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Worth v. Godfrey

United States District Court, C.D. California

October 24, 2019

D. GODFREY et al Defendants.




         On July 10, 2019, Plaintiff Tonney Killensworth ("Plaintiff), an inmate at California State Prison - Corcoran, proceeding pro se, filed a Complaint alleging violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). (Compl, ECF No. 1.) The Court has screened the Complaint as prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 1915A and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). For the reasons stated below, the Complaint is DISMISSED WITH LEAVE TO AMEND. Plaintiff is ORDERED to, within thirty days after the date of this Order, either: (1) file a First Amended Complaint, or (2) advise the Court that Plaintiff does not intend to file a First Amended Complaint.


         The Complaint is filed against: (1) Correctional Sergeant D. Godfrey, (2) Correctional Sergeant R. Aguirre, (3) Correctional Lieutenant G. Marshall, and (4) Correctional Lieutenant B. Legier (each a "Defendant" and collectively, "Defendants"). (Compl. 2)[1] Each Defendant is sued in his individual capacity. (Id. at 11.)

         The Complaint[2] contains the following allegations and claims: This lawsuit arises out of a July 11, 2018 altercation between inmates Castro and Jackson, which culminated in inmate Castro stabbing inmate Jackson in the neck. (Id. at 5.) Plaintiff alleges that he was not involved in the incident, was locked in his assigned cell at the time, and "was oblivious to what was going on." (Id.)

         That night, Plaintiff received a rules violation report ("RVR"), which charged Plaintiff with soliciting inmate Castro to murder inmate Jackson, and was placed into administrative segregation ("ad seg") by Defendant Marshall. (Id. at 4-5.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants conspired with each other to fabricate documents and information relative to the RVR. (Id. at 4.) According to Plaintiff, there was no evidence of Plaintiff s personal involvement in the incident. (Id. at 5.)

         Plaintiff voiced his concerns about the flaws in his administrative segregation notice to a classification committee. (Id.) Instead of taking note of the misinformation given by a confidential informant and dropping the false charges against Plaintiff, Defendant Legier issued a second ad-seg notice to Plaintiff on July 20, 2018. (Id. at 7.) The second ad-seg notice stated that '"confidential information' was received indicating you may have played a role in the attempted murder of inmate Jackson." (Id. at 5-6.) Plaintiff contends that this is a "very serious allegation to 'presume' without an eye witness account, [sic] the only thing left is a presumption of guilt." (Id. at 6.)

         Defendant Aguirre was replaced as a senior hearing officer on Plaintiffs investigative employee report. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff asserts that this was improper because a senior hearing officer must be a lieutenant or higher. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Aguirre denied all of Plaintiff s questions-which would have exonerated Plaintiff completely-and deemed them irrelevant. (Id.) Defendant Aguirre asserted that he did not decline Plaintiffs questions, as that could only be done by a senior hearing officer. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that Defendant Aguirre denied Plaintiffs due process rights to fully cross-examine the victim and others involved in the matter. (Id.)

         Defendant Godfrey compounded the problem by denying Plaintiffs first-level appeal on August 16, 2018. (Id. at 9.)

         Plaintiff alleges that he has been in the security housing unit ("SHU") for 365 days, and has another 180 days remaining in SHU. (Id. at 3.) As a result, Plaintiff asserts that he has not been able to practice his religion and attend the classes he needs; is confined in a cell twenty hours per day with two hours of daily exercise in a separate, slightly larger cell; is only permitted three showers per week; is not allowed phone calls; and has suffered severe emotional distress. (Id. at 4.)

         Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff asserts four claims for violation of the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. (Id. at 3-10.) Plaintiff also alleges that his Sixth Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights were violated. (Id. at 3, 6.) Plaintiff seeks: (1) restoration of his good-time credits; (2) $200, 000 in damages; and (3) unquantified punitive damages. (Id. at 11.)


         Federal courts must conduct a preliminary screening of any case in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity (28 U.S.C. § 1915A), or in which a plaintiff proceeds in forma pauperis (28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)). The court must identify cognizable claims and dismiss any complaint, or any portion thereof, that is: (1) frivolous or malicious, (2) fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or (3) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b), 1915(e)(2)(B).

         When screening a complaint to determine whether it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, courts apply the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) ("Rule 12(b)(6)") standard. See Wilhelm v. Rotman, 680 F.3d 1113, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012) (applying the Rule 12(b)(6) standard to 28 U.S.C. § Section 1915A); Watison v. Carter, 668 F.3d 1108, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012) (applying the Rule 12(b)(6) standard to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii)). "Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate only where the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory." Hartmann v. Cal. Dep't of Corr. & Rehab., 707 F.3d 1114, 1122 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Mendiondo v. Centinela Hosp. Med. Ctr., 521 F.3d 1097, 1104 (9th Cir. 2008)).

         Rule 12(b)(6) is read in conjunction with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) ("Rule 8"), "which requires not only 'fair notice of the nature of the claim, but also grounds on which the claim rests.'" See Li v. Kerry, 710 F.3d 995, 998 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Bell At!. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 n.3 (2007)). In reviewing a motion to dismiss, the court will accept the plaintiffs factual allegations as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Park v. Thompson, 851 F.3d 910, 918 (9th Cir. 2017). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not required, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "Conclusory allegations of law ... are insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss." Park, 851 F.3d at 918 (alteration in original) (quoting Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 679 (9th Cir. 2001)). Rather, a complaint must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663. "If there are two alternative explanations, one advanced by defendant and the other advanced by plaintiff, both of which are plausible, plaintiffs complaint survives a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)." Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011). "Plaintiffs complaint may be dismissed only when defendant's plausible alternative explanation is so convincing that plaintiffs explanation is implausible." Id.

         Where a plaintiff is pro se, particularly in civil rights cases, courts should construe pleadings liberally and afford the plaintiff any benefit of the doubt. Wilhelm, 680 F.3d at 1121. "[B]efore dismissing a pro se complaint the district court must provide the litigant with notice of the deficiencies in his complaint in order to ensure that the litigant uses the opportunity to amend effectively." Akhtar v. Mesa, 698 F.3d 1202, 1212 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Ferdik v. Bonzelet, 963 F.2d 1258, 1261 (9th Cir. 1992)). A court should grant apro se plaintiff leave to amend a defective complaint "unless it is absolutely clear that the deficiencies of the complaint could not be cured by amendment." Akhtar, 698 F.3d at 1212 (quoting Shucker v. Rockwood, 846 F.2d 1202, 1203-04 (9th Cir. 1988) (per curiam)).


         A. Plaintiffs Claims Potentially Are Heck-Barred.

         "Federal law opens two main avenues to relief on complaints related to imprisonment: a petition for habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and a complaint under [Section 1983]. Challenges to the validity of any confinement or to particulars affecting its duration are the province of habeas corpus; requests for relief turning on circumstances of confinement may be presented in a § 1983 action." Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S. 749, 750 (2004) (per curiam) (citations omitted).

         A Section 1983 complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey if judgment in favor of the plaintiff would undermine the validity of his conviction or sentence, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence already has been invalidated, either through state litigation or federal writ of habeas corpus. 512 U.S. at 477, 486-87 (1994). However, the Heck bar applies only "where success would necessarily imply the unlawfulness of a (not previously invalidated) conviction or sentence." Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81 (2005).

         In Edwards v. Balisock, the Supreme Court applied Heck to bar a Section 1983 action involving allegedly defective prison disciplinary procedures resulting in a loss of good time credits. 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997). The Supreme Court later clarified in Muhammad v. Close that an inmate's Section 1983 challenge to disciplinary proceedings are not barred by Heck if the challenge "threatens no consequence for [the] conviction or the duration of [the] sentence." 540 U.S. at 751. If the invalidity of the disciplinary proceedings, and therefore the restoration of good time credits, would not necessarily affect the length of time to be served, then the claim falls outside the core of habeas and may be brought pursuant to Section 1983. See Id. at 754-55.

         Applying that limitation, the Ninth Circuit concluded in Nettles v. Grounds that Heck did not bar a California inmate serving a life sentence from bringing a Section 1983 challenge to a disciplinary hearing that resulted in the loss of good time credits. 830 F.3d 922, 934-36 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc). Because Nettles was serving a life sentence, success on the merits of his claim "would not necessarily lead to immediate or speedier release because the expungement of the challenged disciplinary violation would not necessarily lead to a grant of parole." Id. at 934-35. "Under California law, the parole board must consider '[a] 11 relevant, reliable information' in determining suitability for parole." Id. at 935 (quoting Cal. Code Regs. Tit. 15, § 2281(b)). "A rules violation is merely one of the factors shedding light on whether a prisoner 'constitutes a current threat to the public safety." Nettles, 830 F.3d at 935 (quoting In re Lawrence, 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1191 (2008)). The parole board may deny parole "on the basis of any of the grounds presently available to it." Nettles, 830 F.3d at 935 (quoting Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850, 859 (9th Cir. 2003)). Thus, "the presence of a disciplinary infraction does not compel the denial of parole, nor does an absence of an infraction compel the grant of parole." Nettles, 830 F.3d at 935.

         Here, Plaintiff seeks restoration of lost good-time credits (Compl. 11), which could lead to an earlier release date depending on Plaintiffs sentence. If Plaintiff s sentence has a determinate term, restoration of lost good-time credits necessarily would result in a speedier release and would fall within the "core of habeas." If so, the lawsuit should be brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, not Section 1983. See Muhammad, 540 U.S. at 750. However, if Plaintiff is facing an indeterminate life sentence, the restoration of good-time credits would not necessarily result in an earlier release and Plaintiffs claims could be brought pursuant to Section 1983. See Nettles, 830 F.3d at 934-36.

         The Court makes no ruling on the potential applicability of Heck at this time. If Plaintiff files an amended complaint, he should include the term of his prison sentence.

         B. The Complaint Does Not State a Section 1983 Claim.

         Section 1983 provides a cause of action against "every person who, under color of any statute . . . of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . ." Wyatt v. Cole,504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992) (alteration in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). The purpose of Section 1983 is "to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails." Wyatt, 504 U.S. at 161. To state a claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege: (1) a right secured by the Constitution ...

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