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Garcia v. Blahnik

United States District Court, S.D. California

March 29, 2017

R. BLAHNIK, et al., Defendants.


          HONORABLE LARRY ALAN BURNS United States District Judge

         Ruben Garcia has filed five retaliation lawsuits and over 100 prison appeals in his seven years at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility. This action is among the latest. Garcia's claims involve a librarian refusing to move a photocopier; a guard refusing to process a grievance as confidential correspondence; and an officer refusing to stop a nurse from touching Garcia's I.D. When these defendants failed to comply with Garcia's demands, he filed grievances accusing them of breaking prison regulations. The defendants made records disputing his grievances as false, abusive, and improper. Garcia then filed this lawsuit against defendants for retaliating against him for filing grievances.

         The prison grievance process was designed to check officials from suppressing prisoner's exercise of Constitutional rights. But retaliation claims “are prone to abuse since prisoners can claim retaliation for every decision they dislike.” Graham v. Henderson, 89 F.3d 75, 79 (2d Cir. 1996). That abuse is particularly insidious when inmates repurpose retaliation law to threaten the brave men and women tasked with the difficult job of guarding them. That's the case here.


         Garcia is serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend. Three years ago, he sued twelve prison officials for retaliation. The magistrate judge recommended granting summary judgment as to all of the defendants except one. Garcia filed several objections to the Report and Recommendation. The Court adopts the R&R for the most part, but modifies it to grant summary judgment as to all defendants.

         Legal Standards

         “[A] corrections officer may not retaliate against a prisoner for exercising his First Amendment right to report staff misconduct, ” but courts must also “defer to reasonable decisions of prison officials.” Shepard v. Quillen, 840 F.3d 686, 688 (9th Cir. 2016). “When a prisoner claims retaliation, we strike this balance by requiring” the prisoner “to show that a state actor took some adverse action because of the prisoner's protected conduct.” Id. (alterations omitted). The prisoner must also show that “the action did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal.” Id. Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party shows there's no genuine dispute as to a material fact essential to the claim or claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.


          A. The Court modifies the R&R to grant summary judgment for Officer Cariman.

          The Supreme Court has warned that when prisoners sue correction officials, the lower courts must "afford appropriate deference and flexibility to state officials trying to manage a volatile environment." Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 482 (1995). The Ninth Circuit has acknowledged that in Sandin, the high court “specifically expressed its disapproval of excessive judicial involvement in day-to-day prison management, which often squanders judicial resources with little offsetting benefit to anyone.” Pratt v. Rowland, 65 F.3d 802, 807 (9th Cir. 1995) (alterations omitted). In particular, our circuit has emphasized that deference should be given “to prison officials in the evaluation of proffered legitimate penological reasons for conduct alleged to be retaliatory.” Id. That sensible guidance applies here.

         The R&R recommended granting summary judgment as to all but one defendant: Officer Cariman. Garcia's retaliation claim against Cariman is based on two encounters.

         The first happened in July 2013 while Cariman was supervising inmates receiving medication. Cariman says Garcia accused the duty nurse of contaminating Garcia's medicine by handling other inmates' identification cards. The nurse told Garcia to take his medication or leave. Garcia refused to provide his card or take his medication. Garcia demanded that Cariman take action. But Cariman told Garcia the same thing as the nurse: take the medicine or forfeit treatment and leave. Garcia returned to his cell and composed a Form 22.[1]

         Garcia's Form 22 confirms Cariman's version of events:

“Cariman . . . while you were conducting youre Post Assignment duties . . . as med-line Security personnel, I reported to you how the on-duty (LVN) was endangering I/M health and safety . . . through cross contamination . . . [by] taking physical possession of [inmate] I.D.s or demanding them to place such on the counter . . . . In response you demanded I comply or I would forfeit treatment . . . . Because of such, I am requesting to be provided cause or a legitimate penological interest for youre failure to ensure inmate safety.” (Errors in original.)[2]

         The second encounter happened two weeks after Garcia filed this Form 22. Garcia was getting his medication and repeated the same drill: Garcia argued with the dispensing nurse about identification, medication, and contamination. Cariman stepped-in and Garcia argued with him. Specifically, Garcia said, “You are retaliating, because I wrote you up last week.” Cariman says Garcia was noncompliant and disrupting the pill line-he told Garcia to “cuff up” and put him in a holding cell. Then Cariman wrote a Rules Violation Report documenting Garcia's interference. The RVR tells the same basic story as Cariman's declaration.[3]

         Garcia's opposition picks out various facts in Cariman's account and says they didn't happen. For example, Cariman says that Garcia caused a disruption of about 10 to 15 minutes-Garcia says it was 10 to 15 seconds. Cariman says he approached Garcia at the window. Garcia says it wasn't at the window. Cariman says Garcia called him a “mama pinga.” Garcia says he's never heard that expression.

         The R&R recommended against granting summary judgment for Cariman because the magistrate judge perceived that there were too many conflicting facts surrounding the encounter between Garcia and Cariman in the pill line. As an example, the magistrate judge pointed out that there was a dispute whether Garcia took his medication or showed his identification to Cariman. The Court acknowledges these minor discrepancies but concludes, contrary to the magistrate judge, that the discrepancies don't concern materials issues.[4]

         One of the discrepancies does require specific discussion: Garcia says he told Cariman that he filed a grievance against him and Cariman replied: “Oh yeah! . . .you wrote me up! . . . then turn around and cuff-up!” But regardless of who's telling the truth-and crediting Garcia's account as the Court must under the summary judgment standard-there are two reasons that quote doesn't get Garcia to a jury.

         First, Cariman agrees that Garcia told him, “You are retaliating because I wrote you up last week, ” and, that Cariman told Garcia “to cuff up.” Garcia hasn't created a material dispute by merely adding some selective dialogue, or by using ellipses to leave out part of the conversation, and then asking the Court to speculate that Cariman cuffed Garcia because Garcia said he filed the Form 22.[5]Nelson v. Pima Cmty. Coll., 83 F.3d 1075, 1081 (9th Cir. 1996) (claim that plaintiff “did one thing, ...

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