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Sprinkle v. Robinson

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 22, 2017




         Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court has granted partial summary judgment (as to liability) in favor of plaintiff on his claim that defendants violated his right to access the courts when they refused to photocopy exhibits he needed to attach to a habeas petition pending in a California superior court. ECF No. 74. The court then set the question of damages for trial. ECF No. 118. However, at the final pretrial conference, the district judge vacated the trial date and later referred the case back to the assigned magistrate judge “to set a schedule for briefing as to damages, including whether the inclusion of plaintiff's exhibits with his habeas petition would have altered the result of his criminal conviction and sentence, and how that issue relates to plaintiff's claim for damages.” ECF Nos. 119 & 120. Thereafter, findings and recommendations were issued concluding that the question of damages, if any, including the amount, are factual questions that should be determined by the jury. ECF No. 154. The assigned district judge declined to adopt that recommendation and instead referred the case back for consideration of the impact of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1992), on plaintiff's damages claims. ECF No. 157.

         The parties have since submitted supplemental briefs on the Heck issue. ECF Nos. 161 & 162. After considering those briefs, the following findings and recommendation are entered. As explained below, Heck bars any award of damages predicated on continued incarceration since the denial of his state habeas. But plaintiff may nonetheless be awarded nominal damages and any other provable damages as a result of the First Amendment violation itself. The latter damages are not dependent upon or necessarily imply the invalidity of plaintiff's conviction or confinement and therefore are not Heck-barred.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff alleged that in November and December of 1999, defendants violated his First Amendment right of access to the courts by denying him photocopies of documents that he was required to attach as exhibits to a habeas petition he filed in state superior court. ECF No. 1. He claimed that defendants refused to provide the copies and, as a result, the state court ultimately dismissed his petition. Id.

         The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 55, 64. On August 20, 2007, the undersigned recommended that defendants' motion for summary judgment be denied and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be granted as to liability. ECF No. 71. The district judge adopted that recommendation on September 26, 2007. ECF No. 74. The adopted findings included the following relevant facts:

At all times relevant to this action, plaintiff was a state prisoner in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) at Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) in Ione, California. Defendant Robinson was a Senior Librarian and defendant Pierce was a Supervisor of Academic Education and defendant Robinson's supervisor at MCSP.
Plaintiff was tried on multiple felony charges involving sexual offenses against three girls under the age of 14 with whom he was acquainted. The case turned on questions of credibility. Plaintiff was convicted on some charges, acquitted of others, and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. Plaintiff began serving his prison sentence on October 8, 1996, and was transferred to MCSP on April 15, 1999, where he has since been continuously confined.
On November 5, 1999, plaintiff prepared to challenge his conviction by submitting to Cova, the B-Yard Librarian at MCSP, a state application for a writ of habeas corpus with supporting documents with a request that they be copied. Cova submitted the documents to the Senior Librarian, defendant Robinson, who took it upon himself to decide that the documents were not required under state rules of court and refused to copy them…. The record shows that on December 14, 1999, plaintiff requested three sets of photocopies of 81 pages of documents and two sets of copies of 437 pages of documents, for a total cost of $111.70, together with a signed Trust Account Withdrawal Order. Plaintiff had a copy made of the petition, without his supporting documents, and timely filed it with the Mendocino County Superior Court.
At the time plaintiff filed his petition in superior court, California Rules of Court Rule 56 provided that “a petition that seeks review of a trial court ruling must be accompanied by an adequate record, including copies of ... all documents and exhibits submitted to the trial court supporting and opposing petitioner's position, ” “any other documents or portions of documents submitted to the trial court that are necessary for a complete understanding of the case and the ruling under review, ” and “a reporter's transcript of the oral proceedings that resulted in the ruling under review.” Rule 56, California Rules of Court (emphasis added).
Plaintiff had a copy made of the petition, without his supporting documents, and timely filed it with the Mendocino County Superior Court. On January 5, 2000, the Mendocino County Superior Court filed its decision denying plaintiff's petition for writ of habeas corpus, citing lack of supporting documentation as grounds for denial on as many as three issues.
Plaintiff sought review by submitting, on January 15, 2000, the superior court denial of his writ to the First Appellate District Court for the California Courts of Appeal. Plaintiff included correspondence to that court explaining the deficiency and lack of exhibits, and asked the court for relief and an order to direct the institution of custody to copy the exhibits referred to in the writ petition. On January 25, 2000, the court clerk for the First Appellate District Court returned plaintiff's state habeas petition, requesting plaintiff to attach the missing exhibits that defendants refused to copy, before the court would accept the petition and assign it a docket number. Court records show that plaintiff's habeas petition was denied by the First Appellate District Court on April 13, 2000.

ECF No. 71 at 4-6. The court concluded that, as a consequence of defendants' refusal to copy plaintiff's exhibits, the state superior court denied the petition based in part on a lack of supporting documentation and because plaintiff “made no offer of proof by way of additional evidence.” Id. at 11-12.[1]

         As noted, the district judge later referred the case to the undersigned for consideration of the impact of the “favorable-termination rule” of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1992), on plaintiff's damages claims. ECF No. 157. The parties agree in their supplemental briefs on the issue that plaintiff's compensatory damages will be much greater if it is determined that his state habeas petition would have been granted (and he therefore would have been released from prison) had the exhibits been included. ECF No. 133 at 35; ECF No. 129 at 37. The parties also initially agreed that, regardless of whether the state petition would have succeeded, plaintiff is owed nominal damages, some amount of compensatory damages, and potentially punitive damages. ECF No. 129 at 37-44 (Plaintiff's Brief re damages); ECF No. 133 at 29-30 (Defendants' Brief on Damages, stating “On the other hand, if the exhibits would have made no difference in the result, Sprinkle's damages would be limited to: compensatory damages for the emotional distress he suffered merely because he was unable to include the exhibits with his petition; other compensatory damages (for example, any filing fees incurred for his petition); nominal damages; and punitive damages.”).

         However, defendants have since changed their position. They now argue that Heck precludes all damages in this action because the action itself is entirely barred. ECF No. 161 at 21. Thus, in light of defendants' most recent position, the remaining issues are: (1) whether Heck bars all or any part of this § 1983 action, including whether the state habeas petition would likely have succeeded had the exhibits been attached; (2) whether, if not barred, that issue may be decided by the court rather than the jury; (3) whether plaintiff sustained any other compensatory damages, and the amount thereof, from the deprivation of his right of access to the courts; and (4) the availability of other damages. For the reasons discussed below, the undersigned recommends that the court find that plaintiff's claim that he is owed compensation for continued incarceration due to the loss of a meritorious state habeas case is barred by Heck. Therefore, the court need not consider whether plaintiff would have been released had his right of access to the courts not been denied. However, the undersigned also recommends that the district judge conclude that the defendants' interference with plaintiff's right of access to the court would permit a jury to award plaintiff at least nominal damages for the deprivation of his First Amendment rights, and potentially to some measure of compensatory and punitive damages depending on proof at trial. The amount of any such damages is a question of fact that must be determined by a jury.

         II. The Application of Heck to Certain § 1983 Access-to-Courts Claims

         A portion of plaintiff's damages claims in this action rests on whether or not he may be compensated for being unlawfully incarcerated for a number of years because, if defendants had allowed him to copy his attachments, his state petition for writ of habeas corpus would have been granted. As noted by the district judge, this aspect of plaintiff's case raises an issue under Heck. As discussed below, plaintiff cannot seek damages for wrongful incarceration. He can, however, seek other damages that are discussed herein.

         A. ...

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