3rd Circ. Says Inmates Have Right To Access Legal Materials

By Bill Wichert | June 15, 2022, 3:35 PM EDT ·

Prisoners may bring claims alleging they were denied access to legal materials while they were pursuing civil rights cases from behind bars, the Third Circuit said Wednesday in a precedential opinion setting forth that right to access the courts.

In Pennsylvania state inmate Michael Rivera's lawsuit against corrections officers and a prison law librarian over access to materials for his civil rights trial, a three-judge panel ruled that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity since the right was not "clearly established" at the time in question but that such claims from prisoners would be allowed going forward.

Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth said the court recognized that "a prisoner has a valid access-to-courts claim when he alleges that the denial of access to legal materials — before and/or during trial — caused a potentially meritorious claim to fail."

"Indeed, it would be perverse if the right to access courts faded away after a prisoner successfully got into court by filing a complaint or petition," Judge Roth wrote. "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 suit stems from Rivera's temporary transfer in July 2017 to a state prison in order for him to represent himself at a nearby federal trial in which he brought excessive force claims against other corrections officers, the opinion said.

Rivera was assigned to the facility's restricted housing unit and sought access to its "mini law library," which only contained two computers and no books, the court said.

Those computers weren't working during Rivera's stay, so he couldn't research the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence and related materials for his trial. Since he could not use the computers, Rivera asked to borrow books from the general population law library, but the librarian denied that request, the opinion said.

Rivera has asserted that as a result he was unable to introduce certain evidence and the jury issued a verdict against him. He ultimately brought the current action against corrections officers Kevin Monko and Wynston Gilbert and the unnamed law librarian.

In dismissing the suit on qualified immunity grounds, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan E. Schwab said in June 2020 the parties "have not pointed to controlling authority, or a robust consensus of persuasive authority, holding that an inmate's right to affirmative assistance in the form of either a law library or legal assistance extends to the trial stage of a civil rights case."

"Thus, we cannot say that at the time of the trial in Rivera v. O'Haire it was clearly established that Rivera had the right to access to a law library or other legal materials during trial," Judge Schwab said.

On Rivera's appeal of that decision, the Third Circuit on Wednesday echoed the judge's conclusion that the right had not been clearly established and thus the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. In the future, however, "there should be no doubt that such a right exists," it said.

The majority added in a footnote that "any concerns about Pennsylvania corrections officers' personal financial liability should be allayed by Pennsylvania corrections officers' collective bargaining agreement, under which Pennsylvania must furnish counsel for and indemnify officers in cases like this."

In a concurrence, U.S. Circuit Judge Peter J. Phipps said he agreed with the qualified immunity outcome in the matter but rejected the majority's expansion of the right of access to expose prison employees to liability for not providing legal materials to inmates. That duty should only be applied to states, he said.

As far as corrections officers being indemnified for violating such a duty, the judge said, "an indemnification agreement should not influence the announcement of a new constitutional obligation."

"By extending the positive duty beyond states, the majority opinion makes guards and other prison employees personally liable if a prison law library fails to furnish law-library materials or their equivalent," Judge Phipps wrote. "That is new; that is bold; and that is a misapprehension of the Constitution."

Devi M. Rao of the MacArthur Justice Center, who represents Rivera, told Law360 in a statement Wednesday that the Third Circuit "appropriately recognized that an incarcerated person's constitutional right to access a law library continues through the course of their litigation."

"This outcome makes sense. Defendants had argued that the right existed only until a prisoner filed a complaint, and then deserted the prisoner for the rest of their case," Rao said. "But the court understood that would make the right of access 'illusory.'"

"While we're happy that the court of appeals' holding applies going forward, Mr. Rivera doesn't get the benefit of this decision, since the court felt itself bound to grant defendants qualified immunity," she said. "The court held that Mr. Rivera's constitutional rights had been violated, but that, 'unfortunately,' his suit could not go forward because of qualified immunity since there wasn't a prior decision on sufficiently similar facts. It's a tragedy that qualified immunity prevents the judiciary from redressing constitutional wrongs like this one the first time it encounters them."

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office and the state Department of Corrections declined to comment on Wednesday.

Judges Peter J. Phipps, Richard L. Nygaard and Jane R. Roth sat on the panel for the Third Circuit.

Rivera is represented by Devi M. Rao of the MacArthur Justice Center.

The defendants are represented by Michael J. Scarinci of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.

The case is Michael Rivera v. Kevin Monko et al., case number 20-2531, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

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