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Garcia v. City of Santa Clara

United States District Court, N.D. California

April 19, 2017

DANIEL C. GARCIA, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF SANTA CLARA, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER ON MOTION FOR DISCOVERY SANCTIONS RE: DKT. NO. 186

          SUSAN ILLSTON United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is plaintiff Daniel Garcia's motion for discovery sanctions. Dkt. No. 186. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the Court finds this matter appropriate for resolution without oral argument and VACATES the hearing set for April 28, 2017. Having reviewed the parties' submissions in detail, for the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART plaintiff's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         The incidents underlying this civil rights lawsuit occurred in May 2008. The Santa Clara Marriott sought to evict Mr. Garcia for violating its “No Party” policy, and when Garcia refused to leave, hotel staff called the Santa Clara Police Department (“SCPD”). When the police arrived, an altercation ensued. Mr. Garcia was arrested. During and after the arrest, officers used physical force against Mr. Garcia - in the Marriott hallway, in the back seat of a police car, and later, at a Santa Clara County jail.[1]

         In 2009, completely unrelated to his May 2008 arrest, plaintiff was arrested and held on, among others, charges of conspiracy to commit murder. On June 1, 2010, plaintiff filed this civil rights lawsuit while in custody. Dkt. No. 1. In May 2012, upon motion, the Court stayed this case pending completion of the “significantly more serious” proceedings in Riverside County. Dkt. No. 60. Approximately one year later, Mr. Garcia wrote the Court to provide an update on his criminal proceedings - he had been convicted and sentenced to a term of life without parole. Dkt. No. 63.

         On May 12, 2014, upon motion, the Court lifted the stay in this case. Dkt. No. 75. Garcia served his first discovery requests in January 2015; defendants responded in February 2015. Kim Decl. ¶ 3 & Ex. A. On September 9, 2015, the Court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment in part, narrowing the case from at least nine causes of action against multiple defendant police officers to two excessive force claims, and related state tort claims, against a single officer: defendant Alec Lange.[2] Dkt. No. 116.

         The Court referred this matter for appointment of pro bono counsel on May 17, 2016. Dkt. No. 129. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff's attorneys were appointed to aid with discovery, trial preparation, and trial. Dkt. No. 132. Since being appointed last July, plaintiff's pro bono counsel has conducted roughly ten depositions, engaged in document discovery, and closely reviewed the discovery record as it existed when counsel began representing Mr. Garcia. Throughout this process, plaintiff's attorneys have repeatedly encountered specific documents or categories of documents that had not been produced and arguably should have. At plaintiff's request, defendants produced some of these documents; others had been destroyed, lost, or may never have existed.[3] On March 24, 2017, plaintiff filed this motion, requesting sanctions against defendants for spoliation of evidence and other alleged discovery misconduct.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal trial courts are vested with a wide range of inherent powers that allow them to govern their courtrooms and the litigation processes before them. Chambers v. NASCO, 501 U.S. 32, 43 (1991). Inherent powers must be used only “with restraint and discretion.” Id. at 44. An example of these inherent powers is the discretionary power of a federal trial court to levy appropriate sanctions against a party which prejudices its opponent through the spoliation of evidence that the spoliating party had reason to know was relevant to litigation. See Glover v. BIC Corp., 6 F.3d 1318, 1329-30 (9th Cir. 1993). Appropriate sanctions for spoliation, when found, range from outright dismissal, an adverse inference jury instruction with respect to the spoliated evidence, exclusion of a category of evidence, or monetary sanctions (including attorneys' fees). See id.; Leon v. IDX Sys. Corp., 464 F.3d 951, 958, 961 (9th Cir. 2006); see also Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger, No. 15-1406, 581 U.S., 2017 WL 1377379, at *5 (Apr. 18, 2017) (quoting Chambers, 501 U.S. at 44-45) (Inherent authority “includes ‘the ability to fashion appropriate sanctions for conduct which abuses the judicial process.' . . . And one permissible sanction is ‘an assessment of attorney's fees.'”).

         To impose evidentiary sanctions for spoliation, the court need not find that the spoliating party acted in bad faith; willfulness or fault can suffice. Unigard Sec. Ins. Co. v. Lakewood Eng'g & Mfg. Corp., 982 F.2d 363, 368 n.2 (9th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted); Glover, 6 F.3d at 1329. The court need only find that the offending party destroyed evidence with notice that the evidence was potentially relevant to the litigation. Leon, 464 F.3d at 959; Glover, 6 F.3d at 1329 (internal quotation marks omitted) (“Surely a finding of bad faith will suffice, but so will simple notice of potential relevance to the litigation.”); cf. United States v. $40, 955.00 in U.S. Currency, 554 F.3d 752, 758 (9th Cir. 2009) (“A party does not engage in spoliation when, without notice of the evidence's potential relevance, it destroys the evidence according to its policy or in the normal course of business.”).

         As for attorneys' fees, a court may award reasonable fees as a sanction for spoliation of evidence against a party “who acts in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive purposes.” Leon, 464 F.3d at 961 (citation omitted). “Before awarding such sanctions, the court must make an express finding that the sanctioned party's behavior constituted or was tantamount to bad faith[, ]” i.e., “by delaying or disrupting the litigation or hampering enforcement of a court order.” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “[S]uch a sanction, when imposed pursuant to civil procedures, must be compensatory rather than punitive in nature. . . . [T]he fee may go no further than to redress the wronged party for losses sustained[.]” Haeger, 581 U.S. at ___, 2017 WL 1377379, at *5 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see Id. (requiring a but-for “causal link - between the litigant's misbehavior and legal fees paid by the opposing party.”). In addition to a federal court's inherent power to levy sanctions, courts also have authority to sanction a party “who fails to obey an order to provide or permit discovery” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b). Leon, 464 F.3d at 958 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Willfulness, fault, or bad faith is not required for the imposition of monetary sanctions under Rule 37(b)(2).” In re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litig., No 09-1967-CW, 2012 WL 5372477, at *6 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 30, 2012).

         DISCUSSION

         This action has been pending for approximately seven years, predicated on events that occurred nine years ago. Mr. Garcia represented himself in this case, from prison, during the first six years of litigation. Essentially two claims remain for trial on May 30, 2017[4]: (i) an excessive force claim against Officer Lange for pulling Mr. Garcia's hair while he was restrained in the back seat of a police car; and (ii) an excessive force claim against Officer Lange for taking Mr. Garcia to the ground and using a “leg lock” at the Santa Clara County Main Jail.

         Plaintiff brings this motion seeking two types of sanctions for discovery misconduct. First, plaintiff seeks an adverse inference jury instruction based on defendants' alleged spoliation of certain evidence. Second, plaintiff seeks attorneys' fees for his Court-appointed pro bono counsel ...


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