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Washington v. Young

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 31, 2018

YOUNG, et al., Defendants.


          Deborah Barnes, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis with an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging defendants violated his Eighth Amendment rights. Presently before the court is defendants' motion for sanctions and request to seal. (ECF No. 41.)

         I. Background

         Plaintiff's complaint alleges that while he was an inmate at High Desert State Prison defendants directed another inmate to physically assault him in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff attached as Exhibit B to his complaint a document purportedly written by inmate Howard Grissom stating Grissom was directed by defendant correctional officers to assault plaintiff and was rewarded for carrying out the assault. (ECF No. 1 at 10.) After defendants were served, they responded by filing a motion for terminating sanctions and a request to seal. (ECF No. 41.) They allege plaintiff forged the declaration of Grissom attached to the complaint in an effort to defraud the court. Defendants attached a declaration purportedly signed by Grissom stating he did not write the declaration attached to plaintiff's complaint and that the signature affixed to it was not his. (ECF No. 41-2.) Defendants claim the declaration could be seen by inmates who have access to publicly filed court records, posing a safety risk to Grissom and jeopardizing the security of the institution where he is housed. (ECF No. 41-3.) Defendants request to seal the page of the complaint containing the declaration allegedly written and signed by Grissom. (ECF No. 41.)

         Plaintiff's filings in response to defendants request do not indicate that he opposes the request to seal. (ECF Nos. 47, 48.) Plaintiff claims Grissom made the same statements in a declaration executed on December 18, 2015[1] and repeated those statements during a visit with a representative from the Prison Law Office in February 2016. (ECF No. 47.)

         II. Legal Standards

         In evaluating requests to seal, the court starts “‘with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records.'” Ctr. For Auto Safety v. Chrysler Grp., LLC, 809 F.3d 1092, 1096 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Foltz v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 331 F.3d 1122, 1135 (9th Cir. 2003)). “The presumption of access is ‘based on the need for federal courts, although independent-indeed, particularly because they are independent-to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Amodeo, 71 F.3d 1044, 1048 (2d Cir. 1995)). Generally, if a party seeks to seal a judicial record, the party bears the burden of overcoming this presumption by articulating “compelling reasons supported by specific factual findings” to justify sealing the records at issue. Kamakana v. City and County of Honolulu, 447 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2006).

         In general, when “‘court files might have become a vehicle for improper purposes' such as the use of records to gratify spite, promote public scandal, circulate libelous statements, or release trade secrets, ” there are “compelling reasons” sufficient to outweigh the public's interest in disclosure. Id. at 1179 (internal citations and alterations omitted). However, “[t]he mere fact that the production of records may lead to a litigant's embarrassment, incrimination, or exposure to further litigation will not, without more, compel the court to seal its records.” Id. (citing Foltz, 331 F.3d at 1136).

         III. Discussion

         Defendants have stated Grissom may become a target for assault by other inmates if the declaration remains viewable by the public. They have alleged facts showing that compelling reasons exist to seal the declaration because if viewed by inmates it could pose a safety risk to Grissom as well as the institution where he is presently housed. See Kamakana, 447 F.3d at 1184; Nursing Home Pension Fund v. Oracle Corp., 01-cv-0988 MJJ, 2007 WL 3232267 *2 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 1, 2007) (finding compelling reason to protect confidential witnesses from retaliation and harassment.).

         Based on the information before it at this time and out of an abundance of caution, the court will grant defendant's request to seal. Additionally, plaintiff is instructed that if he intends to file similar documents in the future he should seek leave of the court or request to file them under seal in accordance with Local Rule 141. In granting the request to seal the court makes no determination regarding the authenticity of the declaration.

         IV. Show Cause Hearing

         Defendants moved for terminating sanctions based on Grissom's declaration that he did not write or sign the declaration attached to the complaint. (ECF Nos. 41, 41-2.) Plaintiff's response indicates that the information contained in the declaration is true and Grissom executed a separate declaration containing the same information in December 2015. (ECF No. 47.) After reviewing defendants motion for terminating sanctions (ECF No. 41) and plaintiff's response (ECF Nos. 47, 48), the court has determined it is necessary to have a hearing to show cause why plaintiff has not violated Rule 11. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(3) (the court may, on its own motion order a hearing to show cause why conduct by a party has not violated Rule 11).

         Federal courts have broad powers to impose sanctions against parties or counsel for improper conduct in litigation. The court derives the power to impose sanctions on parties or their counsel from three primary sources of authority, “(1) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11, which applies to signed writings filed with the court, (2) 28 U.S.C. § 1927, which is aimed at penalizing conduct that unreasonably and vexatiously ...

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