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October 28, 2015
  Pronin v. Johnson, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: ". . . And Access for All" - Fourth Circuit Vacates District Court's Grant of Summary Judgment on Russian National's Denial of Access to Courts Claim

Areas of Law: Prisoners' Civil Rights

Issue Presented: Whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of defendants on appellant-inmate's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of denial of access to courts, inadequate medical treatment, and an equal protection violation based on a corrections officer's alleged discriminatory conduct.

Brief Summary: In a per curiam opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the inmate-appellant's denial of access to courts claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to the rest of appellant's claims, including his assertions of inadequate medical treatment and violation of his equal protection rights.

Extended Summary: Dmitry Pronin arrived in the United States in 2008 and resided in Catonsville, Maryland. On March 5, 2011, Pronin robbed a bank in Delaware, and was arrested about a week later in Baltimore, Maryland. He was subsequently convicted in federal court. A short time before Pronin robbed the bank, his mother, Yulia Pogrebenko, arrived in the United States from Russia. In June 2011, a fisherman found Pronin's mother's torso floating in the Chesapeake Bay, and in July 2011, a man found Pogrebenko's skull on Tolchester Beach in Kent County, Maryland. Pronin pleaded guilty to his mother's murder in state court on June 11, 2015, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in state prison. Pronin's murder sentence will be served after he completes his federal sentence for the armed robbery.

In connection with his federal incarceration Pronin filed a § 1983 civil action in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. He alleged various constitutional violations against prison employees, including certain guards, officials, and a doctor. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all of Pronin's claims. On appeal, Pronin argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit addressed three of Pronin's claims: (1) the corrections officers violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by destroying his legal papers, which denied him access to the court; (2) he received constitutionally inadequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and (3) a corrections officer violated his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment when, after Pronin had an altercation with his cellmate, the officer removed Pronin, who is Jewish, from his cell but allowed his cellmate, who is Hispanic, to remain.

The court reviewed the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo, examining the facts in the light most favorable to the defendants. First, the court examined Pronin's denial of access to courts claim. This claim arose from an alleged incident in which a corrections officer left Pronin's medical records from Russia in his cell with his cellmate and they were partially destroyed; another corrections officer then threw away the remaining records. The medical records reportedly documented that Pronin has developmental disabilities, was diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality disorders, and suffers from epilepsy and a nervous tick.

The Fourth Circuit found that Pronin's allegations about the destruction of the documents were clearly in conflict with affidavits that the two corrections officers submitted. This conflict created a dispute of material fact. Therefore, the district court erred when it concluded the corrections officers' affidavits were uncontested.

Next, the court examined whether Pronin suffered any actual injury as a result of the alleged destruction of his medical records. Quoting the Ninth Circuit, the court noted that although Pronin remained able to file a § 2255 claim, denial of access to courts encompasses "the opportunity to prepare, serve, and file whatever pleadings or other documents are necessary or appropriate in order to commence or prosecute court proceedings affecting one's personal liberty, or to assert or sustain a defense therein." Upon reviewing Pronin's § 2255 filings, the court found that Pronin alleged ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to seek a psychiatric evaluation for him and did not attach any medical documentation in support of his arguments for receiving a shorter sentence. Pronin also contended that he should receive a downward departure based on his mental condition. Due to the alleged destruction of his medical records, Pronin was only able to attach two 2015 psychiatric evaluations in support of his § 2255 claims - both occurring after his convictions. The court found that Pronin suffered an actual injury because he is now unable to show he was diagnosed with mental illnesses prior to his criminal convictions. This failing affects his ability to succeed on his § 2255 motion. Therefore, the court found the district court erred when it concluded Pronin had not alleged an actual injury.

Turning to Pronin's other contentions, the court first affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment as to Pronin's claims of inadequate medical treatment and violation of his equal protection rights. The court noted that to prevail on a claim of constitutionally inadequate medical treatment, a prisoner must show the doctor "knew of and disregarded a substantial risk of serious injury or knew of and ignored serious need for medical care." The court concluded that the district court's grant of summary judgment was proper where Pronin presented no evidence of any medical condition the doctor should have been aware of, and failed to establish the doctor was even on duty during the relevant time period.

The court also noted that to prevail on his equal protection claim, Pronin must show that he was "treated differently from others with whom he is similarly situated and the unequal treatment was the result of intentional or purposeful discrimination." Pronin alleged that a Hispanic corrections officer violated his equal protection rights when she removed Pronin, who is Jewish, from his cell after an altercation with his cellmate but allowed the cellmate, who is Hispanic, to remain in the cell. Because Pronin failed to present any evidence of the officer's discriminatory intent or evidence that he and his cellmate are similarly situated, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment. The court found no other basis for reversal.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Motz, Floyd, and Harris

Argument Date: 8/20/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/7/2015

Docket Number: Case No. 15-6534

Decided: Affirmed in part, vacated and remanded in part by unpublished opinion

Case Alert Author: Monica Basche, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Dmitry Pronin, Appellant Pro Se. Barbara Murcier Bowens, Assistant United States Attorney, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Per curiam

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 10/28/2015 04:02 PM     4th Circuit  

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