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Charles E. Van Nort v. Kathleen Dickinson

July 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff is a state prisoner, proceeding without counsel and in forma pauperis, in an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12132, et seq., and unspecified state laws. At all times relevant to his claims, plaintiff was confined to a wheelchair. See Second Amended Complaint at 1 (Dkt. # 10). He alleges that when he was assigned to Unit IV Y-Dorm ("Y-Dorm") at California Medical Facility ("CMF"), he was shocked by electrical outlets that were improperly aligned next to his metal-framed bunk. He also alleges that electrical cords running across the floor on Y-Dorm posed a hazard that could be "stepped on, tripped over, [or] run across with wheelchairs." Id. at 2. He further alleges that on Y-Dorm "ceiling tiles are falling off and have hit Plaintiff on many occasions," and that floor tiles have broken, "on one occasion caus[ing] the Plaintiff to be thrown out of his wheelchair." Id. at 3. He alleges these conditions constitute violations of the Eighth Amendment and the ADA. Id. at 1.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing: (1) plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies as to his claims regarding ceiling and floor conditions and his claims under the ADA; (2) plaintiff has failed to state a cognizable Eighth Amendment claim; (3) plaintiff has failed to state a cognizable ADA claim; and (4) defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned recommends that defendants' motion to dismiss be granted.


On May 18, 2011, thecourt denied plaintiff's motion for an order compelling his removal from administrative segregation. The motion was the court's first notice that plaintiff no longer resides on Y-Dorm, where all of the allegedly illegal living conditions exist. The court stated that[p]laintiff's transfer to administrative segregation raises the jurisdictional issue whether his action has been rendered moot. Plaintiff filed this suit complaining of hazardous conditions related to electrical wiring and outlets on Unit IV Y-Dorm ("Y-Dorm"), where he was assigned when he filed his complaint. As plaintiff put it in his operative pleading, "Plaintiff is only concerned with YDorm and the problems therein." Second Amended Complaint at 2 (Dkt # 10). Generally, when a prisoner complains of unconstitutional conditions of confinement and is transferred to another facility, a claim for injunctive relief from those conditions becomes moot. See Brady v. Smith, 656 F.2d 466, 468 (9th Cir. 1981); Darring v. Kinchoe, 783 F.2d 874, 876 (9th Cir. 1986); Johnson v. Moore, 948 F.2d 517, 519 (9th Cir. 1990). Therefore, plaintiff's transfer to administrative segregation could significantly impact whether the second amended complaint continues to present a justiciable case or controversy -- that is, whether this court continues to have jurisdiction over this case.

Order at 2-3 (Dkt. # 33). The court ordered the parties to submit briefing on the jurisdictional effect of plaintiff's transfer to administrative segregation. Defendants complied with that order, but plaintiff did not.

As the court noted in its order for additional briefing, "[a] plaintiff may avoid a finding of mootness if he can demonstrate a reasonable expectation of returning to the facility where the allegedly unconstitutional conditions persist." Id. at 3 (citing Darring, 783 F.2d at 876). Plaintiff's failure to respond to the court's order amounts to a failure to make a showing that he reasonably expects to return to Y-Dorm. Therefore, to the extent plaintiff seeks injunctive relief under § 1983 or the ADA,*fn1 his claim has been rendered moot by his transfer to administrative segregation.


Without any justiciable claim for injunctive relief, the most salient question left is whether plaintiff has any cognizable claim for damages. Defendants raised that question before plaintiff's transfer became known, arguing in their motion to dismiss that plaintiff has failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted under the Eighth Amendment or the ADA.

When considering whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court must accept the allegations as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by lawyers. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Still, to survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, a pro se complaint must contain more than "naked assertions," "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007). In other words, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Furthermore, a claim upon which the court can grant relief must have facial plausibility. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949.

A. Plaintiff's Eighth Amendment Claim for Damages

Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment in part because "plaintiff does not allege that the purported shocks have harmed him in any way." Motion Dismiss at 11 (Dkt # 17). They are correct: the second amended complaint does not aver any specific injury at all. Plaintiff alleges that he was shocked by the electrical outlets near his bunk, but that allegation alone, without a description of actual harm suffered, does not suffice as a statement of injury that would, if proven, warrant an award of damages.

As stated above, pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by lawyers. See Haines, supra. Still, the Supreme Court's recent iterations of the federal pleading standard make it clear that a plaintiff cannot simply say "I was injured" and survive a challenge under Rule 12(b)(6). See Iqbal, supra. Such an allegation is precisely the kind of conclusory averment disallowed by Iqbal. Indeed, the court notes that failing to include any detail of injury in a tort claim is a telling omission: while other legal nuances may understandably escape a plaintiff who drafts a complaint without the aid of counsel, a plaintiff who has been physically injured in a way that would justify an award of money damages rarely fails to describe the injury in his complaint. The liberal inferences given a pro se plaintiff's complaint do not stretch so far as to assume an injury where none has been pled, particularly when the hazardous condition is something as potentially harmful as a live electrical current.

The court can only conclude that if one of the allegedly misplaced electrical outlets on Y-Dorm had caused plaintiff an injury, he would have described it. The same must be said for the allegedly hazardous floor conditions, which plaintiff claims caused him to be thrown from his wheelchair: again, plaintiff includes no report of physical harm. As for the falling ceiling tiles, plaintiff is a bit more explicit about his lack of injury, saying "it is only a matter of time before Plaintiff is seriously injured by one of these ...

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