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Daniel Rowe v. M. Castro

May 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary S.Austin United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se in this civil rights action. The parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiff has opposed the motion.*fn1

I. Relevant Procedural History

The original complaint in this action was filed on August 8, 2007. On April 29, 2008, an order was entered, dismissing the complaint and granting Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint. On May 22, 2008, Plaintiff filed a first amended complaint. The first amended complaint set forth claims of retaliation, interference with legal mail, deprivation of property and denial of administrative grievance claims. On January 27, 2009, an order was entered, advising Plaintiff that the first amended complaint stated a claim against Defendants Castro and Frescura for retaliation, but failed to state any other claims. Plaintiff was provided with an opportunity to either file an amended complaint or proceed against Defendants Castro and Frescura on his retaliation claim. On February 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed a notice, advising the Court that he intends to proceed only on the claims found to be cognizable. This action therefore proceeds against Defendants Castro and Frescura on Plaintiff's retaliation claim.

II. Allegations

The first amended complaint alleges that Defendants Castro and Frescura began to read, censor, and withhold Plaintiff's personal and legal mail in order to retaliate against Plaintiff for exercising his First Amendment right to file lawsuits and prison grievances. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that "Castro and Frescura have also censored and held my mail, legal, and regular personal mail in retaliation of bringing litigations and other complaints in the institution, and for punishment of my cell light being turned off." (Am. Compl. ¶ IV.)

III. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when it is demonstrated that there exists no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Under summary judgment practice, the moving party [a]lways bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, of any," which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party may not rely upon the denials of its pleadings, but is required to tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that the dispute exists. Rule 56(e); Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 n.11. The opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Nidds v. Schindler Elevator Corp., 113 F.3d 912, 916 (9th Cir. 1996), and that the dispute is genuine, i.e., the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party,Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 588; County of Tuolumne v. Sonora Community Hosp., 263 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir. 2001).

In the endeavor to establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that "the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Giles v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 494 F.3d 865, 872 (9th Cir. 2007). Thus, the "purpose of summary judgment is to 'pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) advisory committee's note on 1963 amendments).

In resolving the summary judgment motion, the court examines the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any. Rule 56(c). The evidence of the opposing party is to be believed, Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts placed before the court must be drawn in favor of the opposing party, Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962) (per curiam)). Nevertheless, inferences are not drawn out of the air, and it is the opposing party's obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F. Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff'd, 810 F.2d 898, 902 (9th Cir. 1987).

Finally, to demonstrate a genuine issue, the opposing party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no 'genuineissue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citation omitted).

IV. Retaliation

In the prison context, allegations of retaliation against a prisoner's First Amendment rights to speech or to petition the government may support a Section 1983 claim. Rizzo v. Dawson, 778 F.2d 527, 532 (9th Cir. 1985); see also Valandingham v. Bojorquez, 866 F.2d 1135 (9th Cir. 1989); Pratt v. Rowland, 65 F.3d 802, 807 (9th Cir. 1995). "[A] viable claim of First Amendment retaliation entails five basic elements: (1) An assertion that a state actor took some adverse action against an inmate (2) because of (3) that prisoner's protected conduct, and that such action (4) chilled the inmate's exercise of his First Amendment rights, and (5) the action did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal." Rhodes v. Robinson, 408 F.3d 559, 567-68 (9th Cir. 2005). An allegation of retaliation against a prisoner's First Amendment right to file a prison grievance is sufficient to support a claim under Section 1983. Bruce v. Ylst, 351 F.3d 1283, 1288 (9th Cir. 2003).

In order to meet their burden on summary judgment, Defendants must come forward with evidence that they did not censor, read, or withhold Plaintiff's personal and legal mail in retaliation for Plaintiff's filing of inmate grievances. Specifically, Defendants must come forward with evidence that Plaintiff did not suffer harm as a result of their actions, and that their actions served a legitimate correctional purpose. Rhodes, 408 F.3d at 567, n. 11; Witherow v. Paff, 52 F.3d 264, 265 (9th Cir. 1995). Defendants support their motion with the declarations of Defendants Castro and Frescura, as well as the deposition of Plaintiff.

In 2006, Plaintiff was housed in the secured housing unit (SHU) at CSP Corcoran, and Defendants were the floor officers of the unit during third watch. (Rowe Dep. 111:6-9, attached as Ex. A to Esquivel Decl.; Castro Decl. ¶ 2; Frescura Decl. ¶ 2.) Defendants' duties as floor officers included distributing incoming mail and collecting outgoing mail from inmates. (Castro Decl. ¶ 2; Frescura Decl. ¶¶ 2,4.) Mail at the prison is divided into two categories - regular mail and confidential mail, which includes mail from the courts. (Id. ¶3.)

Prison regulations require that confidential mail be processed separately from regular mail. Incoming mail is labeled "confidential" before it reaches the housing unit. Upon receipt of incoming legal mail at the housing unit, the officer takes the unopened mail to the inmate's cell and has the inmate sign a form acknowledging receipt of confidential mail. In the inmate's presence, the officer opens the envelope, flips through and shakes the sheets of paper, and looks inside the envelope for any contraband. The mail is then given to the inmate. (Id. ¶ 5.)

An inmate sending out confidential mail must hand the officer the unsealed envelope. The officer checks for contraband by looking inside the envelope and separating and shaking the pages. The officer hands the letter and envelope back to the inmate, the inmate seals the envelope in the officer's presence, and the officer signs and dates the back of the envelope before placing it in the outgoing mail container. This limited search of confidential mail prevents inmates from sending or receiving contraband. (Id. ¶ 6.) Mail is usually exchanged through the food port of the cell door. (Castro Decl. ¶ 2; Frescura Decl. ¶ 2.)

The door of a SHU cell is solid steel with a small window and food port. Each cell is equipped with a light that is operated by the control booth officer. There is also a small window at the back of the cell. Inmates will often cover the light or windows to darken their cells. Visibility into a cell is very limited, especially when the cell light or windows are covered. For the safety of officers, prison policies and regulations require that the cell light and windows remain uncovered. An officer risks being "gassed," spit on, or grabbed if he opens the food port without clearly seeing the inmate beforehand. "Gassing" is when an inmate throws bodily fluids, such as excrement, urine, or blood, at an officer. (Castro Decl. ¶ 5; Frescura Decl. ¶ 9.)

Defendants' custom and practice, which was consistent with prison regulations, was to not distribute mail to an inmate or take mail from an inmate if the cell light was covered or the lighting was blocked because the lack of visibility into the cell created an unsafe condition and compromised safety. This was particularly true when the inmate, such as Plaintiff, had a ...

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