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Phillips v. Board of County Commissioners of Tulsa County

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

December 30, 2019




         Before the Court is James Michael Phillips' amended pro se civil rights complaint (Doc. 8). He contends Defendants cancelled the Tulsa County Jail's Westlaw subscription, in violation of his First Amended right to access courts. Having reviewed the amended complaint sua sponte under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the Court finds it fails to state a claim for which relief may be granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed his original civil rights complaint on December 26, 2018. (Doc. 1). He also filed a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2). By a Memorandum Opinion and Order entered May 1, 2019, the Court granted the motion; dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1915; and sua sponte granted leave to file an amended complaint. (Doc. 7). Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on June 10, 2019. (Doc. 8). He again asserts prison officials denied his right of access to courts. The amended complaint alleges the following facts, which the Court accepts as true for the limited purpose of this ruling.

         In 2018, Plaintiff was detained at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center (the “Jail”) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Doc. 8 at 6). Plaintiff was awaiting trial on an Oklahoma robbery charge, case no. CF-2015-4665. (Id.). He elected to represent himself in that case and was using the Jail's Westlaw subscription to assist in his own defense. (Id. at 6, 8). Plaintiff was also preparing a state habeas petition challenging an unrelated conviction in Kansas. (Id. at 6). On or about July 23, 2018, Plaintiff visited the law library and discovered the Jail's Westlaw subscription had been cancelled. (Id.). Plaintiff complained that without Westlaw, inmates could not access any case law or current statutes. (Id.). Jail Administrator David Parker assured Plaintiff the subscription would be renewed in three to four weeks. (Id.).

         On or about August 30, 2018, Parker informed Plaintiff that the Jail would not renew its Westlaw subscription. (Doc. 1 at 6). In lieu of Westlaw, an employee of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office was assigned to perform legal research for inmates using Google, an internet search engine. (Id.). Plaintiff believed Google was inappropriate. (Id. at 7). To demonstrate his point, Plaintiff asked Parker to retrieve a specific case, which he could not locate. (Id.). Plaintiff provided notice of the inadequate law library to the Tulsa County Board of Commissioners and Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado. (Id. at 7-8). Defendants did not immediately respond or restore Westlaw. (Id.). Plaintiff contends the inadequacy of the law library impeded his ability to present a pro se defense his Oklahoma robbery case. (Id. at 8-9). He was convicted of the Oklahoma robbery charges. (Id. at 9).

         Plaintiff further alleges that the stress of not having Westlaw caused him to experience worry, anxiety, weight loss, sleeplessness, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, crying, social isolation, and paranoia. (Doc. 1 at 9). The amended complaint seeks over $114, 000 in damages from Parker; Regalado; and the Tulsa Count Board of Commissioners. (Id. at 1, 3).

         II. Accepting the Untimely Pleading

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff sent a letter dated June 5, 2019 asking the Court to screen his untimely Amended Complaint on the merits. (Doc. 9). The Amended Complaint was due on May 31, 2019, but Plaintiff filed it on June 10, 2019. (Doc. 7; see also Doc. 8). Plaintiff explains that he had an issue with postage at his new prison. (Doc. 9 at 1). The Court finds good cause to grant Plaintiff's request, and the Amended Complaint will be deemed timely.

         III. Review of the Amended Complaint

         A. Screening Standards

         Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), federal courts must engage in a preliminary screening of cases in which prisoners seek redress from a government entity or officer. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The Court must identify any cognizable claim and dismiss any claim which is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim, a complaint must present factual allegations, assumed to be true, that “raise a right to relief about the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. A court must accept all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true, and must construe the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Id. at 555. However, “when the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a [plausible] claim of entitlement to relief, ” the cause of action should be dismissed. Id. at 558.

         Because plaintiff is pro se, his “pleadings are to be construed liberally and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). If the court can “reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so despite the plaintiff's failure to cite proper legal authority, … confusion of various legal theories, … poor syntax and sentence construction, or … unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Id. However, the generous construction “does not relieve the plaintiff of the burden of alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Id. The Court need not accept “mere conclusions characterizing pleaded facts, ” see Bryson v. City of Edmond, 905 F.2d 1386, 1390 (10th Cir. 1990), and it will not “supply additional factual allegations to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf.” Whitney v. New Mexico, 113 F.3d 1170, 1173-74 (10th Cir. 1997).

         B. The Amended Complaint Still ...

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