his claim, merely that “‘denial or delay of access to the court prejudiced him in pursuing [his] litigation,’” quoting Trujillo v. Williams, 465 F.3d 1210 (10th Cir. 2006). Since the plaintiff in that case prevailed after also complaining about a prison’s exact-cite request system, Leek was on firmer ground with this argument.
Accordingly the Court reversed the district court’s order of dismissal as it related to Leek’s access-to-the-court claim regarding his case against Scoggin, as well as his state-law claim for breach of contract against IC Solutions. See: Leek v. Androski, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 10431 (10th Cir.).
The case has now returned to the district court, where Leek has suffered two setbacks. First, his request for appointed counsel was denied on July 19, 2022, a decision affirmed on August 11, 2022. See: Leek v. Androski, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143888 (D. Kan.). Then, on September 6, 2022, the district court also dismissed IC Solutions from the suit.
The case is now proceeding against the remaining defendants: Hutchinson CF Administrator and Contract Monitor Misti Kroeker; as well as Lansing CF Warden Shannon L. Meyer, Deputy Warden James Skidmore and Head Librarian John P. Stiffin. PLN will update developments in the case as they are available. See: Leek v. Androski, USDC (D. Kan.), Case No. 21-cv-03100.
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