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Vasquez v. Ahlin

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 10, 2019

Pam Ahlin, et al., Defendants.


         Plaintiff George Vasquez is a former civil detainee at the Coalinga State Hospital (“CSH”) proceeding without counsel in this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Earlier in this case, plaintiff challenged a regulation of the California Department of State Hospitals (“DSH”) that would restrict his access to certain electronic devices at CSH. According to plaintiff, the challenged regulation, if enforced, would violate his due process rights. While this case was pending, DSH amended the challenged regulation, mooting plaintiff's claim. This court then dismissed the complaint and directed plaintiff to file an amended complaint to assert any challenge he might have against the newly-amended regulation.

         Months have passed since the court asked for an amended complaint from plaintiff, and he has not amended his complaint. The court has ordered plaintiff to show cause why the case should not be dismissed (1) as moot and (2) for plaintiff's failure to file an amended complaint, ECF Nos. 71, 75, but plaintiff's response does not address either issue. Instead, he argues that several new claims unrelated to this case accrued and that he is entitled to litigate those new claims in this lawsuit. Notably, plaintiff does not dispute this court's prior conclusion that his original claim became moot because the challenged regulation was amended. Plaintiff may litigate his new, unrelated claims in another case, but his original claim became moot, and without a pleading that presents a live case or controversy, this court lacks jurisdiction. Thus, the court must dismiss the case. Alternatively, plaintiff's prolonged and repeated failure to file an amended complaint warrants dismissal for failure to comply with a court order. Neither ground for dismissal precludes plaintiff from asserting his new claims in a different case, but this case should now be closed. All pending motions should be denied.

         I. Background

         a. Plaintiff's Allegations

         In 2010, during his stay at CSH, plaintiff received a memorandum from CSH administrators, who informed him about increased findings of contraband such as pornographic materials, allegedly attributable to patients' use of electronic devices. The memorandum also informed plaintiff that DSH had responded to those incidents by enacting, on an emergency basis, Section 4350 of Title 9 of the California Code of Regulations, which would prohibit all electronic devices with internet capabilities at CSH. As applied to plaintiff, Section 4350 would deprive him of (1) his electronic devices, including his personal computer and several handheld gaming consoles; and (2) data stored on those electronic devices, including plaintiff's legal research and certain information related to his medical treatment. ECF No. 11 at 14-15.

         Plaintiff argued that the planned enforcement of Section 4350 would violate his due process rights. He argued that, by banning all electronic devices, Section 4350 did not employ the least restrictive means of achieving a legitimate government interest. Id. at 12-13, 33-34. Plaintiff asked the court to enjoin DSH from enforcing Section 4350, to “maintain the status quo before any more changes to the policies are implemented.” Id. at 15.

         b. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed his original complaint in this case while he was still a patient at CSH. ECF No. 1.[1] In the original complaint and the attached exhibits, which ran over 200 pages, plaintiff complained of a wide variety of matters, including the planned enforcement of Section 4350. This court concluded that plaintiff failed to state a claim and required him to file an amended complaint. See ECF No. 8 at 20. Plaintiff then filed his first amended complaint and additional exhibits, running a combined 273 pages. ECF No. 11.[2] After another round of screening, this court again concluded that plaintiff failed to state a claim and dismissed the case. ECF No. 16. The court explained, “Plaintiff's lengthy Amended Complaint is filled with generalized statements and legal arguments, but little to no factual support.” Id. at 15. The court also noted that plaintiff's factual allegations were vague. Id. Plaintiff appealed, ECF No. 18, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. ECF No. 27. Although the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff's other claims, the court also concluded that plaintiff “alleged facts in the amended complaint sufficient to state a plausible due process claim arising from the regulation of his electronic devices” and remanded for further proceedings. Id. at 2-3. On remand, this court served the first amended complaint on defendants, who appeared and responded to the complaint with a motion to dismiss.

         In their motion to dismiss, defendants argued that plaintiff's due process claim arising from the threatened restriction on his electronic devices was moot. See generally ECF No. 44. They argued that, in response to lawsuits filed by CSH patients, DSH had amended Section 4350 to allow patients to possess otherwise-prohibited electronic devices under supervision. See id. at 14-15; Cal. Code Regs. tit. 9 § 4350(d). The amended regulation also allowed a patient to mail his electronic devices to an off-site location of his choice, after a search of those devices, as an alternative to permanent confiscation. See ECF No. 44-1 at 26. If a patient refused to turn in his electronic devices voluntarily for review, then the electronic devices would be confiscated as contraband and destroyed. Id.; ECF No. 79 at 11. The first amended complaint was directed at the old Section 4350 and contained no challenge against the amended Section 4350. This court granted defendants' motion to dismiss and granted plaintiff leave to amend his complaint to assert any challenge he might have against amended Section 4350. ECF Nos. 60, 66. Rather than filing a second amended complaint, plaintiff took an interlocutory appeal. ECF No. 68. The Ninth Circuit dismissed the appeal, noting that the court of appeal lacked jurisdiction and that plaintiff's due process claim was moot.[3] This court ordered plaintiff to show why the case should not be dismissed (1) as moot and (2) for plaintiff's failure to file an amended complaint. ECF Nos. 71, 75.

         Plaintiff has filed a response to the order to show cause. ECF No. 79. He argues that the case is not moot because he has been released from CSH and several new claims have accrued since his release. He alleges that, for an unidentified reason, some electronic devices he had at CSH have not been returned to him after his release. Plaintiff does not allege that his new claims arise from the older or the amended version of Section 4350. He does not allege that defendants named in this case are responsible for the return of the devices. Plaintiff still has not filed another amended complaint, and the operative pleading still challenges the old version of Section 4350. Defendants filed their own response to the court's order to show cause on mootness, arguing that the case is moot.

         II. Discussion

         I recommend that the court dismiss the case for two reasons: First, the case is moot; this court lacks jurisdiction absent case and controversy. Second, plaintiff has not amended his complaint as ordered. Each of these reasons provides an independent basis for dismissal.

         a. Mootness

         A federal court has an independent duty to examine its jurisdiction, and discharging that duty requires the court to ensure that an actual controversy exists at every stage of litigation. See Bd. of Trs. of Glazing Health & Welfare Tr. v. Chambers, 903 F.3d 829, 838 (9th Cir. 2018); Kwai Fun Wong v. Beebe, 732 F.3d 1030, 1036 (9th Cir. 2013). A case becomes moot when a court cannot grant “any effectual relief.” Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, 913 F.3d 940, 949 (9th Cir. 2019). An actual controversy cannot exist when the case has become moot. See M.M. v. Lafayette Sch. Dist., 767 F.3d 842, 857 (9th Cir. 2014).

         Here, two reasons compel the conclusion that this case became moot: First, the Ninth Circuit's determination on interlocutory appeal that the case is moot is the law of the case. Second, even if the court were to reconsider its prior decision on mootness, its decision must remain the same.

         i. Law of the Case

         The law of the case doctrine governs reconsideration of “an issue that has already been decided by the same court, or a higher court in the identical case.” Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey, 913 F.3d 940, 951 (9th Cir. 2019) (quoting United States v. Alexander, 106 F.3d 874, 876 (9th Cir. 1997)). When a court has decided an issue earlier in a case, that court may reassess its own ruling at its discretion. See Askins v. U.S. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 899 F.3d 1035, 1042 (9th Cir. 2018). On the other hand, a lower court must follow the appellate court's decision on issues “decided explicitly or by necessary implication, ” Visciotti v. Martel, 862 F.3d 749, 763 (9th Cir. 2016), absent “clear error, changed law, new evidence, changed circumstances, or manifest injustice.” Askins, 899 F.3d at 1043. See also United States v. Cote, 51 F.3d 178, 181 (9th Cir. 1995) (comparing law of the case doctrine with the mandate rule). The law of the case doctrine applies even when the higher court has not provided nuanced analysis for its decision; the “[d]eference to the judicial hierarchy leaves room for no other course of action, ” and the lower court must “assume that the [higher court] meant what it said.” Visciotti, 862 F.3d at 764.

         Here, the law of case doctrine binds this court. Plaintiff litigated the issue of mootness before the Ninth Circuit. After defendants moved to dismiss the pending appeal as moot, plaintiff alleged that he had been released from CSH and argued that defendants continued to violate his rights by failing to return certain electronic devices after his release. According to plaintiff, given the continuing violation, a live case and controversy existed. See Vasquez, No. 18-17068, ECF No. 19 at 3-4. The Ninth Circuit disagreed and dismissed the appeal, stating that plaintiff's due process claim was moot. See Vasquez v. Ahlin, No. 18-17068, ECF No. 20 (9th Cir. Jun. 26, 2019).

         Given these facts, this court is bound by the Ninth Circuit's ruling that plaintiff's due process claim is moot. The change-of-circumstances exception to the law of case doctrine is not triggered because the court of appeals reached its ruling knowing plaintiff's change of circumstances. See Microsoft Corp. v. Motorola, Inc., 795 F.3d 1024, 1034-35 (9th Cir. 2015) (rejecting change-of-circumstances argument because the court issued its ruling after, and knowing, the change of circumstances).[4] The court of appeals noted ...

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