Published on: Wednesday, June 15, 2022

People in prisons 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 (article available here).

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, a federal magistrate judge in June 2020 held 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."

The Third Circuit on Wednesday echoed the judge's conclusion that the right had not been clearly established but in the future, however, "there should be no doubt that such a right exists." However, Mr. Rivera doesn't get the benefit of this decision.

The case is Michael Rivera v. Kevin Monko et al., 20-2531 (3d Cir. June 15, 2022).