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Jerra v. United States

United States District Court, C.D. California

March 29, 2018

JAMES M. JERRA, Plaintiff,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.




         This case was tried to a jury in April 2017, which resulted in a verdict in favor of Plaintiff James M. Jerra. The Court entered a stipulated judgment in favor of Jerra on September 26, 2017. (ECF No. 302.) Defendants now renew their Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), and move to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e), for relief from the judgment under Rule 60, and for a new trial under Rule 59(a). (Mot., ECF No. 306.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Defendants' Motion on all grounds.

         Jerra also moves to alter or amend the judgment to include pre- and post-judgment interest.[1] (Pl.'s Mot., ECF No. 307.) The Court GRANTS, in part, Jerra's motion to alter or amend the judgment.

         II. FACTS

         Jerra was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Complex in Lompoc, California in 2009. Leading into trial, Jerra asserted an Eighth Amendment Bivens claim for excessive force against Defendant Baltazar Magana; a First Amendment Bivens claim for retaliation against Defendants Magana, Edwin Navato, Jorge Garcia, and Charles Grigg (collectively, “Defendant Officers”); and claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) for assault, battery, and negligence against the United States. (Pretrial Conference Order, ECF No. 240-1.)

         Jerra's First Amendment claims were based on a series of administrative write-ups he received from the Defendant Officers, which were allegedly in retaliation for Jerra's expression of his First Amendment rights, through the Bureau of Prison's (“BOP”) administrative remedy process. (See Id. at 5.) His Eighth Amendment claim was based on an incident that occurred in the prison law library on February 18, 2009. (See Id. at 4, 13-14.)

         A. First Amendment Claims

         Jerra argued to the jury that Magana and his colleagues engaged in a campaign of harassment, retaliation, and abuse against him. Jerra submitted evidence that: 1) Jerra engaged in First Amendment-protected speech by filing administrative grievances against the Defendant Officers; 2) Defendant Officers took action against Jerra by singling him out for special housing unit (“SHU”) cell searches, confiscating Jerra's grievances and other documents, threatening Jerra with more SHU time, roughing Jerra up, and over-detaining Jerra in the SHU for no legitimate correctional purpose; 3) Jerra's protected speech was a substantial motivating factor for Defendant Officers' actions; and 4) Defendant Officers' actions did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal. (See Apr. 4 Tr. 64:12-73:1 (opening statement summarizing evidence), 161:23-170:16, ECF No. 308.) Jerra also advanced a theory that the incident in the prison law library may have also been in retaliation for Jerra's expressive acts. (See Apr. 11 Tr. 80:15-90:7, ECF No. 318.)

         B. The Library Incident

         At trial, the parties presented competing versions of what happened on February 18, 2009, in the prison law library.

         Jerra's version, was generally supported by one witness, Charles Sigerseth. Jerra testified that at about 8:30 p.m., Magana entered the prison law library and ordered Jerra to submit to a “strip search.” Because Jerra had been assaulted by Magana in the past, he requested, “very calmly, ” that the search be supervised by another BOP official. Magana did not summon another official to observe the search. The two exchanged words in this fashion a few more times, each time in a slightly escalated tone. Magana then screamed at Jerra that he would be going to the hole, spun him around, and handcuffed one of his hands. Jerra then “felt his hand reach around [him] and start going under [his] pants.” Jerra instinctively pulled away from Magana when Magana attempted to reached towards his genitals, given his prior experiences where Magana squeezed his testicles. (Apr. 5 Tr. 45:19-51:21, ECF No. 310 (“[S]o the two thoughts around through my mind he's going to squeeze my testicles really hard…or he's going to plant contraband…. This is nanoseconds, instinctively, I pulled away.”).) In response, Magana grabbed Jerra and spun him around, and Jerra went to the ground, at which point “Magana hit him a few more times while [Jerra was] down, and then jumped on his back….” (Apr. 6 Tr. 146:151:13, ECF No. 312.) As a result of the encounter, Jerra suffered a laceration above his eye, and damage to his cervical spine (Apr. 5 Tr. at 51:1-21, 61:10-20, 69:14-21, ECF No. 310; Apr. 6 Tr. at 32:18-33:17, ECF No. 312.)

         Magana's version of events, also generally supported by one witness, was slightly different. Most importantly, Magana contended that he did not request that Jerra submit to a “strip search, ” but, rather, only requested a “pat down” search. Jerra refused to comply with Magana's request four or five times, in violation of prison policy. Then, Jerra pulled away when Magana tried to handcuff him, also in violation of prison policy. Surrounded by other inmates in the prison library and alone, Magana swung both hands at Jerra, but Jerra continued to resist. Magana finally was able to grab Jerra's hair, and take him to the floor. Jerra's head hit a lectern on the way down, and Magana landed on top of Jerra's upper back, finally able to take control of the situation. (Apr. 5 Tr. 50:2-52:19, 132:1-133:5, 170:20-189:10, ECF No. 310; Apr. 7 Tr. 91:1-94:22, ECF No. 314 (testimony of supporting witness Cooke Christopher).)

         C. Defendants' Pre-Verdict Motion & the Verdict

         After the close of Jerra's case, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Rule 50(a). Defendants argued there was not sufficient evidence for Jerra's claims, and that the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. (Apr. 7 Tr. at 1:16-18:20, ECF No. 314.) The Court denied the Motion, with the exception of the claims against Garcia, who the Court dismissed. (Id. at 17:21-24.) The jury found:





First Amendment Retaliation




First Amendment Retaliation



$10, 000

First Amendment Retaliation



$20, 000

Eighth Amendment Excessive Force



$645, 000[2]


         Defendants seek to overturn the jury's verdict on several procedural grounds. To succeed on a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), the moving party must: 1) have raised the issues in its pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion; and 2) demonstrate that there is “no legally sufficient basis for a reasonable jury” to have found in the non-moving party's favor. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b); Winarto v. Toshiba Am. Elecs. Components, Inc., 274 F.3d 1276, 1283 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Freund v. Nycomed Amersham, 347 F.3d 752, 761 (9th Cir. 2003) (“A party cannot raise arguments in its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) that it did not raise in its pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion.”).

         A new trial under Rule 59(a) is only warranted where the moving party can show that the jury's verdict was “contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, based upon false or perjurious evidence, or involved a miscarriage of justice….” Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Wharf v. Burlington Northern R.R. Co., 60 F.3d 631, 637 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         Defendants also move, in the alternative, to amend the judgment, pursuant to Rule 59(e). Applicable here, courts may grant a Rule 59(e) motion where the movant demonstrates “that the motion is necessary to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment is based…” or that there is an “intervening change in controlling law.” McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 n.1 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting 11 Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 2810.1 (2d ed. 1995)).

         Finally, Rule 60(b) provides parties an avenue to seek relief from a judgment for several enumerated reasons not applicable here, in addition to a catch-all provision. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6) (providing for relief from judgment for “any other reason that justifies relief”). Courts apply the catch-all provision “sparingly as an equitable remedy to prevent manifest injustice….” Fantasyland Video, Inc. v. Cty. of San Diego, 505 F.3d 996, 1005 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Alpine Land & Reservoir Co., 984 F.2d 1047, 1049 (9th Cir. 1993)).


         Defendants assert seven reasons the Court should overturn the jury's verdict. The Court addresses each in turn.

         A. Ziglar v. Abbasi Does Not Warrant Overturning the Jury's Verdict

         Defendants argue that Ziglar v. Abbasi, decided by the Supreme Court after the trial in this case, changes the legal landscape for Jerra's Bivens claims. (Mot. 4-8 (citing Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843 (2017).) In Bivens, the Supreme Court established an implied remedy for money damages against federal employees who violate a plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights, while acting under the color of law. Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 396-97 (1971). Since Bivens, the Supreme Court has extended its holding to two additional scenarios: a violation of the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 19-22 (1980) (allowing Bivens claim under Eighth Amendment for failure to treat prisoner's asthma); Davis v. Passaman, 442 U.S. 228, 248-49 (1979) (allowing Bivens claim under Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause where Congressman fired plaintiff because she was a woman). Courts apply Bivens through a two-step analysis that requires analyzing: 1) whether the claim arises in a new context; and 2) whether special factors counsel against implying a damages remedy. Ziglar, 137 S.Ct. at 1849.

         1. New Context

         The Court must first address whether Jerra's claims arise in a new Bivens context. Id. “If the case is different in a meaningful way from previous Bivens cases decided by [the Supreme Court], then the context is new.” Id. at 1859-60. In Ziglar, the Supreme Court established a non-exhaustive list of “meaningful differences, ” which includes: “the rank of the officers involved; the constitutional right at issue; the extent of judicial guidance for the official conduct; the risk of disruptive intrusion by the Judiciary into the functioning of other branches; or the presence of potential special factors not considered in previous Bivens cases.” Id.

         In Ziglar, the policies being challenged-“the confinement conditions imposed on illegal liens pursuant to a high-level executive policy created in the wake of a major terrorist attack on American soil”-differed greatly from the Supreme Court's previous applications of the Bivens remedy. Id. at 1860. Given these “meaningful differences, ” the Supreme Court found that the claims arose in a “new context, ” requiring a special factors analysis. Id.

         Jerra argues that his Eighth Amendment claim is not meaningfully different than the claim asserted in Carlson. 446 U.S. at 19-22 (allowing Bivens claim under Eighth Amendment for failure to treat prisoner's asthma). Jerra argues that “both cases involve (1) mistreatment of a federal prison inmate; (2) which was perpetrated by federal prison officials; (3) conduct that occurred in a public federal prison; (4) Eighth Amendment violations; (5) acts that caused physical injury to an inmate; and (6) claims for compensatory and punitive damages.” (Opp'n 7, ECF No. 327.) Jerra does not address whether his First Amendment claims arise in a new context.

         Defendants counter that: (1) Jerra concedes the First Amendment claims arise in a new context because he failed to address them; and (2) while Jerra's Eighth Amendment claim shares some similarities with Carlson, it is governed by different legal standards, and thus warrants a special factors analysis. (Reply 1-2, ECF No. 329.)

         With respect to Ziglar's effect on Jerra's First Amendment claim, the Ninth Circuit recently acknowledged that it has previously extended the Bivens remedy to the First Amendment where “plaintiffs have alleged that FBI agents acted with the impermissible motive of curbing [the plaintiff's] protected speech….” Vega v. United States, 881 F.3d 1146, 1153 (9th Cir. 2018) (quoting Gibson v. United States, 781 F.2d 1334, 1342 (9th Cir. 1986)). As framed by Defendants, Jerra's First Amendment retaliation claims rely on his allegations that “Officer Magana harassed [him] for administrative grievances, ” and that “Officer Navato threatened and harassed [him] for administrative grievances against Officer Magana.” (Mot. 5, ECF No. 306.) These claims do not meaningfully differ from the claim at issue in Gibson, where the Ninth Circuit approved a Bivens action where federal employees “acted with the impermissible motive of curbing Gibson's protected speech….” Gibson, 781 F.2d at 1342.

         However, in finding a “new context” in Vega, the Ninth Circuit explained that, “neither the Supreme Court nor we have expanded Bivens in the context of a prisoner's First Amendment access to court…claims.” Vega, 881 F.3d at 1153 (emphasis added). Jerra does not have an access to court claim. The Ninth Circuit's reference to “we” could imply that Bivens avenues previously accepted by the Ninth Circuit, but not addressed in one of the Supreme Court's three Bivens cases, may still be accessible after Ziglar. See Id. (emphasis added). Yet, the Supreme Court held: “If the case is different in a meaningful way from previous Bivens cases decided by this Court, then the context is new.” Ziglar, 137 S.Ct. at 1859 (emphasis added). Therefore, the Court evaluates Jerra's First Amendment claims as arising in a new context, requiring a special factors analysis. See id.

         With respect to Jerra's Eighth Amendment claims, he does not establish that his claims, which arise from a federal officer's unwarranted and excessive force, are not meaningfully different than the claim in Carlson. The constitutional right at issue here and in Carlson both grow from the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. However, an officer's failure to provide medical care where doctors have advised of a serious asthmatic condition, see Carlson, 446 U.S. at 16 n.1, is different than Jerra's claim for excessive force. Accordingly, the Court employs a special factors analysis for this claim, too. See Ziglar, 137 S.Ct. at 1860 (“A case might differ in a meaningful way because…the statutory or other legal mandate under which the officer was operating….”).

         2. Special Factors

         “In the first place, there is the question whether any alternative, existing process for protecting the interest amounts to a convincing reason for the Judicial Branch to refrain from providing a new and freestanding remedy in damages.” Vega, 881 F.3d at 1153 (quoting Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U.S. 537, 550 (2007)). Second, the Court asks whether there are “‘special factors counselling hesitation in the absence of affirmative action by Congress.'” Id. (quoting Carlson, 446 U.S. at 18). Defendants argue there are alternative remedies that would adequately allow Jerra to assert his rights: injunctive relief, state tort law, the FTCA, and BOP administrative remedies. (Mot. 5-8, ECF No. 306.)

         While alternative remedies need not be “perfectly congruent, ” they do need to provide “roughly similar incentives” to deter the bad conduct, and compensate the plaintiff. Minneci v. Pollard, 565 U.S. 118, 129-30 (2012) (“Rather, in principle, the question is whether, in general, state tort law remedies provide roughly similar incentives for potential defendants to comply with the Eighth Amendment while also providing roughly similar compensation to victims of violations”) As urged by Jerra, Defendants' proposed, alternative remedies amount to “no alternatives at all.” Linlor v. Polson, 263 F.Supp.3d 613, 620 (E.D. Va. 2017).

. Injunctive relief: At trial, Jerra sought compensation for harm he suffered in 2008 and 2009. Injunctive relief, however, does not compensate him for the harm he suffered, and does not present an adequate alternative. See Engle v. Buchan, 710 F.3d 698, 706 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding writ of habeas corpus not sufficient alternative remedy because it provides injunctive relief, and “cannot perform a compensatory function.”).
. State Tort Law: State law does not provide a remedy because the Westfall Act immunizes Defendants from being sued in their individual capacities under California tort law. Osborn v. ...

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