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LEWIS v. ALAMEIDA

United States District Court, N.D. California


April 19, 2004.

JEMAL D. LEWIS (H-57184), Plaintiff,
v.
EDWARD ALAMEIDA, JR., et al., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: THELTON HENDERSON, Senior District Judge

JUDGMENT

Summary judgment is entered in defendants' favor and against plaintiff.

IT IS SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED.

 

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
INTRODUCTION
  Jemal D. Lewis, an inmate currently housed at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, filed this pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging his classification in prison. Defendants now move for summary judgment. Defendants argue that Plaintiff is appropriately housed in Close B custody and that Plaintiff cannot show an uneven application of the law required for an equal protection claim. Plaintiff did not file an opposition brief but since Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the Court will address the merits of Plaintiff's complaint. Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff's complaint. Accordingly, the court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

  BACKGROUND

  The following facts are undisputed. Inmates in California are classified into several custody levels based on various case factors. The seven different inmate custody designations in descending order of required supervision are: Maximum Custody, Close A Custody, Close B Custody, Medium A Custody, Medium B Custody, Minimum A Custody, and Minimum B Custody. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3377.1(a). Plaintiff is a life term inmate, serving an indeterminate sentence of thirty-eight years to life pursuant to a 1997 criminal conviction from the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Upon being received by the California Department of Corrections, Plaintiff was placed in Close A custody pursuant to § 3377. l(a) of Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations. After successfully completing the minimum required period of one year at Close A custody, Plaintiff's custody level was reduced to Close B custody in February 1999. Plaintiff, as an inmate who is serving a life sentence, "must be within seven (7) years of his or her MEPD [Minimum Eligible Parole Date] before he or she is eligible for further reduction of custody" under § 3377.2(c)(3)(C). Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3377.2(c)(3)(C). Plaintiff's MEPD is April 12, 2033, leaving him eligible for a further custody reduction in 2026. By contrast, inmates who are sentenced to total determinate terms between 15 and 50 years are eligible for a further reduction in custody after four years at Close B custody. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3377.2(c)(3)(D). Plaintiff contends that this difference in treatment between life term prisoners and non-life term prisoners for a custody reduction from Close B violates the Equal Protection Clause.

  VENUE AND JURISDICTION

  Venue is proper in the Northern District of California under 28 U.S.C. § 1391 because the events or omissions giving rise to the claims occurred at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, which is located within the Northern District. This court has federal question jurisdiction over this action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

  LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

  The court will grant summary judgment "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial . . . since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (a fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.")

  Generally, the moving party bears the initial burden of identifying those portions of the record which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to "go beyond the pleadings, and by his own affidavits, or by the `depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file,' designate "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (citations omitted).

  A verified complaint may be used as an opposing affidavit under Rule 56, as long as it is based on personal knowledge and sets forth specific facts admissible in evidence. See Schroeder v. McDonald, 55 F.3d 454, 460 & nn. 10-11 (9th Cir. 1995) (treating plaintiff's verified complaint as opposing affidavit where, even though verification not in conformity with 28 U.S.C. § 1746, plaintiff stated under penalty of perjury that contents were true and correct, and allegations were not based purely on his belief but on his personal knowledge).

  The court's function on a summary judgment motion is not to make credibility determinations or weigh conflicting evidence with respect to a disputed material fact. See T. W. Elec. Serv. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and the inferences to be drawn from the facts must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See id. at 631.

  DISCUSSION

  A. Equal Protection Claim

  "The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no State shall `deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,' which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985) (quoting Plyer v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216 (1982)). In equal protection claims involving prisoners, prison administration regulations are deemed valid if they are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). In evaluating whether administrative regulations are reasonably related to penological interests, the Court looks to whether there is a valid, rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate government interest put forward to justify it. Id. Accordingly, Plaintiff in the instant case must establish that (1) he is similarly situated to inmates who are being treated differently under the challenged regulation and that (2) Defendants have no rational basis for the dissimilar treatment.

  Plaintiff is challenging a distinction in eligibility for reduced custody under § 3377.2, which distinguishes between life term prisoners and non-life term prisoners serving terms between 15 and 50 years. However, Defendants have presented undisputed evidence that life term prisoners and non-life term prisoners represent different levels of risk for escape, in-custody violence and assaultive behavior and thus represent separate classes of prisoners. Cole Decl., Ex. C at 5. Consequently, Plaintiff, as a life term prisoner, fails to raise a triable issue of fact that he is similarly situated to non-life term prisoners.

  Moreover, Plaintiff does not dispute Defendants' assertion that the assignment of different custody levels for life and non-life term prisoners is based on legitimate interests in preventing escapes, reducing in-custody violence and assaultive behavior. Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 11:3-6. The California Department of Corrections' Initial Statement of Reasons behind the adoption of § 3377.2 supports this rationale, citing the finding by staff that "a longer prison term or possibility of additional prison terms increases the inmate's incentive to escape." Cole Decl., Ex. C at 5. Life term prisoners, with little to lose, represent a category of prisoners with a higher prison escape risk who require higher levels of supervision. Thus, a valid, rational connection exists between the custody distinction and the prison administration's legitimate penological interest in reducing the likelihood of escapes or attempted escapes.

  The more appropriate class of comparable prisoners for Plaintiff's claim would be other life term prisoners who received custody reductions from Close B. Although Plaintiff alleges that other life term inmates were granted custody reduction requests, he has supplied no competent evidence to support this assertion. The possibility that some life term inmates were granted reduced custody status does not aid Plaintiff because he has not shown that other inmates with his same case factors (a life-term inmate in CDC custody prior to 2000, who has maintained Close A or Close B custody at all times, and is not within seven years of his MEPD) have had their custody level reduced to Medium A status. Consequently, Plaintiff has not shown that he is similarly situated to other life term inmates who may have had their custody level reduced to Medium A status.

  The California Code of Regulations allows for individualized recommendations for custody reductions to some life term inmates who otherwise would not qualify for a custody reduction since the adoption of § 3377.2. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3377(a)(16). The exceptions allowed for under § 3377(a)(16) are limited to those life term prisoners who have already served some amount of time in a less restrictive degree of custody and thus proven to be less of a risk for misconduct, escape or violence. Id. Life term prisoners who have already demonstrated positive programming at Medium A custody and a reduced likelihood of misconduct or violence represent a category of prisoners different from Plaintiff. The prison administration's interest in providing housing to inmates in the least restrictive setting, commensurate with the inmate's need for supervision represents a legitimate penological interest in allowing for individualized recommendations for custody reductions under § 3377(a)(16).

  In sum, Plaintiff has provided no evidence that he is similarly situated to non-life term prisoners or life term prisoners who have already demonstrated positive programming under Medium A custody. Moreover, Defendants have put forward an undisputed rational basis for the dissimilar treatment that represents legitimate penological interests in preventing escape and reducing the likelihood of misconduct or violence. Consequently, the Court holds that there is an absence of a genuine issue of material fact with regard to Plaintiff's equal protection claim that would prevent the Court from granting summary judgment.

 B. Ex Post Facto Claim

  In the penultimate sentence of his complaint, Plaintiff makes a one-sentence assertion that his equal protection argument also implicates the Ex Post Facto Clause. Because the regulatory guidelines were adopted midway through Plaintiff's Close B custody period, an ex post facto argument could be tied to the diminishment of earnable good time credits for a prisoner in a higher custody status.

  The Court is unpersuaded by this line of reasoning for multiple reasons. First, the prisoner has no ex post facto right to avoid changes in prison regulations. "Changes in a prisoner's location, variations of daily routine, changes in conditions of confinement (including administrative segregation), and denials of privileges — matters which every prisoner can anticipate are contemplated by his original sentence to prison — are necessarily functions of prison management that must be left to the broad discretion of prison administrators." Gaston v. Taylor, 946 F.2d 340, 343 (4th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 977 (1992). "It is precisely because reasonable prison regulations, and subsequent punishment for infractions thereof, are contemplated as part of the sentence of every prisoner, that they do not constitute additional punishment and are not classified as ex post facto. Moreover, since a prisoner's original sentence does not embrace a right to one set of regulations over another, reasonable amendments, too, fall within the anticipated sentences of every inmate." Id. at 309-10; see also Gilbert v. Peters, 55 F.3d 237, 238 (7th Cir. 1995) (Clause "does not prohibit every alteration in a prisoner's confinement that may work to his disadvantage"). Second, Plaintiff does not dispute that the regulations adopted in 2000 were merely standardizing existing guidelines across the California prison system. Consequently, the Court holds that there is an absence of a genuine issue of material fact with regard to Plaintiff's ex post facto claim that would prevent the Court from granting summary judgment CONCLUSION

  For the foregoing reasons, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED. (Docket # 14.) Judgment now will be entered in favor of all Defendants and against Plaintiff. The clerk shall close the file.

  IT IS SO ORDERED.

20040419

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