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Cochran v. Ballard

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

November 9, 2018

MELVIN COCHRAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DAVID BALLARD; WARDEN JIM RUBENSTEIN; and LOLITA BUTCHER, Defendants.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS OF FACT AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          CHERYL A. EIFERT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         In November 2017, Plaintiff, Melvin Cochran (“Plaintiff”), proceeding pro se and incarcerated at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex (“MOCC”) in Mount Olive, West Virginia, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against David Ballard, the Warden of MOCC, and Lolita Butcher and Jim Rubenstein, the Acting West Virginia Division of Corrections (“WVDOC”) Commissioner and former WVDOC Commissioner, respectively. In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that his constitutional right to marry under the First and Fourteenth Amendments has been violated by Defendants. (ECF No. 1 at 8). Pending before the court is Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (ECF No. 23). Plaintiff has filed a Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion, (ECF No. 28), and Defendants have filed a reply memorandum. (ECF No. 30). This matter is assigned to the Honorable Joseph R. Goodwin, United States District Judge, and by standing order is referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for the submission of proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).

         Having thoroughly considered the issues in dispute, the undersigned FINDS that the complaint, at least in part, states a claim that is sufficient to survive Defendants' initial dispositive motion. Accordingly, the undersigned respectfully PROPOSES that the presiding District Judge confirm and accept the following findings and RECOMMENDS that Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, (ECF No. 23), be DENIED, in part, and GRANTED, in part. The motion for judgment on the pleadings should be DENIED as to Plaintiff's claims for equitable relief and GRANTED as to Plaintiff's claims for monetary damages.

         I. Relevant Facts and Procedural History

          Plaintiff alleges that he has been repeatedly denied authorization to marry Sandra Lawrence, a private citizen. (ECF No. 1 at 8). Plaintiff and Ms. Lawrence met while she was employed as a Chaplain at MOCC. (Id.). Plaintiff states that he and Ms. Lawrence developed a “strong spiritual bond” and friendship through their shared beliefs and faith. (Id. at 9). Ms. Lawrence later sent Plaintiff a money order for $50, in violation of institutional rules. This led to Ms. Lawrence's termination and Plaintiff's placement in segregation. (Id. at 8). Plaintiff and Ms. Lawrence continued their relationship after her termination through correspondence. (Id. at 9).

         Beginning in 2015 and continuing until early 2016, Ms. Lawrence sought approval for visitation with Plaintiff, but her requests were refused due to a WVDOC policy which states that employees and former employees are not permitted to visit inmates. (ECF Nos. 2-1, 2-3, 2-4, 2-6, 2-7). In February 2016, Ms. Lawrence officially requested permission from Defendant Ballard to marry Plaintiff. (ECF No. 2-8). In March 2016, Defendant Ballard denied Ms. Lawrence's request stating, “[s]ince you do not have the authorization to visit this inmate, your request is moot.” (ECF No. 2-9). Plaintiff then sought approval to marry Ms. Lawrence in March 2016 and again in June 2016. (ECF No. 2-25). He was denied permission both times. (Id.). Ms. Lawrence renewed her request to marry Plaintiff in a letter to Lolita Butcher in May 2017. (ECF No. 2-12, at 3). In June 2017, Ms. Lawrence's request was also denied. (ECF No. 2-13).

         Plaintiff asserts that inmate marriages are governed by WVDOC Policy Directive 507.00 which states in relevant part:

B. An inmate's request to marry shall be approved provided:
1. The inmate is legally eligible to marry.
2. The intended spouse has verified, in writing, an intention to marry the inmate and is legally eligible to do so.
3. The marriage poses no threat to institution/facility/center security, good order or public safety.

(ECF No. 1 at 2). Plaintiff alleges that he was told by prison staff that his request to marry Ms. Lawrence was denied due to Operating Procedure 5.13, which mandates that:

[T]he intended spouse must meet all of the same eligibility criteria requirements applicable to all visitors as outlined in WVDOC Policy Directive 505.03.

(Id. at 13). WVDOC Policy Directive 505.03, however, contains the following exclusionary clause that applies to Ms. Lawrence:

Employees and ex-employees, volunteers and ex-volunteers, are not permitted to visit with inmates.

(Id.). Plaintiff contends that, as Policy Directive 507.00 does not contain a requirement that the prospective spouse be approved for visitation, it is improper for Defendants to reject his request to marry Ms. Lawrence based on Operating Procedure 5.13. (Id. at 11, 16).

         Plaintiff argues that Defendants' repeated refusal to grant him authorization to marry Ms. Lawrence violates his fundamental right of marriage guaranteed by the United States Constitution. (ECF No. 1 at 14). He maintains that his marriage to Ms. Lawrence does not create a security threat, and Defendants' actions in withholding permission for their marriage based on “reflexive and rote assertions of security issues” is without justification. (Id. at 15-16). Plaintiff notes that the marriage could be accomplished via a one-time visit for the purpose of the ceremony and, thus, would not require extending full visitor privileges to Ms. Lawrence. (Id. at 16). For relief, Plaintiff requests that this Court issue a declaratory judgment stating that Defendants have violated Plaintiff's rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments; issue an injunction ordering Defendants to begin working with Plaintiff to develop a procedure that will allow Plaintiff and Ms. Lawrence to marry while maintaining valid security measures; order an award of compensatory and punitive damages that the Court deems fit and proper; and grant any other relief to which Plaintiff is entitled. (Id. at 16-17).

         In August 2018, Defendants filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and a supporting memorandum. (ECF Nos. 23, 24). Defendants agree with Plaintiff that decisions regarding inmate marriage are governed by WVDOC Policy Directive 507.00; however, they deny that the decision is controlled solely by that Policy Directive. (ECF No. 24 at 2-3). Defendants contend that the decision to deny Plaintiff's marriage request pursuant to Operating Procedure 5.13 is constitutional under the test established by the United States Supreme Court in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). (ECF No. 24 at 3, 10). Defendants state that allowing Plaintiff to marry Ms. Lawrence would pose a security risk as she is a former prison employee and, consequently, is knowledgeable of prison security procedures. (Id. at 8). Moreover, she has a propensity to violate prison policies as demonstrated by her history of depositing $50.00 in Plaintiff's inmate account in flagrant contravention of prison rules. (ECF No. 24 at 8). Defendants also maintain that the decision to deny Plaintiff's marriage is discretionary and does not violate any clearly established rights; accordingly, they are entitled to qualified immunity against an award of civil damages. (Id. at 10-12). Defendants ask this Court to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint with prejudice. (ECF No. 23 at 1).

         On August 28, 2018, the undersigned held a status conference. (ECF No. 26). Following the conference, Plaintiff was ordered to respond to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and to provide a summary of any specific factual issues that Plaintiff believed needed to be developed prior to a ruling on the motion. (ECF No. 27). In September 2018, Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (ECF No. 28).

         In his Response, Plaintiff reiterates his position that it is improper for Defendants to require visitation approval as a precondition of marriage. (Id. at 4). Plaintiff challenges the “implementation of informal and unauthorized policies” to deny his right to marry. (Id. at 9). Plaintiff restates his position that Policy Directive 507.00 represents the exclusive authority for inmate marriage approval, and that the defendant prison officials have illegally denied his request to marry Ms. Lawrence by establishing an additional requirement that the prospective spouse be an approved visitor. (Id. at 10-11).

         Plaintiff furthermore disagrees with Defendants' interpretation of Turner v. Safley, arguing that Defendants' decision to deny his marriage request does not meet the test established by the Supreme Court in that decision. Plaintiff contends that Defendants' fear of security risks due to Ms. Lawrence's past violation of prison regulations and status as a former employee is “unreasonable” and an “exaggerated response.” (ECF No. 28 at 11). Plaintiff refers to other individuals that he believes committed similar infractions as Ms. Lawrence, but were nonetheless permitted to visit the prison afterward. (Id. at 13). Plaintiff claims that, in any event, Defendants' security concerns can be alleviated by restricting Ms. Lawrence to a one-time supervised visit solely for the marriage ceremony. (Id. at 13-14).

         Plaintiff also filed a list of factual issues that he feels need to be developed prior to consideration of a dispositive motion. (ECF No. 29). Most of the factual issues listed by Plaintiff pertain to the process by which prison Policy Directives and Operating Procedures are promulgated, their legal effect, and the discretion afforded to those charged with enforcing them. (Id. at 1-2). Plaintiff also asserts that further factual development is needed to investigate whether several former inmates and a former “Kiros” volunteer, who purportedly violated institutional rules, were subsequently granted visitation access.[1] (Id. at 2).

         In October 2018, Defendants filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Response in Opposition. (ECF No. 30). They first argue that no further discovery is required in order for the case to be adjudicated on the pleadings. (Id. at 12). Defendants assert that for the purpose of their Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, they have accepted as true all the factual allegations contained in Plaintiff's Complaint. (Id.). As to Plaintiff's twelve unresolved factual issues, Defendants state that the identified issues are either purely legal questions already answered by the record, or are irrelevant to the merits of the case. (Id. at 12-13). Defendants contend that the alleged incidents in which other individuals were authorized to visit the prison after committing infractions do not need to be developed by discovery, because they bear no similarity to Ms. Lawrence's case. According to Defendants, the first two referenced cases involve ex-inmates; therefore, they do not implicate the type of security concerns at issue here. Defendants contend that the case of the ex-volunteer is likewise irrelevant, as the ex-volunteer “does not have knowledge of security procedures.” (ECF No. 30 at 13). Finally, Defendants argue that past decisions to grant admission to the facility are not material to ...


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