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Charles Easter v. Cdc

March 7, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorablelarryalanburns United States District Judge


Plaintiff Charles Easter, formerly a prisoner at California's R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility, has brought claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on Defendants' alleged failure to keep him safe while he was in prison. His claims for injunctive relief were dismissed as moot, and he seeks only damages. The motion of Defendants Morris, Panichello, and Perez for summary judgment was referred to Magistrate Judge Ruben Brooks for report and recommendation, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. On June 29, 2011, Judge Brooks issued his very thorough and lengthy report and recommendation (the "R&R"), which recommended denying the motion. The R&R included an order denying Easter's request for additional discovery, and also found that the Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d) standard for granting additional discovery was not met.

Easter never objected to the denial of additional discovery and therefore has waived any objections he might have had to that order. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). The R&R sets forth the procedural history of this case at length, and the Court does not repeat it here. The three Defendants are the only remaining Defendants in this case, and filed objections to the R&R. Easter also filed objections.

A district court has jurisdiction to review a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation on dispositive matters. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). "The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Id. "A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which specific written objection is made. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). Because Defendants' objections are detailed, thorough, and extensive, the Court has conducted a full de novo review of the R&R's conclusions. The Court ADOPTS the R&R's unobjected-to factual findings, as well as the unobjected-to conclusion that Easter exhausted his administrative remedies.

Easter's objections are in fact a reply to Defendants' objections, and repeat the arguments he raised in his opposition to the motion for summary judgment. They are therefore subsumed within the Court's review.

I. Legal Standards

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) empowers the court to enter summary judgment on factually unsupported claims or defenses, and thereby "secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 327 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is 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); see also Arpin v. Santa Clara Valley Transp. Agency, 261 F.3d 912, 919 (9th Cir. 2001). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a "genuine issue of material fact for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Id. at 248. 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." Id.

"When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial. In such a case, the moving party has the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact on each issue material to its case." C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co., Inc. v. Darden Restaurants, Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden by pointing out the absence of evidence from the nonmoving party. The moving party need not disprove the other party's case. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325; see also Garneau v. City of Seattle, 147 F.3d 802, 807 (9th Cir. 1998).

The non-moving party cannot oppose a properly supported motion for summary judgment by resting on "mere allegation or denials" of facts. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. The Court does not make determinations of credibility or weigh the evidence at this stage. Id. at 255. The Court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). That said, the Court is not required to draw unreasonable inferences, id. at 381 n.8 (court should draw "all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party to the extent supportable by the record"), or accept conclusory or speculative testimony. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. v. Natural Beverage Distribs., 69 F.3d 337, 345 (9th Cir. 1995) (holding that conclusory or speculative testimony was insufficient to defeat summary judgment). "While the evidence presented at the summary judgment stage does not yet need to be in a form that would be admissible at trial, the proponent must set out facts that it will be able to prove through admissible evidence." Norse v. City of Santa Cruz, 629 F.3d 966, 973 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324).

As explained in the R&R, prisoners have a right to be protected from violence while in custody. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994); Johnson v. Lewis, 217 F.3d 726, 731 (9th Cir. 2000). "Prison officials must take reasonable steps to protect inmates from physical abuse." Hoptowit v. Ray, 682 F.2d 1237, 1250 (9th Cir. 1982). To establish an Eighth Amendment violation, a plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to the prisoner's safety. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. The subjective element of this requirement means that prison officials can only be liable if they knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to inmate health or safety. Id. at 837.

Defendants have raised the defense of qualified immunity, arguing their decisions were made in good faith and with a reasonable belief that they were lawful. They bear the burden of proving this. See Crawford--El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 586--87 (1998). Having reviewed the R&R, the Court finds its discussion of the qualified immunity doctrine incomplete. The R&R correctly notes that "government officials performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity provides "ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991) (citation and internal quotation omitted). Application of this doctrine requires a two-part inquiry. The Court asks both whether the facts show Defendants violated a constitutional right, and whether the right in question here was clearly established at the time. Delia v. City of Rialto, 621 F.3d 1069, 1074 (9th Cir. 2010). Because the right was clearly established, Farmer, 511 U.S. at 832--33, the Court focuses on the first part of this inquiry.

Regardless of whether the Court considers Easter's substantive claim, or Defendants' qualified immunity defense, the crucial issue here is whether Defendants knew they were failing to protect Easter from danger, or whether they made a reasonable mistake about it.

See Brooks v. Seattle, 599 F.3d 1018, 1022 (9th Cir. 2010). The Court finds the R&R, though very thorough in other respects, does not give adequate consideration to the "reasonable mistake" standard, which Defendants have pointed out in their objections. The standard "allows ample room for reasonable error on the part of the [official]," Knox v. Southwest Airlines, 124 F.3d 1103, 1107 (9th Cir.1997), including reasonable mistakes of fact. Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978) (discussing qualified immunity). Likewise the standard for proving an Eighth Amendment claim for failure to protect requires a showing that an official was aware of facts from which he could have inferred that a substantial risk of harm existed, and that the official actually drew that inference. Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837. In other words, to prevail on his claim, Easter must show Defendants knew he was in danger, and were not reasonably mistaken about it. To prevail on their defense of qualified immunity, Defendants must show they were reasonably mistaken.

For qualified immunity, the facts are evaluated in light of what each Defendant knew at the time, and in light of each Defendant's authority and ability to act. See Cunningham v. Gates, 229 F.3d 1271, 1289--90 (9th Cir. 2000) (officers present at scene of alleged violation could not be liable because they had no realistic opportunity to prevent it). An official who was required to act as he did could not avail himself of the qualified immunity defense, which is for discretionary actions, but by the same token would not be liable for deliberate indifference. See Jeffers v. Gomez, 267 F.3d 895, 913 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding prison official was ...

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