United States District Court, E.D. California
LAMONT C. LUCAS, Plaintiff,
DIRECTOR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Defendant.
DALE A. DROZD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for alleged violations of his civil rights. He has consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).
Plaintiff initiated this case on March 3, 2014, by filing a pleading entitled "Request for Declaratory Relief." The Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201 et seq, "create[s] additional remedies in the form of declaratory judgment relief for federal litigants, but do[es] not in and of [itself] confer subject matter jurisdiction on the courts." Luttrell v. U.S., 644 F.2d 1274, 1275 (9th Cir. 1980). Therefore a district court presented with a request for declaratory relief must "inquire whether there is an actual case or controversy within its jurisdiction." Principal Life Ins. Co. v. Robinson, 394 F.3d 665, 669 (9th Cir. 2005).
The text of plaintiff's initial pleading in this case alleges unconstitutional conditions of confinement at the California City Correctional Facility (CAC). Although it ostensibly seeks only declaratory relief and suggests more than one type of unlawful condition at CAC, the text of the initial pleading also adds a request for monetary damages and focuses on "only one constitutional violation at this time." (See Doc. No. 1 at 3, 6.) The pleading makes it clear that single violation is the alleged deprivation of plaintiff's right to a diet that conforms to his beliefs as a Muslim, which, if true, would violate his right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Allegations of that kind, and the demand for monetary compensation for them, fall under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which allows prisoners to seek relief from state actors for unconstitutional conditions of confinement. See Badea v. Cox, 931 F.2d 573, 574 (9th Cir. 1991). Therefore the court will construe plaintiff's initial pleading as a complaint seeking relief pursuant to § 1983, over which the court has original jurisdiction. See Portugal v. McDonald, No. CIV S-09-1409 DAD P, 2009 WL 4713904 at *1 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 2, 2009) ("The court has determined that because of the nature of petitioner's claims, this action will be construed as a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, rather than a habeas action.").
On June 12, 2014, plaintiff filed a formally labeled "complaint" for relief under § 1983 in this action, alleging that numerous defendants had interfered with his ability to keep a proper religious diet and thus "prevented him from engaging in conduct mandated by his faith, without any justification reasonably related to legitimate penological interest." (Doc. No. 5 at 10.) The court will construe plaintiff's pleading filed June 12, 2014 as his first amended (and operative) complaint.
I. Screening requirement
The court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners who seek relief against a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally "frivolous or malicious, " that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), (2).
A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Franklin v. Murphy, 745 F.2d 1221, 1227-28 (9th Cir. 1984). The court may, therefore, dismiss a claim as frivolous where it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or where the factual contentions are clearly baseless. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327. The critical inquiry is whether a constitutional claim, however inartfully pleaded, has an arguable legal and factual basis. See Jackson v. Arizona, 885 F.2d 639, 640 (9th Cir. 1989); Franklin, 745 F.2d at 1227.
In 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). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (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, 556 U.S. at 678. Attachments to a complaint are considered to be part of the complaint for purposes of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Hal Roach Studios v. Richard Feiner & Co., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir.1990).
II. Plaintiff's pleading regarding exhaustion of administrative remedies
The first amended complaint contains a section entitled "Plaintiff Exhausted Administrative Remedies." (First Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 5) at 6.) Here plaintiff references the administrative exhaustion prerequisite to federal litigation imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. That statute provides that "[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, 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). The exhaustion requirement "applies to all inmate suits about prison life, whether they involve general circumstances or particular episodes, and whether they allege excessive force or some other wrong." Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002).
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that exhaustion of prison administrative procedures is mandated regardless of the relief offered through such procedures. See Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 741 (2001). The Supreme Court has also cautioned against reading futility or other exceptions into the statutory exhaustion requirement. See id. at 741 n.6. Moreover, because proper exhaustion is necessary, a prisoner cannot satisfy the PLRA exhaustion requirement by filing an untimely or otherwise procedurally defective administrative grievance or appeal. See Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90-93 (2006). "[T]o properly exhaust administrative remedies prisoners must complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules, ' [ ] - rules that are defined not by the PLRA, but by the prison grievance process itself." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007) (quoting Woodford, 548 U.S. at 88). See also Marella v. Terhune, 568 F.3d 1024, 1027 (9th Cir. 2009) ("The California prison system's requirements define the boundaries of proper exhaustion.'").
In California, prisoners may appeal "any policy, decision, action, condition, or omission by the department or its staff that the inmate or parolee can demonstrate as having a material adverse effect upon his or her health, safety, or welfare." Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). Most appeals progress through three levels of review. See id. § 3084.7. The third level of review constitutes the decision of the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and exhausts a prisoner's administrative remedies. See id. § 3084.7(d)(3). A California prisoner is required to submit an inmate appeal at the appropriate level and proceed to the highest level of review available to him. Butler v. Adams, 397 F.3d 1181, 1183 (9th Cir. 2005); Bennett v. King, 293 F.3d 1096, 1098 (9th Cir. 2002).
"[I]nmates are not required to specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in their complaints." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216 (2007). The PLRA's exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional; it creates an affirmative defense that defendants must plead and prove. Id. However, "in those rare cases where a failure to exhaust is clear from the face of the complaint, " dismissal for failure to state a claim is appropriate, even at the screening stage. Albino, 747 F.3d at 1169. See also Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1120 (9th Cir. 2003) (stating that "[a] prisoner's concession to nonexhaustion is a valid ground for dismissal"), overruled on other grounds by Albino, 747 F.3d at 1166; Sorce v. Garikpaetiti, Civil No. 14-CV-0327 BEN (JMA), (S.D. Cal. June 2, 2014) (relying on Albino and dismissing the ...