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Smith v. Stepp

United States District Court, N.D. California

March 6, 2015

L. STEPP, et al., Defendants.


MARIA-ELENA JAMES, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Lawrence Carlton Smith, a prisoner at California State Prison-Los Angeles County, filed a pro se civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaining of conditions at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP), High Valley State Prison (HVSP) and Corcoran State Prison (CSP), where he was formerly incarcerated. The Court screened the complaint and found it stated cognizable claims for excessive force as against seven defendants at SVSP. Plaintiff later voluntarily dismissed one of the seven defendants, defendant Zornes, as he has been deceased since October 2012. Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Docket #47. Plaintiff has filed an opposition, and defendants have filed a reply.


I. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits show there is "no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See id.

A court shall 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." See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id . 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, and admissions on file, ' designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" See id. at 324 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (amended 2010)).

For purposes of summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party; if the evidence produced by the moving party conflicts with evidence produced by the nonmoving party, the court must assume the truth of the evidence submitted by the nonmoving party. See Leslie v. Grupo ICA, 198 F.3d 1152, 1158 (9th Cir. 1999). 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., Inc., v. P. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987)

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). Here, plaintiff's verified complaint is considered along with the evidence in his opposition (Docket #54) in evaluating the motion for summary judgment.

II. Exhaustion of Remedies

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) amended 42 U.S.C. § 1997e to provide that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under [42 U.S.C. § 1983], or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Although previously within the discretion of the district court, exhaustion in prisoner cases covered by § 1997e(a) is now mandatory. Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 524 (2002). The PLRA exhaustion requirement requires "proper exhaustion" of all available administrative remedies. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006). Moreover, those remedies "need not meet federal standards, nor must they be plain, speedy, and effective.'" Porter, 534 U.S. at 524 (citation omitted). Even when the prisoner seeks relief not available in grievance proceedings, notably money damages, exhaustion is a prerequisite to suit. Id .; Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001). Exhaustion is a prerequisite to all inmate lawsuits pertaining to prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong. Porter, 534 U.S. at 532.

The exhaustion requirement of the PLRA is intended to serve a number of purposes, including providing an opportunity for corrections officials to address complaints internally, deterring frivolous lawsuits, and creating an administrative record allowing courts to evaluate the relative merits of claims. See Porter, 534 U.S. at 525. "The primary purpose of a grievance, " however, "is to alert the prison to a problem and facilitate its resolution, not to lay groundwork for litigation." Griffin v. Arpaio, 557 F.3d 1117, 1120 (9th Cir. 2009).

In Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1119 (9th Cir. 2003), the Ninth Circuit held that a failure to exhaust under § 1997e(a) should be raised by a defendant as an "unenumerated Rule 12(b) motion." Thereafter, however, in Albino v. Baca, 747 F.3d 1162 (9th Cir. 2014), the Ninth Circuit overruled Wyatt in part and held that a motion for summary judgment is the appropriate procedural device for pretrial determination as to exhaustion. Albino, at 1169. Following the decision in Albino, a defendant may raise the issue of exhaustion in either (1) a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), in the rare event the failure to exhaust is clear on the face of the complaint, or (2) a motion for summary judgment. Id . As set forth in Albino, "an unenumerated motion under Rule 12(b) is not the appropriate procedural device for pretrial determination of whether administrative remedies have been exhausted." Id. at 1168.[1] The Court next turns to the administrative remedies available to California inmates.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provides its inmates and parolees the right to appeal administratively "any departmental decision, action, condition, or policy which they can demonstrate as having an adverse effect upon their welfare." 15 C.C.R. § 3084.1(a).[2] It also provides its inmates the right to file administrative appeals alleging misconduct by correctional officers. See id. § 3084.1(e). In order to exhaust available administrative remedies within said system, a prisoner must submit his complaint on CDCR Form 602 and proceed through several levels of appeal: (1) informal level grievance filed directly with any correctional staff member, (2) first formal level appeal filed with one of the institution's appeal coordinators, (3) second formal level appeal filed with the institution head or designee, and (4) third formal level appeal filed with the CDCR director or designee. Id . § 3084.5; Brodheim v. Cry, 584 F.3d 1262, 1264-65 (9th Cir. 2009); Barry v. Ratelle, 985 F.Supp. 1235, 1237 (S.D. Cal. 1997). The initial grievance must be filed within 15 working days of the action or event being protested, and inmates must seek review at each successive level within 15 working days of receiving an adverse decision at a lower level. 15 C.C.R. § 3084.6. The appeals coordinator can reject or "screen out" an appeal for various reasons, including failure to comply with the 15 working-day time limit, omission of necessary supporting documents, or duplication of a previous appeal. 15 C.C.R. § 3084.3(c). When the grievance is not rejected or screened out, the inmate must pursue the grievance through each level of review to exhaust remedies. 15 C.C.R. § 3084.5. Compliance with the above-described procedure satisfies the exhaustion requirement under § 1997e(a). Barry, 985 F.Supp. at 1237-38.

III. Plaintiff's Claims

Plaintiff asserts the following five claims, all of which allege excessive force incidents committed by defendants at SVSP[3]:

A. June 24, 2010 Incident

Plaintiff alleges that on June 24, 2010, he was pepper sprayed and physically abused by defendant Correctional ...

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