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Allen v. Lopez

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 27, 2017


          Paris Da'Jon Allen, pro se

          Kelly S. Kemp and Lindsay Strauss, Assistant Attorneys General, Minnesota Attorney General's Office,, counsel for defendants Ricardo Lopez, Sherlinda Wheeler, John King, David Reishus, and Shelli Monio



         Paris Allen was a Minnesota prisoner at the time he filed this case. He seeks to recover damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from several prison official defendants for allegedly violating his constitutional rights. This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendants Ricardo Lopez, Sherlinda Wheeler, John King, David Reishus, and Shelli Monio. ECF No. 93. Based on the Defendants' motion and supporting documents, Mr. Allen's written submissions in response to the motion, and on all the files and proceedings in this case, the Court concludes that the Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law and recommends that this action be dismissed.


         This case is fairly straightforward. Mr. Allen claims that the Defendants violated his First Amendment right of access to the courts by failing to arrange for him to appear by telephone for a hearing in Hennepin County Conciliation Court. The conciliation court dismissed Mr. Allen's case after he failed to appear.

         In September 2014, Mr. Allen was serving a prison sentence in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. See Wheeler Aff. ¶ 6, ECF No. 97. On September 4, 2014, Mr. Allen filed a case against two former criminal defense attorneys in the Hennepin County Conciliation Court seeking to recover $3, 500 he paid to retain the attorneys and his $70 fee for filing the conciliation court complaint. Strauss Aff. ¶ 3, Ex. 1, ECF No. 98. He accused his former defense attorneys of misleading him about a “deal” and engaging in unprofessional conduct throughout their representation in a criminal case against him from 2002. Strauss Aff. ¶ 3, Ex. 1; id. ¶ 16, Ex. 14 (reflecting guilty plea proceedings and sentencing between April and October 2002 in a State criminal case). Mr. Allen's Amended Complaint in this case discusses his former attorneys' allegedly unprofessional and inappropriate conduct during that case, which led to Mr. Allen's guilty plea. Am. Compl. at 1-3, ¶¶ 3-8, ECF No. 27-1.[1] The conciliation court scheduled a hearing on Mr. Allen's case for November 25, 2014 at 8:30 a.m. Strauss Aff. ¶ 4, Ex. 2. The court permitted Mr. Allen to appear by phone and informed him that he was responsible for contacting the Court for the hearing. Strauss Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. 4.

         The Department of Corrections transferred Mr. Allen to Oak Park Heights on September 22, 2014. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 6. When he arrived at Oak Park Heights, Mr. Allen was placed on disciplinary-segregation status and housed in the Administrative Control Unit as a result of the events leading to his transfer. Wheeler Aff. ¶¶ 6-7. The conciliation court sent Oak Park Heights a letter informing staff that Mr. Allen had a November 25, 2014 hearing scheduled and asked the facility to arrange to have a phone line available for him to call in to the court to provide testimony. Strauss Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. 5. Though Mr. Allen encountered difficulties serving both of the former defense attorneys who represented him, the conciliation court kept the matter scheduled for November 25, 2014. Strauss Aff. ¶¶ 9-10, Ex. 7-8.

         Mr. Lopez was Mr. Allen's case manager at Oak Park Heights. Lopez Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 95. After Mr. Allen arrived at the facility, he began asking Mr. Lopez for assistance with his conciliation court case by filing “kites, ” informal requests raising issues that arise in prisons. See Lopez Aff. ¶ 5; see generally Reishus Aff., Ex. 1 (kite and grievance forms). Mr. Lopez ran internet searches for Mr. Allen in an attempt to help him locate one of the defense attorneys in Arizona that he was attempting to serve. Lopez Aff. ¶¶ 10-11. Mr. Lopez “never told Allen that [he] would send information to a sheriff's department in Arizona, ” and correctional officers at Oak Park Heights do not take responsibility for completing service on behalf of an inmate. Lopez Aff. ¶ 12.

         Generally, case managers arrange for an inmate to participate in a court call by having the court contact the prison and ask for the inmate's case manager. Lopez Aff. ¶ 15. At Oak Park Heights, Mr. Lopez generally answered calls from the court and then arranged for an inmate to receive the call in the conference room in the Administrative Control Unit, at which point Mr. Lopez would disconnect himself from the call. Lopez Aff. ¶¶ 16, 17. Mr. Lopez knew that Mr. Allen had a hearing on November 25, 2014 and that the court had requested that he arrange for Mr. Allen to call the court to give testimony. Lopez Aff. ¶ 18. Consistent with his practice at the time, Mr. Lopez “assume[s] that after [he] received the letter from the court, [he] called the court and told them the phone number for the court to call to reach Allen” on the date of the hearing. Lopez Aff. ¶ 18.

         On November 25, 2014, Mr. Lopez was unable to attend work for personal reasons. Lopez Aff. ¶ 14. Mr. Lopez “forgot about Allen's conciliation court call so [he] did not tell any DOC employees about Allen's call or arrange for someone else to set up the call for Allen because [he] was dealing with what was going on in [his] personal life on that day.” Lopez Aff. ¶ 14. Mr. Lopez admits that he “should have notified [his] fellow case manager to ask him to handle Allen's court call, ” and he “later learned that Allen was not placed on the phone that day for his hearing.” Lopez Aff. ¶ 14. Mr. Allen did not contact other members of the Oak Park Heights staff who were working on November 25, 2014 to ask them to arrange for call with the court. Lopez Aff. ¶ 21-22.

         Mr. Lopez next returned to work on December 1, 2014 following the Thanksgiving holiday and realized that he missed setting up Mr. Allen's telephonic appearance. Lopez Aff. ¶ 19. Mr. Lopez called the conciliation court to explain what happened and “[t]he court representative told [him] that Allen had missed the court hearing and that the court was dismissing his case.” Lopez Aff. ¶ 19. However, the “[c]ourt staff also told [Mr. Lopez] that if Allen had appeared, the court would have informed Allen that the case would not go forward because he failed to serve a party he was suing.” Lopez Aff. ¶ 19. On December 2, 2014, Jessica Rahier, an operations supervisor for the conciliation court, sent Mr. Allen a letter informing him: (1) that Mr. Lopez had contacted her regarding his case; (2) that his case was “stricken” because “none of the parties appeared”; and (3) that he would need to start a new case, and if he chose to do so, Ms. Rahier would “try to get an order waiving the filing fee for [his] new case.” Strauss Aff. ¶ 12, Ex. 10.

         Mr. Allen contacted the conciliation court after his case was dismissed, and on December 15, 2014, Ms. Rahier sent him a letter providing him with requested statement of claims and summons forms to complete. Strauss Aff. ¶ 13, Ex. 11. Ms. Rahier instructed Mr. Allen that he needed to achieve service and, apparently in response to Mr. Allen's December 12th letter, stated: “[j]ust to clarify, nobody contacted me to cancel your first hearing.” Strauss Aff. ¶ 13, Ex. 11. She continued:

After the hearing, a Mr. Lopez called me and asked what the next step could be because, at no fault of yours, you were not able to call in for your hearing. That is when I told him that you would need to re-file and start over and that I will try to get an order to waive your filing fee when you re-file your claim.

         Strauss Aff. ¶ 13, Ex. 11.

         Mr. Allen again asked Mr. Lopez for assistance locating one of his former defense attorneys after his conciliation court case was dismissed. Lopez Aff. ¶ 23. Mr. Lopez ran internet searches based on the information Mr. Allen provided him about the attorney and he gave Mr. Allen the information he found. Lopez Aff. ¶ 23. Mr. Lopez told Mr. Allen that he could not guarantee that the man he found was the attorney Mr. Allen was looking for. Mr. Allen asked Mr. Lopez to serve him, and Mr. Lopez again told Mr. Allen that he did not serve people for inmates and that he did not know how to serve someone. Lopez Aff. ¶¶ 23-24. Mr. Lopez denies promising Mr. Allen that he would find out how to serve his former attorney, but did call a police department in Arizona to try and find out additional information. Lopez Aff. ¶ 25.

         In a January 15, 2015 letter, Ms. Rahier again informed Mr. Allen that his next step was to re-file his case and that she would try to get the $70 filing fee waived if he chose to do so. Strauss Aff. ¶, Ex. 12. Mr. Allen sent Mr. Lopez a kite on January 31, 2015, asking him to set up a call with the conciliation court. Lopez Aff. ¶ 26. In the kite Mr. Allen stated:

Legal call to Jessica Rahier at conciliation court to inform her that I'm raising my claim and I'm waiting until Department of Corrections to reimburse the full amount in damages such as $3, 584.38 for omission and intentional damages for failing to provide access to the phone 11/25/14 at 8:45 AM, after Ricardo Lopez was warned October 17th 2014. Also can you inform her that the excuse that is used that I filed wrong when I filed correctly and that a referee was waiting on my appearance and Ricardo Lopez called after intentionally & knowing the results of failing to be that officer that was to provide. Can you also tell Ms. Rahier at no fault of hers, “I'm Going to the next step”

Lopez Aff. ¶ 26, Ex. 1. Based on Mr. Allen's request, Mr. Lopez told him that he would need to contact the conciliation court by mail. Lopez Aff. ¶ 26 & Ex. 1. There is no evidence that Mr. Allen ever refiled his conciliation court case.

         On several occasions Mr. Allen sent kites and formal grievance forms to Defendants Wheeler and Reishus. See generally Wheeler Aff. & Reishus Aff. In one kite, Mr. Allen asked Ms. Wheeler to call his attorney, and Wheeler told him he must work with Mr. Lopez to resolve such issues. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 13. Ms. Wheeler does not remember whether Mr. Allen sent her documents to serve on any defendant in his conciliation court case, but if he had, she states that she would likely have returned the documents to Allen because service of process on behalf of inmates is not among her job duties. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 15. Ms. Wheeler did search the internet to try and locate certain people Mr. Allen asked her to find to avoid having several rounds of kites and responses with him. Wheeler provided some information to Mr. Allen from these searches. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 16. In December 2014, Mr. Allen sent Ms. Wheeler a kite demanding that he be paid more than $3, 000 because he missed the conciliation court hearing, but because he had already filed a grievance about the issues, Wheeler informed him that he needed to await a response to the grievance. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 29. In response to additional kites in December 2014 and January 2015, Ms. Wheeler wrote to Mr. Allen to tell him that the Department of Corrections would reimburse him $14.38 he had paid for postage in his conciliation court case. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 32. Eventually Wheeler also offered to have the DOC reimburse Mr. Allen the $70 filing fee if he initiated a new conciliation court case and the judge decided not to waive the fee. Wheeler Aff. ¶ 33.

         Allen sent a kite to Mr. Reishus on December 12, 2014, in which he complained that Lopez had caused him to miss the court hearing and that Wheeler, who was Lopez's supervisor, did not adequately handle the issue. Mr. Allen asked Mr. Reishus to investigate, and Reishus told him he should raise the issues with Wheeler because she supervised his case manager. Reishus Aff. ¶¶ 6-7, Ex. 1 at 27-28.

         In response to one of Mr. Allen's grievance appeals, the Oak Park Heights Warden at the time, Kent Grandlienard, denied one of Mr. Allen's many grievances over this issue on December 12, 2014. Defendant John King, who was then the Assistant Commissioner of Facilities at Oak Park Heights, see Reishus Aff. ¶10, acknowledged that Mr. Allen was not able to make a call on the date of his conciliation court hearing and that this was caused by an oversight. See Pl.'s Ex. 5, Side B, ECF No. 105. However, King affirmed the dismissal of the administrative appeal. Id.


         On July 12, 2017, the Defendants filed their motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 93. In support of their motion, they raise several arguments. First, they contend that Mr. Allen failed to assert sufficient personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional denial of a phone hearing by Shelli Monio, John King, David Reishus, or Sherlinda Wheeler. Defs.' Mem. at 12-16, ECF No. 94. Second, the Defendants argue that his complaint does not allege any violation of the United States Constitution. To the extent Mr. Allen asserts an access-to-courts claim or a due process claim, the Defendants contend those claims fail on the merits. Defs.' Mem. 16-26. Third, the Defendants contend that they are entitled to qualified immunity on all of Mr. Allen's constitutional claims. Defs.' Mem. at 26-27. Fourth, the Defendants argue that all of Mr. Allen's official capacity claims are barred by ...

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