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Avery v. Virga

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 24, 2016

KYLE AVERY, Plaintiff,
v.
T. VIRGA et al., Defendants.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          EDMUND F. BRENNAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a civil rights action seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants Turner and Virga have moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed an opposition to the motion, and defendants have filed a reply. For the reasons explained below, it is recommended that the motion be granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is proceeding on an amended complaint. At screening, then-Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd found that plaintiff's amended complaint stated a cognizable claim under the First Amendment for retaliation against defendants Dreager-Smith and Porter. According to plaintiff, the defendants issued him a rules violation report after they reviewed his inmate appeal complaining about their failure to address his concerns over inmates desecrating pagan religious property. Judge Drozd also found that plaintiff's complaint stated a cognizable First Amendment claim against defendants Johnson, Guzman, Macomber, and Virga for allegedly threatening to transfer plaintiff to a different prison in retaliation for his prior litigation activities against prison officials. Finally, Judge Drozd found that plaintiff's amended complaint stated a cognizable claim under RLUIPA, the First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause against defendants Virga, Smith, Porter, Detlefsen, Carter, Johnson, Guzman, Macomber, and Elia because plaintiff informed these defendants that his fellow inmates were destroying pagan religious property, but the defendants allegedly refused to address the problem, thereby substantially burdening his religion. ECF Nos. 16, 22 & 25.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 5, 2014, defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's RLUIPA claim on the grounds that his request for injunctive relief had been rendered moot. ECF No. 31. In response to the motion, plaintiff moved to withdraw his RLUIPA claim. ECF No. 32. On November 21, 2014, Judge Drozd granted plaintiff's request to withdraw his RLUIPA claim and denied defendants' motion to dismiss as moot in light of that withdrawal. ECF No. 34.

         Defendants filed an amended answer to plaintiff's complaint, ECF No. 35, and on January 6, 2015, the court issued a discovery and scheduling order, ECF No. 36. Thereafter, defendants filed the pending motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 40. Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on the merits of plaintiff's claims and further argue that plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to all of his claims, except his First Amendment retaliation claim against defendants Dreager-Smith and Porter. Id. Finally, defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Id.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS UNDER RULE 56

         Summary judgment is appropriate when there is "no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment avoids unnecessary trials in cases in which the parties do not dispute the facts necessary to the determination of the issues in the case, or in which there is insufficient evidence for a jury to determine those facts in favor of the nonmovant. Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-50 (1986); Nw. Motorcycle Ass'n v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 18 F.3d 1468, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1994). At bottom, a summary judgment motion asks whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury.

         The principal purpose of Rule 56 is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex Cop. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Thus, the rule functions to "‘pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) advisory committee's note on 1963 amendments). Procedurally, under summary judgment practice, the moving party bears the initial responsibility of presenting the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record, together with affidavits, if any, that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323; Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc). If the moving party meets its burden with a properly supported motion, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to present specific facts that show there is a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Auvil v. CBS "60 Minutes", 67 F.3d 816, 819 (9th Cir. 1995).

         A clear focus on where the burden of proof lies as to the factual issue in question is crucial to summary judgment procedures. Depending on which party bears that burden, the party seeking summary judgment does not necessarily need to submit any evidence of its own. When the opposing party would have the burden of proof on a dispositive issue at trial, the moving party need not produce evidence which negates the opponent's claim. See e.g., Lujan v. National Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 885 (1990). Rather, the moving party need only point to matters which demonstrate the absence of a genuine material factual issue. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24 (1986). ("[W]here the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, a summary judgment motion may properly be made in reliance solely on the ‘pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file.'"). Indeed, summary judgment should be entered, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, 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. See Id . at 322. In such a circumstance, summary judgment must be granted, "so long as whatever is before the district court demonstrates that the standard for entry of summary judgment . . . is satisfied." Id. at 323. To defeat summary judgment the opposing party must establish a genuine dispute as to a material issue of fact. This entails two requirements. First, the dispute must be over a fact(s) that is material, i.e., one that makes a difference in the outcome of the case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 ("Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment."). Whether a factual dispute is material is determined by the substantive law applicable for the claim in question. Id. If the opposing party is unable to produce evidence sufficient to establish a required element of its claim that party fails in opposing summary judgment. "[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         THE EXHAUSTION REQUIREMENT

         By the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA"), Congress amended 42 U.S.C. § 1997e to provide 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 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).

         A court may excuse a prisoner from complying with the PLRA's exhaustion requirement if he establishes that the existing administrative remedies were effectively rendered unavailable to him. See Albino v. Baca, 747 F.3d 1162, 1172-73 (9th Cir. 2014). For example, where prison officials improperly screen out inmate grievances, they can render administrative remedies effectively unavailable. See Sapp v. Kimbrell, 623 F.3d 813, 823 (9th Cir. 2010). In such a case, "the inmate cannot pursue the necessary sequence of appeals . . . ." Id. See also Nunez v. Duncan, 591 F.3d 1217, 1226 (9th Cir. 2010) (excusing an inmate's failure to exhaust because he was precluded from exhausting his administrative remedies by a warden's mistaken instruction to him that a particular unavailable document was needed for him to pursue his inmate appeal); Marella, 568 F.3d 1024 (excusing an inmate's failure to exhaust because he did not have access to the necessary grievance forms to timely file his grievance).

         The PLRA exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional but rather creates an affirmative defense that defendants must plead and prove. See Jones, 549 U.S. at 216 ("[I]nmates are not required to specially plead or demonstrate exhaustion in their complaints."); Albino, 747 F.3d at 1168. A defendant may move for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) "[i]n the rare event" that a prisoner's failure to exhaust is clear on the face of the complaint. Albino, 747 F.3d at 1168 & 1169. More typically, defendants are required to move for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 and produce probative evidence that proves a prisoner's failure to exhaust. See Id . at 1166. Specifically, "the defendant's burden is to prove that there was an available administrative remedy, and that the prisoner did not exhaust that available remedy." Id. at 1172. If the defendant carries that burden, "the prisoner has the burden of production. That is, the burden shifts to the prisoner to come forward with evidence showing that there is something in his particular case that made the existing and generally available administrative remedies effectively unavailable to him." Id. If the undisputed evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the prisoner demonstrates a failure to exhaust, the court should grant defendant's motion for summary judgment. Id. at 1166. On the other hand, if there are material facts in dispute, the court should deny defendant's motion summary judgment. Id. I. Civil Rights Act Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         The Civil Rights Act under which this action was filed provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of [state law] . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution . . . shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute requires that there be an actual connection or link between the actions of the defendants and the deprivation alleged to have been suffered by plaintiff. See Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978); Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976). "A person ‘subjects' another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of § 1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in another's affirmative acts or omits to perform an act which he is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made." Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740, 743 (9th Cir. 1978).

         Moreover, supervisory personnel are generally not liable under § 1983 for the actions of their employees under a theory of respondeat superior and, therefore, when a named defendant holds a supervisorial position, the causal link between him and the claimed constitutional violation must be specifically alleged. See Fayle v. Stapley, 607 F.2d 858, 862 (9th Cir. 1979); Mosher v. Saalfeld, 589 F.2d 438, 441 (9th Cir. 1978). Vague and conclusory allegations concerning the involvement of official personnel in civil rights violations are not sufficient. See Ivey v. Board of Regents, 673 F.2d 266, 268 (9th Cir. 1982).

         THE FIRST AMENDMENT AND RETALIATION

         Both the initiation of litigation before the court and the filing of inmate appeals are protected conduct, and prison officials may not retaliate against prisoners for engaging in these activities. See Rhodes v. Robinson, 408 F.3d 559, 568 (9th Cir. 2005). As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has explained:

Within the prison context, a viable claim of First Amendment retaliation entails five basic elements: (1) An assertion that a state actor took some adverse action against an inmate (2) because of (3) that prisoner's protected conduct, and that such action (4) chilled the inmate's exercise of his First Amendment rights, and (5) the action did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal.

Rhodes, 408 F.3d at 567-68. See also Silva v. Di Vittorio, 658 F.3d 1090, 1104 (9th Cir. 2011) (prisoners retain First Amendment rights not inconsistent with their prisoner status or penological objectives, including the right to file inmate appeals ...


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