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Puckett v. Cortes

United States District Court, N.D. California

February 23, 2018

LAMONT PUCKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMIE CORTES, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          YVONNE GONZALEZ ROGERS United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is a pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 filed by Plaintiff Lamont Puckett, a state prisoner currently housed at the California Medical Facility (“CMF”), alleging constitutional violations during his previous incarceration at the Correctional Training Facility (“CTF”). The operative complaint is the amended complaint.[1] He alleges that on March 11, 2015, Defendants CTF Plant Maintenance Mechanics Jamie Cortes, J. Venegas, and A. Chavez violated his First Amendment rights by authoring a false Serious Rules Violation Report (“RVR”) and causing Plaintiff to be placed into Administrative Segregation (“ad-seg”). Dkt. 14 at 7-10.[2]Plaintiff claims that Defendants actions were retaliatory because he had filed a grievance against Defendant Cortes on April 10, 2014. Id. at 4, 7-8. He seeks monetary and punitive damages.

         In an Order dated April 3, 2017, the Court screened Plaintiff's amended complaint and determined that he stated a cognizable First Amendment claim relating to Defendants based on the following allegations:

Plaintiff claims that Defendants Cortes, Venegas, and Chavez violated his First Amendment rights by “authoring a false, untrue and fake Serious Rules Violation Report and causing Plaintiff's immediate removal from the CTF mainline and placed into, and rehoused in ‘Administrative Segregation, ' aka the ‘Hole.'” Plaintiff alleges that as a direct result of Defendants' aforementioned actions, he was initially placed and retained in Administrative Segregation on or about August 2014. Plaintiff further claims that during the disciplinary hearing on March 25, 2015, he was found “NOT GUILTY” of the charges alleged in the Serious Rules Violation Report. However, Plaintiff claims that even after he was found to be not guilty, he remained in Administrative Segregation and was later transferred to CMF.

Dkt. 12 at 3 (citations omitted). Plaintiff also alleged that Defendants' aforementioned actions were in retaliation for a previous grievance he filed against Defendant Cortes. Dkt. 14 at 4, 7-8. The Court then directed the Clerk of the Court to serve the amended complaint and issued a briefing schedule for the served Defendants to file a dispositive motion. See Dkt. 12 at 3-7.

         The parties are presently before the Court on Defendants' dispositive motion. Dkt. 22. Defendants move this Court to dismiss Plaintiff's claim against Defendants Chavez, Cortes, and Venegas, for failure to state a claim that Defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment. Id. at 6-7. Defendants also move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's First Amendment claim against all named Defendants on the ground that Plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”). Id. Plaintiff has filed an opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 30. Defendants have filed a reply to Plaintiff's opposition. Dkt. 32. Plaintiff has also filed a surreply. Dkt. 35.

         Having read and considered the papers submitted in connection with this matter, the Court hereby GRANTS Defendants' dispositive motion.

         II. DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         The central issue presented in Defendants' motion for summary judgment is whether Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies as to his First Amendment claim. Before turning to the facts of this case, the Court briefly reviews the requirements of the PLRA and administrative review process applicable to California prisoners.

         A. Legal Framework

         The PLRA requires a prisoner to exhaust all “available administrative remedies” before bringing an action with respect to prison conditions. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). “[T]he PLRA's 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).

         Exhaustion of all “available” remedies is mandatory; those remedies neither need to meet federal standards, nor must they be “plain, speedy, and effective.” Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739-40 (2001). The PLRA requires proper exhaustion of administrative remedies. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 83 (2006). “Proper exhaustion demands compliance with an agency's deadlines and other critical procedural rules because no adjudicative system can function effectively without imposing some orderly structure on the course of its proceedings.” Id. at 90-91. Thus, compliance with prison grievance procedures is required by the PLRA to exhaust properly. Id.

         The CDCR provides its inmates and parolees the right to appeal administratively “any departmental decision, action, condition, or policy which they can demonstrate as having an adverse effect upon their welfare.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). It also provides its inmates the right to file administrative appeals alleging misconduct by correctional officers. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(e). On January 28, 2011, certain revisions to the California prison regulations governing inmate grievances became operative. See History, Note 11, Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.2. In order to exhaust all available administrative remedies within this system, a prisoner must submit his complaint on CDCR Form 602 (“602 appeal”) and proceed through three levels of appeal: (1) first formal level appeal filed with one of the institution's appeal coordinators, (2) second formal level appeal filed with the institution head or designee, and (3) third formal level appeal filed with the CDCR director or designee (i.e., “Director's level” or “Secretary's level”). Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, §§ 3084.1(b), 3084.7. Under specific circumstances, the first level of review may be bypassed, and the 602 appeal is forwarded directly to the second level of review (“SLR”). Id. The third level of review (“TLR”) constitutes the decision of the Secretary of the CDCR and exhausts a prisoner's administrative remedies. 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).

         The level of detail in an administrative grievance necessary to exhaust a claim properly is determined by the prison's applicable grievance procedures. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007). The level of specificity required in the appeal is described in the California Code of Regulations as follows:

The inmate or parolee shall list all staff member(s) involved and shall describe their involvement in the issue. To assist in the identification of staff members, the inmate or parolee shall include the staff member's last name, first initial, title or position, if known, and the dates of the staff member's involvement in the issue under appeal.

Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.2(a)(3) (emphasis added). The initial grievance must be filed within 30 calendar days of the action or event being protested, and inmates must seek review at each successive level within 30 calendar days of receiving an adverse decision at a lower level. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.8(b)(1). The appeals coordinator can reject or “screen out” an appeal for various reasons, including failure to comply with the time limit, omission of necessary supporting documents, or duplication of a previous appeal. Id. § 3084.3(c). When the grievance is not rejected or screened out, the inmate must pursue the grievance through each level of review to exhaust remedies. Id. § 3084.5. A “cancellation or rejection” of an appeal “does not exhaust administrative remedies.” Id. § 3084.1(b).

         B. Factual Summary[3]

         1. Plaintiff's Cognizable First Amendment Claim

         As mentioned above, Plaintiff claims in his amended complaint that Defendants Chavez, Cortes, and Venegas “author[ed] a false, untrue and fake Serious [RVR]” on March 11, 2015. Dkt. 14 at 9-10. Plaintiff claims that Defendants retaliated against him for filing an unrelated 602 appeal against Defendant Cortes on April 10, 2014. Id. at 4, 7-8. Plaintiff alleges that as a direct result of Defendants' aforementioned actions, he was initially placed and retained in ad-seg on or about August 2014. Id. at 5-8. Plaintiff further claims that during the disciplinary hearing on March 25, 2015, he was found “NOT GUILTY” of the charges alleged in the Serious RVR. Id. at 8-9. However, Plaintiff claims that even after he was found to be not guilty, he remained in ad-seg and was later transferred to CMF. Id. at 9.

         The Court found that, liberally construed, Plaintiff's allegations satisfied the pleading requirements for a First Amendment retaliation claim against Defendants Chavez, Cortes, and Venegas.

         2. Plaintiff's Administrative Appeals

         Defendants have submitted evidence that there are three administrative appeals that Plaintiff submitted to the Office of Appeals (“OOA”), [4] all of which were accepted by, and received a decision from, the OOA. Voong Decl. ¶ 6, Ex. A. These administrative appeals include log nos. MCSP-00-02301, CTF-14-00708, and CTF-14-02081. Id.

         Besides these three administrative appeals, the record shows that Plaintiff did not exhaust any other appeals at the OOA after the third aforementioned appeal (CTF-14-02081) was denied on October 1, 2014. Id. The record also shows that Plaintiff submitted two other administrative appeals, log nos. CTF-15-00612 and CTF-15-00471, which were both cancelled. Id., Ex. F. The Court elaborates on these aforementioned relevant administrative appeals below. appeal was denied at the TLR. Id.

         a. Administrative Appeal Log No. MCSP-00-02301 (“MCSP-00-02301”)

         On September 12, 2000, Plaintiff submitted MCSP-00-02301while he was incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison (“MCSP”). Id., Ex. B. Therein, he alleged that a correctional officer at MCSP conducted a cell search and confiscated some legal documents. Id. On August 3, 2001, the appeal was denied at the TLR. Id.

         b. Administrative Appeal Log No. CTF-14-00708 (“CTF-14-00708”)

         On April 10, 2014, Plaintiff submitted CTF-14-00708, in which he complained that on March 22, 2014, Defendant Cortes made “totally inappropriate and unprovoked” comments toward Plaintiff. Id., Ex. C. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that he was drinking coffee during a break from working at the CTF Engineer Shop, and Defendant Cortes walked by and said: “You want some cream for that coffee, that coffee tastes like d--k huh?” Id. Plaintiff added that Defendant Cortes has displayed a “consistent pattern” of “entering the engineer shop [and] making vile and unprofessional comments . . . .” Id. On October 1, 2014, the appeal was denied at the TLR. Id.

         c. Administrative Appeal Log No. CTF-14-02081 (“CTF-14-02081”)

         On November 18, 2014, Plaintiff submitted CTF-14-02081, in which he complained that Defendant Venegas was retaliating against him for filing an appeal against Defendant Cortes. Id., Ex. D. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that on August 21, 2014, Defendant Venegas asked him if he was going to “drop his 602 on J. Cortez . . . .” Id. Plaintiff replied, “You have no right asking that question.” Id. From August 21, 2014 to November 18, 2014 (the date CTF-14-00708 was filed), Plaintiff claimed that Defendant Venegas “ha[d] been aggressively trying to argue and provoke [him], unprofessionally calling [him] out . . . .” Id.

         The appeal was bypassed at the first level of review. Id.

         On December 2, 2014, CTF-14-02081 was marked as “ACCEPTED at the SLR on that date. Id.

         On January 12, 2015, CTF-14-02081 was partially granted at the SLR. Id.[5] On January 2, 2015, Plaintiff was sent a letter from the interviewer, CTF Correctional Plant Manager (“CPM”) B. Homsany, and CTF Hiring Authority B. Raso, entitled “STAFF COMPLAINT RESPONSE - APPEAL #CTF-S-[14]-0281 SECOND LEVEL RESPONSE, ” stating:

You were interviewed on December 17, 2015 by Anthony Wagner. In addition you were also interviewed by Bill Homsany on January 2, 2015 and you stated that Stationary Engineer Venegas has been retaliating against you regarding your complaint you filed with employee J. Cortes. You also indicated that there has been some racial discrimination by Mr. Venegas for some time.
An Appeal Inquiry has been conducted and reviewed by the hiring authority.
The following individuals were interviewed: Correctional Officer D. Duran and Stationary Engineer A. Chavez. As a result of your staff misconduct allegation the following information was reviewed: Appeal Log # CTF-S-14-02081. Staff did violate CDCR policy with the issues raised.
FINDINGS:
An Appeal Inquiry into your allegation has been/is being conducted.
ALL STAFF PERSONNEL MATTERS ARE CONFIDENTIAL IN NATURE. As such the details of any inquiry or investigation will not be shared by staff, members of the public, or offender appellants. Although you have a right to submit a staff complaint, a request for administrative action regarding staff or the placement of documentation in a staff member's personnel file is beyond the scope of the staff complaint process. Allegations of staff misconduct do not limit or restrict the availability of further relief via the inmate appeals process.

Id., Ex. F.[6] At the bottom of the letter, there are further instructions, stating:

If you wish to appeal the decision, you must submit your staff complaint appeal through all levels of appeal review up to, and including, the Secretary's Level of Review. Once a decision has been rendered at the Third Level, your administrative remedies will be considered exhausted.

Id.[7] Dissatisfied with the second level response, Plaintiff submitted his appeal to the TLR on February 8, 2015, stating as follows:

I am not satisfied as the 2nd level response states: An Appeal Inquiry into your allegation has been/is being conducted. Therefore, I do not know if this appeal is complete or Investigation is continuing. I am appealing to [the] 3rd level to exhaust administrative remedies in order to file a tort with [the] Court for punitive damages.

Id., Ex. D.

         On April 27, 2015, Plaintiff's appeal was denied at the TLR, which stated as follows:

Upon review of the documentation submitted, the Third Level of Review (TLR) finds that the appellant's allegations were appropriately reviewed and evaluated by the administrative staff. The TLR notes that all staff personnel matters are confidential in nature and will not be disclosed to other staff, the inmate population, the general public, or the appellant. The appellant was informed that if the conduct of staff was determined to not be in compliance with policy, the institution would take the appropriate course of action. In this case, the SLR informed the appellant that an inquiry was completed and disclosed the determination of the inquiry to the appellant. The TLR reviewed the confidential inquiry and concurs with the determination of the SLR. The TLR notes that, while appellant has the right to submit an appeal as a staff complaint, requests for: administrative action regarding staff; the placements of documentation in a staff member's personnel file; to reprimand staff; to remove staff from a position; and/or requests for monetary compensation are beyond the scope of the appeals process. The TLR finds the institution's response complies with departmental policy. Therefore, no further relief shall be afforded at the TLR.

Id., Ex. D.

         d. Administrative Appeal Log No. CTF-15-00471 (“CTF-15-00471”)

         On March 9, 2015, Plaintiff submitted CTF-15-00471, in which he complained that CPM Homsany and Correctional Plant Supervisor (“CPS”) A. Wagner failed to act when he appraised them in November and December 2014 of a “threat” made by Defendant Venegas. Id., Ex. F. Plaintiff was told to “find another job” because all Defendant Venegas had to do was say he was “afraid or threatend [sic] by [Plaintiff] and they will transfer [Plaintiff] in a blink of [an] eye [with] no questions.” Id. Plaintiff then attached documentation showing that on March 4, 2015, he was issued an RVR for threatening staff. Id. Plaintiff denied threatening Defendant Venegas. ...


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