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Jimenez v. Department of Corrections

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 14, 2017

Adam Jimenez, Plaintiff,
v.
Department of Corrections, et al., Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS (ECF NO. 24)

          Hon. Andrew G. Schopler United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff sued prison officials for transferring him to an area with an increased Valley Fever risk, notwithstanding his greater susceptibility to the disease. Those officials now assert qualified immunity, which shields them from suit unless they violated a “clearly established” constitutional right. In the nine years since this prison transfer occurred, a split has developed among the district courts in our Circuit as to whether these facts might give rise to a constitutional claim, with many finding that it does not. “If judges thus disagree on a constitutional question, it is unfair to subject [officials] to money damages for picking the losing side of the controversy.” Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 618 (1999).

         One day higher-risk prisoners may have a clearly established right to be free from a heightened environmental chance of disease. But that day has not yet come. It certainly had not nine years ago. The officials thus have qualified immunity.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Adam Jimenez asserts that he has a high risk of contracting Valley Fever because he suffers from hepatitis C, breathing difficulties, kidney failure, and chest and back pain. (ECF No. 12, at 3.) In November 2008, Jimenez learned he was being transferred to Kern Valley State Prison, which is in an area where Valley Fever is more prevalent. (Id. at 3-4.) He protested on the ground that, given his existing ailments, “the Desert would [adversely] affect my health.” (Id. at 3.) But prison officials nevertheless transferred him that same month. He eventually contracted Valley Fever, which was diagnosed in 2012. (Id. at 4-5.)

         Jimenez sued various officials at his original facility, R.J. Donovan Prison, for violating his civil rights. Two of those defendants-E. Ravelo and Dr. Silva-move to dismiss based on qualified immunity and failure to state a claim.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Qualified Immunity

         The qualified immunity doctrine immunizes government officials from civil liability so long as “their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (citation omitted). To pierce the qualified-immunity shield, the court must find: (1) the facts alleged or shown “make out a violation of a constitutional right”; and (2) that right was “‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. (citations omitted). “[P]laintiff bears the burden of proof that the right allegedly violated was clearly established.” Tarabochia v. Adkins, 766 F.3d 1115, 1125 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and bracketing omitted). Courts may “exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first[.]” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         It is unclear whether transferring an immunocompromised inmate to an area with a higher incidence of disease violates any constitutional right. Inmates certainly have a right to be free from concentrated exposure to serious diseases, as might occur if prison officials knowingly forced someone into the same cell as an infected person. See Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678, 682 (1978) (holding that Eighth Amendment prohibited forcing prisoners in “punitive isolation” to share mattresses with inmates suffering “from infectious diseases such as hepatitis and venereal disease”) (citation omitted); cf. Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 27, 33, 35 (1993) (holding that Eighth Amendment barred subjecting inmate to dangerous amounts of second-hand smoke by placing him in a cell with “another inmate who smoked five packs of cigarettes a day, ” and analogizing this to “exposure of inmates to a serious, communicable disease”). But it is less obvious that prisoners have a right to be free from more generalized disease exposure, such as by housing vulnerable inmates in a geographical area with a higher incidence of a particular illness.

         Many federal courts have struggled to identify such a right in Valley Fever cases like this one. In fact, they have not even been able to agree on how broadly or narrowly to define the right purportedly violated. See, e.g., Williams v. Biter, No. 1:14-cv-02076-DAD-EPG (PC), 2017 WL 431353, at *10-12 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 31, 2017) (reviewing Valley Fever cases and arguing that most courts have defined the right at issue with an improper degree of specificity).

         Even assuming such a right exists, prison officials still have qualified immunity if that right was not clearly established. While the “weight of authority is that an inmate cannot state a claim for violation of the Eighth Amendment on confinement in a location where Valley Fever is present, ” there is some disagreement about whether a prisoner who is particularly susceptible to Valley Fever might state such a claim. Smith v. Schwarzenegger, No. 1:14-cv-00060-LJO-SAB, 2015 WL 2414743, at *20-21 (E.D. Cal. May 20, 2015) (citation omitted) (collecting cases). In the nine years since Jimenez's transfer to a Valley Fever-endemic area, many courts have found no such clearly established right, see id., including as recently as last month. See Duran v. Lewis, No. 1:16-cv-00468-AWI-SAB (PC), 2017 WL 2797743, at *1 (E.D. Cal. June 27, 2017) (“Plaintiff cannot state a claim upon which relief may be granted based solely on the mere exposure to Valley Fever spores, ” even if “he was at a greater risk of contracting Valley Fever due to []his race.”).

         This Court will not hold prison officials acting in 2008 to a higher standard of constitutional clairvoyance than the many federal judges who-even today-do not discern a clearly established constitutional right in similar Valley Fever cases. After all, official actions only violate clearly established law “when, at the time of the challenged conduct, the contours of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (citation and internal punctuation omitted). Caselaw need not have addressed the precise factual scenario before, “but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Id. (citations omitted). While the Valley Fever debate rages on, defendants have qualified immunity.

         B. Failure ...


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