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Muniz v. Pfeiffer

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 23, 2019

CELINA MUNIZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
CHRISTIAN PFEIFFER, et al., Defendants.




         Plaintiff Celina Muniz brings this lawsuit raising federal and state law claims for the death of her son, Daniel Muniz, while he was incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison (“KVSP”). First Amended Complaint, ECF No. 10 ¶¶ 2, 5. Ms. Muniz initiated this action individually and as the successor-in-interest of Mr. Muniz’s estate (collectively “Plaintiffs”). ECF No. 10 ¶ 2. On around March 24, 2018, Mr. Muniz was attacked by his cellmate and later died from his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 20-22. Plaintiffs raise claims against the Warden of KVSP, Christian Pfeiffer, individually and in his official capacity, and against Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) Ralph Diaz in his official capacity (collectively “Defendants”). ECF No. 10, ¶¶ 6-7.[1]

         In the First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), Plaintiffs assert five causes of action. ECF No. 10. They bring claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of constitutional rights and supervisory liability under the same. ECF No. 10, ¶¶ 57-69, 70-77. They also allege violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131, and the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”), 29 U.S.C. § 794. Id. ¶¶ 78-88. Next, Plaintiffs allege violations of California Government Code § 845.6 for failure to summon medical treatment for Mr. Muniz and for failure to provide him access to special housing. ECF No. 10 ¶¶ 89-92. Lastly, Plaintiffs bring a negligence and wrongful death claim. Id. ¶¶ 93-99.

         Under review is Defendants’ motion to dismiss the FAC. ECF No. 13. The Court has determined that a decision on the motion is appropriate on the papers under Local Rule 230(g). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants’ motion to dismiss.

         II. BACKGROUND[2]

         At approximately 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 2018, while prison officers performed security checks of Facility C in KVSP, they found Mr. Muniz unresponsive in his cell. ECF No. 10 ¶ 20. The officers sounded the alarm and removed Mr. Muniz’s cellmate, Toribio Mendoza, from the cell. Id. ¶ 21. Mr. Muniz was transported to an outside hospital for treatment of serious head injuries resulting from blunt trauma to the head. Id. ¶¶ 21-22. Mr. Muniz underwent brain surgery at Kern Medical Center, and on April 21 he was transferred to Vibra Medical Center. Id. ¶ 22. On June 1, 2018 he died from respiratory complications due to the brain injury. Id.

         Mr. Muniz’s cooperation with a criminal investigation

         Prior to his incarceration at KVSP, Mr. Muniz had cooperated in a criminal investigation. Id. ¶ 23. Plaintiffs allege that Warden Pfeiffer, correctional officers and staff knew or should have known that Mr. Muniz was at risk due to his cooperation. Id.

         Learning disability

         Mr. Muniz was diagnosed with a mental illness and disability characterized by being a “slow learner” and having “difficulty reading, writing and comprehending simple orders.” Id. ¶ 24. These mental impairments limited his mental or physical health condition. Id. Plaintiffs allege that Mr. Muniz was eligible for certain medical and mental health care services offered to inmates in a state prison because of his condition. Id.

         Mr. Muniz complained of threats made by his cellmate

         Days and weeks before the attack, Mr. Muniz had complained to KVSP staff and correctional officers of threats of violence made by his cellmate, Mr. Mendoza. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiffs allege that KVSP’s correctional officers and supervisors ignored Mr. Muniz’s complaints and failed to remove him from the cell. Id. ¶ 34.

         “Out time” and prior attacks by cellmates

         Plaintiffs claim that Warden Pfeiffer, CDCR staff, and the Doe Defendants failed to adopt the practice of alternating the “Out Time” of inmates knowing that Mr. Muniz faced a risk of violence. Id. ¶ 25. The FAC does not elaborate on the meaning of “Out Time.” See id.

         Without providing particular details of the attacks, Plaintiffs reference prior attacks on Mr. Muniz by former cellmates. Id. ¶ 48.

         Video surveillance

         Unidentified corrections officers, the Doe Defendants, were assigned to monitor the video feeds captured inside housing units. Id. ¶ 29. Warden Pfeiffer and KVSP staff knew that materials from equipment and machinery located at KVSP had been removed and hidden by inmates to use as weapons. Id. ¶ 27. Plaintiffs allege that the video recording of Facility C shows that the suspect inmates engaged in suspicious activity that should have triggered intervention by prison officers. Id. ¶ 33. Plaintiffs also allege that the video recordings from Facility C on March 23 to March 24, 2018 show that Mr. Mendoza had begun planning the attack on Mr. Muniz. Id. ¶ 32. During the entire time that the criminal acts occurred “no correction officer enter[ed] the Unit [Facility C] or cell.” Id. ¶ 33.


         Ms. Muniz “has suffered loss of love and society” from the death of her son. Id. ¶ 44. Plaintiffs allege that they suffered serious and permanent injuries and are entitled to damages, penalties, costs, and attorney’s fees as set forth under the ADA.


         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is a challenge to the sufficiency of the allegations set forth in the complaint. Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is proper where there is either a “lack of a cognizable legal theory” or “the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.” Balisteri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court generally accepts as true the allegations in the complaint, construes the pleading in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and resolves all doubts in the pleader’s favor. Lazy Y. Ranch LTD v. Behrens, 546 F.3d 580, 588 (9th Cir. 2008).

         To survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the Plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitlement to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations omitted). Thus, “bare assertions . . . amount[ing] to nothing more than a ‘formulaic recitation of the elements’ . . . are not entitled to be assumed true.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681. “[T]o be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint . . . must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively.” Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011). In practice, “a complaint . . . must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 562. To the extent that the pleadings can be cured by the allegation of additional facts, a plaintiff should be afforded leave to amend. Cook, Perkiss and Liehe, Inc. v. Northern Cal. Collection Serv., Inc., 911 F.2d 242, 247 (9th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In Defendants’ motion to dismiss, they argue that Causes of Action One, Two, and Three should be dismissed on the following grounds:

(1) Plaintiffs fail to state an Eighth Amendment claim against Warden Pfeiffer for deliberate indifference to decedent Muniz’s welfare or medical care; (2) Warden Pfeiffer is entitled to qualified immunity as to the Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference claim based on a failure to use surveillance video; (3) Plaintiffs have improperly asserted multiple federal claims under one cause of action; (4) Plaintiff Celine [sic] Muniz has failed to allege a familial relationship protected by the Fourteenth Amendment; and (5) Plaintiffs fail to allege sufficient facts to support an ADA / RA claim for monetary relief.

         First, the Court analyzes the Section 1983 claims-separately discussing the claims of individual liability and supervisory liability. The remaining claims are discussed in the order they are brought.

         A. Section 1983 Claims

         1. Liability of Individual Defendants

         a. No challenge to claims against Doe Defendants

         Section 1983 liability against Doe Defendants (First Cause of Action)

         Under the First Cause of Action, Plaintiffs assert the Section 1983 claim against the Doe Defendants-the unknown prison officers-in their individual capacities. The Defendants’ motion to dismiss, on behalf of Defendants Warden Pfeiffer and Secretary Diaz, does not seek dismissal of the this claim against the Doe Defendants. Accordingly, the Court does not address whether the claims against the Doe Defendants should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).

         b. Multiple constitutional claims under one cause of action

         FAC is not defective for asserting multiple claims of constitutional violations under one cause of action.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiffs improperly asserted all three constitutional violations (First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments) under the first cause of action. Defendants rely on an unpublished case from this Court, Fernandez v. N. Kern State Prison, No. 1:16-CV-1612 AWI JLT, 2016 WL 7324708, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 16, 2016), for the proposition that it is generally improper to allege different violations of different constitutional rights under a single claim for relief. Although commingling various constitutional claims in one cause of action may not constitute a best practice, it does not by itself entitle the defending party to a dismissal. Rule 8(b) is still the Court’s guidepost: a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” The Court therefore rejects Defendants’ argument that the Section 1983 claims should be dismissed merely because they allege multiple constitutional violations under a single cause of action.

         c. Eighth Amendment

         Plaintiffs allege Eighth Amendment violations under two theories: failure to protect from harm and deliberate indifference to Mr. Muniz’s medical needs. Plaintiffs’ Oppo. to Mtn. to Dismiss, ECF No. 19-1, at 7. Although these theories have separate analytical frameworks, Plaintiffs assert them under the same cause of action. See ECF No. 10 ¶¶ 57-69.

All . . . defendants . . . deprived DANIEL MUNIZ of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment . . . by subjecting him, or through their deliberate indifference, allowing others to subject him, to delay and denial of access to medical or mental health care for a serious, but treatable, medical or mental health condition, and by subjecting him, or through their reckless disregard, allowing others to subject him to serious bodily injury and death.

ECF No. 10 ¶ 58. The Court analyzes the failure to protect claim and the deliberate indifference to medical needs separately. Before addressing these claims, the Court dismisses the claims against Warden Pfeiffer as an individual because Plaintiffs fail to allege that he personally participated in the violations.

         i. Failure to Protect from Harm

         “A prison official’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 828 (1994). A prison official acts with deliberate indifference only if she knows of and disregards an excessive ...

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