3rd Circuit reinstates Pa. inmate’s lawsuit over legal mail

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A federal appeals court has reinstated a Pennsylvania inmate’s First Amendment lawsuit alleging a pattern or practice of prison officials’ opening his legal mail outside his presence.

John Diaz alleged that beginning in April 2006 officials at the State Correctional Institute at Smithfield opened mail pertaining to his legal case without his being present. Diaz filed eight grievances over these incidents.

In December 2007, Diaz filed a lawsuit in federal court, contending that prison officials violated his First Amendment rights. In March 2009, a federal district judge granted the officials summary judgment, finding only two instances of improper handling of legal mail. The judge also determined that the two incidents were not enough to establish a pattern or practice sufficient to show liability.

Diaz appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 14, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled in Diaz v. Palakovich that the lower court erred in rejecting Diaz’s suit.

Improper opening of an inmate’s legal mail is a First Amendment violation, the panel said, because it “interferes with protected communications, strips those communications of their confidentiality and accordingly impinges upon the inmate’s right to freedom of speech.”

The panel said the number of grievances Diaz filed should have put prison officials on notice that there was a problem. The panel further found that “the record also does not establish that these defendants took sufficient, corrective action relating to the opening of legal mail to avoid acquiescing in their subordinates’ actions.”

The sheer number of grievances — all filed within a two-year period — was enough to establish a legal claim of a “pattern or practice of opening legal mail outside Diaz’s presence,” the panel wrote.

Prison officials could appeal the ruling; if not, then the case goes back to federal district court for further proceedings.

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