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Coston v. Nangalama

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 26, 2015

ANDREW NANGALAMA, M.D., et al., Defendants.


MORRISON C. ENGLAND, Jr., Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Danny Murphy Coston ("Plaintiff"), a state prisoner proceeding pro se, filed a civil rights action against Defendants Andrew Nangalama, M.D., ("Nangalama") and Ronald Hale, L.V.N., ("Hale") (collectively "Defendants") alleging that Defendants failed to provide medical treatment in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On February 2, 2015, following the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, this Court granted Defendants' Motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 and dismissed this case. ECF No. 143. Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Amend or Alter the Judgment, Motion to Set Aside the Judgment, and Motion for a New Trial. ECF No. 144. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motions are DENIED.


On July 28, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (ECF No. 1) naming Nangalama, Hale, and various other staff members of California State Prison, Sacramento, as Defendants. At the time of trial, only Nangalama and Hale remained parties to this action. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants violated his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because they were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's medical needs when they discontinued his Morphine prescription "cold turkey" after Plaintiff was caught passing Morphine pills to other inmates and hoarding 25 days' worth of Morphine in his cell. At the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief, this Court granted Defendants' Rule 50 motion, concluding that Plaintiff presented no evidence at trial to establish that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to any serious medical needs.


A. Defendants' Rule 50 Motion Was Not Granted in Clear Error Because Plaintiff Failed to Establish the Necessary Elements to Succeed on a § 1983 Claim.

"A district court has considerable discretion when considering a motion to amend a judgment under Rule 59(e)." Turner v. Burlington N. Santa Fe R.R. Co., 338 F.3d 1058, 1063 (9th Cir. 2003). "[A] motion for reconsideration should not be granted, absent highly unusual circumstances, unless the district court is presented with newly discovered evidence, committed clear error, or if there is an intervening change in the controlling law." Marlyn Nutraceuticals, Inc. v. Mucos Pharma GmbH & Co., 571 F.3d 873, 880 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing 389 Orange St. Partners v. Arnold, 179 F.3d 656, 665 (9th Cir. 1999)). A Rule 59(e) motion should not be used to raise arguments or present evidence that could have reasonably been raised or presented earlier. Id. (citing Kona Enters., Inc. v. Estate of Bishop, 229 F.3d 877, 890 (9th Cir. 2000)). Additionally, Local Rule 230(j) similarly requires a party seeking reconsideration to demonstrate "what new or different facts or circumstances are claimed to exist which did not exist or were not shown upon such prior motion, or what other grounds exist for the motion, " and "why the facts or circumstances were not shown at the time of the prior motion."

Plaintiff contends that the Court erroneously granted Defendants' Rule 50 motion at the close of Plaintiff's case-in-chief. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) provides:

(1) If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may:
(A) resolve the issue against the party; and
(B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party on a claim... that, under the controlling law, can be maintained... only with a favorable finding on that issue.

As the rule itself indicates, "[j]udgment as a matter of law is appropriate when the evidence presented at trial permits only one reasonable conclusion." Santos v. Gates, 287 F.3d 846, 851 (9th Cir. 2002). Thus, "the court is permitted to take a case away from the jury by entering a judgment if there is not sufficient evidence to raise a genuine factual controversy." Tijani v. Blanas, No. 2:00-cv-00069-RRB-EFB, 2007 WL 1139408, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 17, 2007).

Since no new evidence or a change of controlling law has been offered, Plaintiff essentially contends that the Court committed clear error when it found that the evidence presented during trial was insufficient to substantiate the allegations that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical needs. Plaintiff's complaint identified two areas in which he alleged the Defendants' care was deficient: (1) by discontinuing Plaintiff's Morphine prescription "cold turkey" after Plaintiff was found hoarding the medication in his cell, and (2) by Defendants' failure or refusal to provide Plaintiff alternative pain medication. Compl., ECF No. 1, at 11-13. Consistent with this Court's previous determination, no reasonable jury could find that Defendants' alleged actions rose to the requisite level of deliberate indifference for Plaintiff to succeed on his § 1983 claim.

In order to recover under § 1983 for the deprivation of a citizen's Due Process rights, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) a government employee (2) was subjectively aware (3) of a serious medical need and (4) acted with deliberate indifference. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104-06 (1976); Simmons v. Navajo Cnty., 609 F.3d 1011, 1017-18 (9th Cir. 2010). A medical need is serious if failure to treat it will result in "further significant injury or the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.'" Jett v. Penner, 439 F.3d 1091, 1096 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting McGuckin v. Smith, 974 F.2d 1050, 1059 (9th Cir. 1992), overruled on other grounds, WMX Technologies, Inc. v. Miller, 104 F.3d 1133, 1136 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc)). A prison official is deliberately indifferent to that need if he "knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 837 (1994). To be liable, "the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference." Id. Even if a prison official "should have been aware of the risk, but was not, then [the official] has not violated the Eighth Amendment, no matter how severe the risk." Gibson v. Cnty. of Washoe, 290 F.3d 1175, 1188 (9th Cir. 2002).

Additionally, when a physician is implicated under a deliberate indifference claim, a plaintiff must show that "the course of treatment the doctors chose was medically unacceptable under the circumstances" and that the treatment was chosen "in conscious disregard of an excessive risk to plaintiff's health." Jackson v. McIntosh, 90 F.3d 330, 332 (9th Cir. 1996). If a delay in treatment is alleged as the basis for the claim, the inaction will only constitute an Eighth Amendment violation if the delay is shown to have caused the plaintiff substantial harm. Wood v. Housewright, 900 F.2d 1332, 1335 (9th Cir. 1990).

As to the Defendants' knowledge of Plaintiff's alleged condition, Plaintiff claims he filed a Request for Medical Care five days after his Morphine prescription was discontinued. ECF No. 1 at 9:24; Yokley Decl., ECF No. 56-4, Ex. 24, at ¶ 4. Defendants contend that they have no documentation of this request, and a subpoena of Plaintiff's medical records did not produce such a document, indicating it was not received in the medical department. See Medina v. Chen, No. 1:10-cv-00683-DLB-PC, 2013 WL 753347, at *8 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 27, 2013) (holding that sending a letter does not support a presumption of knowledge, and that plaintiff must affirmatively allege that Defendant received the letter and knew of its contents to prove an Eighth Amendment violation). Thus, this alleged request is not enough to establish Defendants' knowledge.

Plaintiff also alleged that the day after his Morphine prescription was discontinued, he verbally alerted Defendant Hale of his need for pain relief, and that Hale responded, "Yeah! You don't look well at all inmate Coston, " and that Hale subsequently laughed and walked away. Hale disputes that this incident occurred. Regardless, even if this statement is taken as true, it is insufficient to prove deliberate indifference. It was undisputed that when this alleged conversation occurred, Plaintiff had not requested an appointment to be seen by prison medical staff. Plaintiff's testimony during trial established that he was aware of the appropriate administrative steps he must take in order to seek a medical appointment. Hale was not required to take immediate action because Plaintiff told him he "was not feeling so good" as Hale was passing by Plaintiff's cell on his way to visit another inmate. Wood, 900 F.2d at 1335 (holding that a several day delay when an inmate's condition does not require emergency attention is insufficient to amount to deliberate indifference). Plaintiff failed to establish any facts during trial to indicate that a delay in treatment resulted in substantial harm, or that his condition at that time amounted to an emergency. Id. Thus, Hale's alleged initial disregard of a verbal complaint was inadequate to allow a jury to find that Hale acted with deliberate indifference. See also Oltarzewski v. Ruggiero, 830 F.2d 136, 139 (9th Cir.1987) ("[v]erbal harassment or abuse... is not sufficient to state a constitutional deprivation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983") (quoting Collins v. Cundy, 603 F.2d 825, 827 (10th Cir.1979)).

Additionally, Plaintiff presented no evidence in his case in chief that discontinuing a Morphine prescription was "medically unacceptable under the circumstances" (circumstances that would include Plaintiff failing to take the medication previously and having substitute pain medication available) and that that Defendants' actions were done "in conscious disregard of an excessive risk to [a] plaintiff's health." Jackson, 90 F.3d at 332. See Vlasich v. Neubarth, No. 1:07-cv-1760-SMM, 2009 WL 4673903, at *5 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 4, 2009) (holding that plaintiff's experience of withdrawal symptoms for a few days did not result in any permanent physical injury, and defendant's lack of knowledge of those symptoms precluded plaintiff's recovery under his § 1983 deliberate indifference claim).

Plaintiff did not dispute that during the four months following the discontinuation of his Morphine prescription Plaintiff was prescribed Gabapentin and Salsalate (ECF No. 56-4, Exs. 4, at 22), Ibuprofen (ECF No. 56-4, Exs. 5, at 22), Celebrex (Decl. of Nangalama, ECF No. 56-4, Ex. 22, at ¶ 23), and Phenergen (ECF No. 56-4, Ex. 11), all of which assisted with pain and any potential opiate withdrawal symptoms. It was similarly established during the trial that Plaintiff was seen by multiple (non-defendant) physicians following his removal from Morphine and that these physicians also denied any additional pain medication. ECF No. 56-4, Exs. 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 22. These facts directly contradicted Plaintiff's assertion that it was "medically unacceptable" for Defendants to decline to provide additional pain management. See Toguchi v. Chung, 391 F.3d 1051, 1058 (9th Cir. 2004) (holding that "a mere difference of medical opinion... [is] insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish deliberate indifference").

In sum, the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to prove that the Defendants were aware of and disregarded any immediate medical need of Plaintiff. Instead, the evidence showed that Plaintiff continued to be prescribed multiple forms of medication to combat any pain or withdrawal side effects, and that Plaintiff visited several other physicians in the days following the discontinuation of his Morphine prescription with no reported complaints of excessive pain or withdrawal symptoms. ECF No. 56-4, Ex. 22. When Plaintiff did exhibit possible withdrawal symptoms eleven days after removal from Morphine, he was immediately taken to the emergency room and was ultimately denied any additional form of pain relief by the (non-defendant) physician. ECF No. 56-4, Ex. 11.

Thus, Plaintiff has failed to allege any new facts to indicate that the granting of the Rule 50 motion was made in error, and this Court adheres to its original decision that Plaintiff failed to meet his burden in proving deliberate indifference such that a reasonable jury could find in his favor. Thus, judgment as a matter of law was warranted and Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration is denied.

B. As Plaintiff has Failed to Prove that this Court Erred in Granting the Rule 50 Motion, Plaintiff's Rule 59(a) Motion to Set Aside and for a New Trial Must Be Denied.

Authority to grant a new trial is confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court. Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980) (per curiam). However, courts are "bound by those grounds that have been historically recognized" for a new trial, including claims "that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving." Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007). It has been held that "[t]he trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods. Inc., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000).

In ruling on a Rule 59(a) motion, "[t]he judge can weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of witnesses, and need not view the evidence from the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party." Landes Const. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371 (9th Cir. 1973). Additionally, "a stringent standard applies when the motion is based on insufficiency of the evidence." Venegas v. Wagner, 831 F.2d 1514, 1519 (9th Cir. 1987). On this basis, a motion will be granted only if the verdict "is against the great weight of the evidence." E.E.O.C. v. Pape Lift, Inc., 115 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Plaintiff's Rule 59(a) Motion is based on his belief that he presented a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to support his claim of deliberate indifference against Defendants. Mot. to Set Aside, ECF No. 144, at 2. As the foregoing analysis has made clear, Plaintiff's belief is mistaken and the decision to grant Plaintiff's Rule 50 motion was proper. Plaintiff's evidence was insufficient to establish that the Defendants had the requisite knowledge to support a deliberate indifference claim, or that the Defendants' chosen course of action was medically unacceptable under the circumstances. For those reasons, judgment on the Rule 50 motion in favor of the Defendants was not against the clear weight of the evidence, nor did it amount to a miscarriage of justice. Plaintiff's Motion for a New Trial is therefore denied.

C. Plaintiff's Objection Under Rule 16(e) Is Unmeritorious.

Plaintiff's claim that he is entitled to a pretrial hearing under Rule 16(e) is misguided. The purpose of a pretrial order is to promote efficiency and conserve judicial resources "by identifying the real issues prior to trial." Fed.R.Civ.P. 16, Adv. Comm. Notes to subd. (c) (1983). Whether pretrial proceedings should be had "is a matter resting in the sound discretion of the [Court]." Hayden v. Chalfant Press, Inc., 281 F.2d 543, 545 (9th Cir. 1960). Thus, the Court's decision to not issue a pretrial order as to the admissibility of Defendants' exhibits was discretionary.[1]


Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff's Motion to Amend or Alter the Judgment and Motion to Set Aside the Judgment and for a New Trial (ECF No. 144) are DENIED.


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