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Hernandez v. Woodford

March 12, 2009



Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges in his February 8, 2007, complaint that: (1) on March 10, 2006, defendant Lebeck refused to open an electronic cell door that had closed on plaintiff and pinned him to the door jamb; and, (2) defendant Malfi knew that defendant Lebeck acted aggressively and recklessly towards prisoners but refused to move Lebeck to a position where he could not jeopardize prisoners' safety. Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the motion must be granted.

I. Facts

At all times relevant to this action, plaintiff was a prisoner at California State Prison, Sacramento ("CSP-Sac.") where the defendants were employed. Defendant J. Lebeck was a guard and defendant Malfi was the warden. Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Stmt. of Undisp. Facts in Supp. Thereof ("SUF"), SUF 3.

Plaintiff was housed in cell number 223 of Building 5 of C-Facility ("Facility C-5") and Lebeck was the Control Booth Officer for that facitility. SUF 3, 4. Facility C-5 is made up of Sections A, B and C. SUF 5. Each section had about 20 cells with two prisoners occupying each cell. Id. The Control Booth Officer controlled the cell doors and would open and close individual cell doors with switches on a panel in the control booth. Id. Lebeck asserts in his declaration that it is nearly impossible to see cell 223 from the control booth in Facility C-5 because a mirror is positioned so as to block the view. SUF 6. Thus, from his position at the time of the incident, Lebeck could see only the top six inches of the door to plaintiff's cell. Id. Plaintiff asserts in a declaration submitted with his opposition that Lebeck could have seen him from the control booth. Pl.'s Opp'n, Exh. A. However, at deposition plaintiff conceded that he did not take the measurements referred to in his declaration. Defs.' Reply, Exh. A ("Pl.'s Dep."), at 37.

The cell doors had certain safety features. Lebeck has submitted the declaration of R. Taylor, the Plant Operations Manager at CSP-Sac, who explains that the cell doors are "electromechanical," meaning that while the lock is mechanical, they open and close by means of an electrical drive. Taylor Decl., at ¶ 3. The doors are set so that the pressure when closing will not cause injury to persons or damage to the door's operational mechanism. SUF 14. Further, the doors are designed so that when a closing door makes contact with an object whose force equals the closing pressure of the door, the door will stop. SUF 15. In his declaration, Lebeck asserts that he was aware of these safety features and has seen prisoners stop the doors from closing using their hands and feet. SUF 15; Lebeck Decl., at ¶ 11. It is undisputed that the door has sharp edges, which caught plaintiff in the buttocks and the chest cavity. Pl.'s Dep., at 31.

The prison has an organized procedure for releasing prisoners to the yard. The Control Booth Officer opens a predetermined set of cells, releases the prisoners, and then closes the cell doors. SUF 7. As the officer watches the prisoners leave the block, he begins to open the next predetermined set of cells. Id.

Lebeck followed these procedures on the date in question. Thus, at around 9:45 a.m. on March 10, 2006, defendant Lebeck began the first of three announcements, made at 5-minute intervals, that he would release prisoners to the yard. SUF 8. At about 10:00 a.m., Lebeck opened plaintiff's cell. The parties agree that plaintiff delayed in exiting the cell. SUF 9. Moreover, plaintiff was nearly outside the cell when he reached inside again to get a sweatshirt. Id. The door continued to close and plaintiff attempted to go all the way back into his cell, but he did not make it. Id. He was pinned between the door and the door jamb. At deposition, plaintiff admitted that when the door hit his chest cavity and torso area, it did not continue to push or crush him. Pl.'s Dep., at 31. Instead, it stopped without hurting his chest. Id. He was just stuck. SUF 9.

During this time, defendant Lebeck was observing both the control panel and the prisoners he was releasing to the yard. SUF 10. Plaintiff alleges in the verified complaint and in his declaration that defendant Lebeck made eye contact with plaintiff while the door was closed on him and while he yelled to have the door opened again. Compl., at 4; Pl.'s Opp'n, Exh. B ("Pl.'s Decl."), at ¶ 9. He also asserts, and submits the declarations of two other prisoners asserting, that plaintiff and others were yelling for Lebeck to open the door, and that Lebeck looked in plaintiff's direction and scolded him. Pl.'s Decl., at ¶ 9; Pl.'s Exhs. C, D. Plaintiff submits the declaration of another prisoner stating that he heard plaintiff yelling to Lebeck to open the door because he was caught, that Lebeck responded that plaintiff "should have been ready," and then left plaintiff stuck there until the entire upper tier was released. Pl.'s Exhs. E, F. Defendant Lebeck denies seeing or making eye contact with plaintiff when the door closed on him. SUF 10. Lebeck asserts that about one minute after he had opened and closed plaintiff's cell door, he heard other prisoners yelling that plaintiff was caught in the door of his cell. SUF 11. He asserts that this was the first time he became aware that plaintiff was pinned by the door, and once he knew of the situation he immediately opened the door. Id. The parties agree that the entire incident lasted from 60 to 90 seconds. It took about 5 seconds from the time plaintiff's cell door was completely open until the time he was pinned between it and the door jamb. SUF 13. Defendant Lebeck has submitted evidence that when plaintiff's cell door made contact with him, it stopped but that plaintiff was stuck. SUF 16.

Plaintiff's claim that defendant Malfi knew of Lebeck's history of aggression is premised on an allegation that Malfi knew that grievances alleging mistreatment of prisoners had been filed against Lebeck. SUF 20. Plaintiff submits no evidence that defendant Malfi knew anything about the incident with the door around the time it actually occurred.

II. Evidentiary Objections

Defendants, without citation to authority, object to much of the evidence plaintiff submitted in support of his opposition. Plaintiff's evidence and defendants' objections cannot be divorced from the nature of this proceeding, which in this instance is a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Fed. R. Civ. P."). See Burch v. Regents of the University of California, 433 F.Supp.2d 1110, 1118-1124 (E. D. Cal. 2006).*fn1

That rule provides that the affidavits "shall set forth such facts as would be admissible in evidence . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). On summary judgment, the non-moving party's evidence need not be in a form that is admissible at trial. See Burch, 433 F.Supp.2d at 1119 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). Instead, a court is concerned with the admissibility of the contents of the evidence. Id. Thus, on summary judgment, "objections to the form in which the evidence is presented are particularly misguided where, as here, they target the non-moving party's evidence." Id. at 1119. Accordingly, as long as a party submits evidence which, regardless of its form, may be admissible at trial, it may be considered on summary judgment. Id. at 1120.

Defendants object that the administrative appeals plaintiff has submitted lack a proper foundation or authentication. In order properly to support or oppose summary judgment, the party relying on affidavits and records must lay a proper foundation. Beyne v. Coleman Sec. Servs., Inc., 854 F.2d 1179, 1182 (9th Cir. 1988). The court agrees that "whether the authentication requirement should be applied to bar evidence when its authenticity is not actually disputed is, however, questionable." Burch, 433 F.Supp.2d at 1120. "[W]here the objecting party does not contest the authenticity of the evidence submitted, but nevertheless makes an evidentiary objection based on purely procedural grounds," then the court should consider the evidence. Id. In such a situation, it would appear equally probable that the documents are what they purport to be as it is that they are not. See id.

Here, defendants do not actually contest the authenticity of the documents plaintiff has submitted. Moreover, all of the documents plaintiff submits would find their source in the prison system, either in plaintiff's files or in the prison bureaucracy. Thus, if there were a valid basis for contesting their authenticity, defendants could unearth and present it. But they have not. ...

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