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Hoff v. Webb

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 4, 2019

DAVID HOFF, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff David Hoff, an inmate at the Western Correctional Institution ("WO") in Cumberland, Maryland, has filed a Complaint alleging that prison officials at both WCI and Jessup Correctional Institution ("JCI"), where he was previously housed, improperly processed his legal mail and administrative remedy procedure grievances, interfered with his access to courts, and transferred him in retaliation for having filed a grievance, all in violation of his federal constitutional rights. Defendants Warden Wayne Webb and Correctional Officer Mark Maddux of JCI ("the JCI Defendants"), and Defendants Warden Richard Graham, Jr. and Correctional Officer Alicia Cartwright of WCI ("the WCI Defendants"), have collectively filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. Having reviewed the Complaint and the submitted materials, the Court finds no hearing necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Hoff s Complaint against Lt. Walker of JO, who has not been served with the Complaint, will be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.


         In his verified Complaint, Hoff alleges that on August 25, 2016, Lt. Walker received in the JCI mailroom a letter for Hoff from "Ethan Ice, Colorado Public Defender," Hoff s public defender in a matter in Colorado state court relating to the Interstate Agreement on Detainers Act ("IAD") ("the Colorado Letter"). Compl. ¶ 10, ECF No. 1. Although the envelope was not a pre-printed envelope from a law office and instead had a handwritten return address, the front and back of the envelope were stamped in red with the warning "Attorney/Client Confidentiality." Id.

         The following day, August 26, 2016, Correctional Officer Maddux brought the letter, opened, to Hoff s cell along with Hoff s regular mail. Hoff was housed with the general population at JCI and had no restrictions relating to his mail. Hoff advised Maddux that he had received legal mail after it had been opened. Maddux advised Hoff that he did not handle legal mail and that he did not open or inspect any kind of mail. He further advised Hoff that only sergeants may pass out legal mail and only the mailroom may open and inspect the mail.

         According to Hoff, shortly before the letter from Ice was opened, Warden Webb contacted Case Manager Ernest Knox and instructed Knox to prevent Hoff "from contacting Colorado any further, meaning the courts and attorney Ice." Compl. ¶ 12. Hoff alleges that this instruction made it appear as if the opening of his "legal mail was in cahoots with instructions not to contact Colorado any further." Id. Warden Webb denies ever directly or indirectly instructing Knox to prevent Hoff from contacting Ice or the Colorado courts.

         The same day that Hoff received the opened letter, he filed an administrative remedy procedure grievance ("ARP"), ARP No. JCI-1037-16, relating to the incident. On September 13, 2016, Hoff was interviewed as part of the investigation into the ARP. The next day, Hoff was transferred from JCI to WCI. Hoff alleges that there was no reason for the transfer, such that it "appear[ed] to be retaliation for [the] grievance filed by petitioner, especially since petitioner was transferred the next day after being investigated on grievance." Compl. ¶ 13.

         After the investigation, Warden Webb dismissed the ARP on December 5, 2016 based on a determination that there was no proof that the letter was opened by the mailroom staff and the mail was not listed in the legal mail book. When Hoff appealed to the Inmate Grievance Office ("IGO"), a videoconference hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ denied the appeal on the grounds that because the return address on the letter was handwritten, the letter did not qualify as legal mail under the applicable regulations and therefore did not have to be opened in Hoff s presence.

         Meanwhile, after his transfer to WCI, Hoff asked about the status of his ARP and, on or about October 20, 2016, submitted an ARP appeal form with a photocopy of the original ARP to the Division of Correction, Office of the Commissioner ("the Commissioner"). The Commissioner, apparently construing the filing as a new ARP, advised Hoff that the ARP would be redirected to the facility where he was then housed, WCI. On November 14, 2016, Correctional Officer Cartwright, the Institutional ARP Coordinator at WCI, received the ARP and assigned it ARP No. WCI-2554-16. That ARP was processed and dismissed as untimely filed.

         As a result of the processing of his second ARP filing, Hoff alleges that Cartwright altered it to "cover up" his claim. Compl. ¶ 14. Cartwright denies altering the ARP in any way and asserts that she processed the ARP "in the normal course in accordance with prison procedure." Cartwright Decl. ¶ 5, Mot. Dismiss Ex. 3, ECF No. 17-5.

         According to Hoff, the tampering with his legal mail has continued while he has resided at WCI, as "[m]any legal mail letters petitioner send out never reaches its proper destination." Compl. ¶ 15. In his verified memorandum in opposition to the Motion, Hoff identified specific instances of such tampering. For example, he alleges that he is the plaintiff in another case against the Warden of WCI, and although the Warden filed for summary judgment, Hoff was never served with a copy of the motion. Hoff then "blindly" filed a memorandum in opposition to the motion, and the motion for summary judgment was dismissed. Pl.'s Opp'n Mot. Dismiss ("Opp'n") at 6, ECF No. 19. Hoff also alleges that he has written to unspecified courts but has not received responses to his motions, that on one occasion he received notice of a hearing on or after March 12, 2018, a week after the scheduled hearing date of March 6, 2018, and that unspecified outgoing mail was held for over a week before being sent out. Hoff asserts that Warden Graham is responsible for this alleged tampering at WCI. Graham asserts that he expects staff to comply with directives and policies regarding the handling of inmate mail at WCI.


         Construed liberally, Hoff s Complaint alleges that (1) through tampering with his legal mail and his ARP filings, Defendants have violated his right to access the courts, in violation of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; and (2) by transferring him to WCI, Defendants have engaged in unlawful retaliation for filing grievances, in violation of the First Amendment.

         In their Motion, Defendants seek either dismissal of the Complaint or summary judgment in their favor on the grounds that (1) under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, Hoff s claims are foreclosed by the ALJ's finding that the Colorado Letter had a handwritten return address and was therefore not legal mail under the applicable regulations; (2) Hoff has not shown that he was denied access to the courts or due process of law; (3) the allegations are insufficient to state a claim for retaliation; (4) Hoff s transfer to WCI did not implicate a protected liberty interest; and (5) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. Because the Court resolves the Motion on other grounds, it need not address the collateral estoppel argument.

         I. Legal Standards

         Defendants have filed their Motion as a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. Typically, when deciding a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court considers only the complaint and any attached documents "integral to the complaint." Sec'y of State for Defense v. Trimble Navigation Ltd., 484 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2007). To the extent that grounds for dismissal are based solely on the contents of the Complaint, the Court may dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) if the complaint does not allege enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when the facts pleaded allow "the Court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Although courts should construe pleadings of self-represented litigants liberally, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), legal conclusions or conclusory statements do not suffice, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The Court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005).

         Rule 12(d) requires courts to treat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion as a motion for summary judgment when matters outside the pleadings are considered and not excluded. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). Before converting a motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment, courts must give the nonmoving party "a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion." Id. "Reasonable opportunity" has two requirements: (1) the nonmoving party must have some indication that the court is treating the Rule 12(b)(6) motion as a motion for summary judgment, and (2) the nonmoving party "must be afforded a reasonable opportunity for discovery" to obtain information essential to oppose the motion. Gay v. Wall,761 F.2d 175, 177 (4th Cir. 1985) (citation omitted). Here, the notice requirement has been satisfied by the title of the Motion. To show that a reasonable opportunity for discovery has not been afforded, the nonmoving party must file an affidavit or declaration under Rule 56(d) explaining why "for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition," Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d), or otherwise put the district court on notice of the reasons why summary judgment is premature, see Harrods Ltd. v. Sixty Internet Domain Names,302 F.3d 214, 244-45 (4th Cir. 2002). Here, Hoff has not filed a Rule 56(d) affidavit or otherwise requested ...

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