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Scherffius v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 26, 2019

CHRISTOPHER SMITH, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis with a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges defendants were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, this court will recommend defendants' motion be granted.


         This case is proceeding on plaintiff's second amended complaint (“SAC”) filed here on July 20, 2015. (ECF No. 25.) He alleges conduct by defendants from 2009 to 2012 when he was incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison (“MCSP”). On screening, the court found plaintiff stated cognizable claims for relief against the following defendants: (1) Christopher Smith, the Chief Physician and Surgeon at MCSP; (2) Dr. Stephen Tseng; (3) Physician's Assistant (“PA”) Karen Todd; (4) Dr. B. Barnett;[1] (5) Dr. Parnell Galloway;[2] (6) Dr. Jalal Soltanian-Zadeh; and (7) Dr. G. Williams. (ECF No. 27.)

         Plaintiff states that he currently suffers from, or during the relevant time period suffered from, the following conditions: fibromyalgia, cervical spinal stenosis, lumbar radiculopathy, scoliosis, degenerative disc disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, urinary problems, edema, migraine headaches, and folliculitis. As a result, he suffers, among other things, severe pain in his back and neck. Plaintiff alleges defendants either acted or failed to act to treat his pain properly. (ECF No. 25 at 10-40.)

         Defendants filed an answer in November 2016. (ECF No. 36.) On June 2, 2017, defendants filed the present motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 42.)

         After receiving several extensions of time to oppose defendants' motion, plaintiff sought a stay of these proceedings based on an anticipated surgery and his many health problems. Defendants did not object to the stay and the court granted it on October 18, 2017. (ECF No. 55.) Plaintiff sought, and was granted, two additional stays. (ECF Nos. 61, 67.) The court denied plaintiff's fourth request for a stay and ordered plaintiff to file an opposition to the motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 74.) On August 30, 2019, plaintiff filed his opposition documents. (ECF Nos. 77, 78, 79, 80.[3]) Defendants did not file a reply.


         Defendants move for summary judgment on the following grounds: (1) plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies with respect to most of his claims; (2) plaintiff fails to state a cognizable claim under the Eighth Amendment for the denial of his appeals; (3) the undisputed facts show that defendants were not deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's medical needs and his Eighth Amendment claims are otherwise meritless; and (4) defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

         I. Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment Standards under Rule 56

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Under summary judgment practice, the moving party “initially bears the burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” In re Oracle Corp. Sec. Litigation, 627 F.3d 376, 387 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The moving party may accomplish this by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by showing that such materials “do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A), (B).

         When the non-moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, “the moving party need only prove that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Oracle Corp., 627 F.3d at 387 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325.); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B). Indeed, summary judgment should be entered, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “[A] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. In such a circumstance, summary judgment should be granted, “so long as whatever is before the district court demonstrates that the standard for entry of summary judgment . . . is satisfied.” Id. at 323.

         If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party typically may not rely upon the allegations or denials of its pleadings but is required to tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that the dispute exists. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1); Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 n.11. However, a complaint that is submitted in substantial compliance with the form prescribed in 28 U.S.C. § 1746 is a “verified complaint” and may serve as an opposing affidavit under Rule 56 as long as its allegations arise from personal knowledge and contain specific facts admissible into evidence. See Jones v. Blanas, 393 F.3d 918, 923 (9th Cir. 2004); Schroeder v. McDonald, 55 F.3d 454, 460 (9th Cir. 1995) (accepting the verified complaint as an opposing affidavit because the plaintiff “demonstrated his personal knowledge by citing two specific instances where correctional staff members . . . made statements from which a jury could reasonably infer a retaliatory motive”); McElyea v. Babbitt, 833 F.2d 196, 197-98 (9th Cir. 1987); see also El Bey v. Roop, 530 F.3d 407, 414 (6th Cir. 2008) (Court reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment because it “fail[ed] to account for the fact that El Bey signed his complaint under penalty of perjury pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1746. His verified complaint therefore carries the same weight as would an affidavit for the purposes of summary judgment.”). The opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, and that the dispute is genuine, i.e., the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         To show the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that “the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 631 (9th Cir. 1987). Thus, the “purpose of summary judgment is to ‘pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citations omitted).

         “In evaluating the evidence to determine whether there is a genuine issue of fact, ” the court draws “all reasonable inferences supported by the evidence in favor of the non-moving party.” Walls v. Central Contra Costa Transit Auth., 653 F.3d 963, 966 (9th Cir. 2011). It is the opposing party's obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. See Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F.Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff'd, 810 F.2d 898, 902 (9th Cir. 1987). Finally, to demonstrate a genuine issue, the opposing party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citation omitted).

         B. Civil Rights Act Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         The Civil Rights Act under which this action was filed provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of [state law] . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution . . . shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute requires that there be an actual connection or link between the actions of the defendants and the deprivation alleged to have been suffered by the plaintiff. See Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978); Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976). “A person ‘subjects' another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of §1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in another's affirmative acts or omits to perform an act which he is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made.” Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740, 743 (9th Cir. 1978).

         C. Legal Standards for Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Defendants allege plaintiff failed to exhaust any of his claims against defendants Todd, Barnett, Williams, and Soltanian-Zadeh, and failed to exhaust many of his claims against defendants Tseng and Smith.

         1. PLRA Exhaustion Requirement

         The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) mandates that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 . . . or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Compliance with deadlines and other critical prison grievance rules is required to exhaust. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 90 (2006) (exhaustion of administrative remedies requires “using all steps that the agency holds out, and doing so properly”). “[T]o properly exhaust administrative remedies prisoners ‘must complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules, '- rules that are defined not by the PLRA, but by the prison grievance process itself.” Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 218 (2007) (quoting Woodford, 548 U.S. at 88); see also Marella v. Terhune, 568 F.3d 1024, 1027 (9th Cir. 2009) (“The California prison system's requirements ‘define the boundaries of proper exhaustion.'”) (quoting Jones, 549 U.S. at 218).

         Although “the PLRA's exhaustion requirement applies to all inmate suits about prison life, ” Porter v. Nussle, 534 U.S. 516, 532 (2002), the requirement for exhaustion under the PLRA is not absolute, Albino v. Baca, 747 F.3d 1162, 1172-72 (9th Cir. 2014) (en banc). As explicitly stated in the statute, “[t]he PLRA requires that an inmate exhaust only those administrative remedies ‘as are available.'” Sapp v. Kimbrell, 623 F.3d 813, 822 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)) (administrative remedies plainly unavailable if grievance was screened out for improper reasons); see also Nunez v. Duncan, 591 F.3d 1217, 1224 (9th Cir. 2010) (“Remedies that rational inmates cannot be expected to use are not capable of accomplishing their purposes and so are not available.”). “We have recognized that the PLRA therefore does not require exhaustion when circumstances render administrative remedies ‘effectively unavailable.'” Sapp, 623 F.3d at 822 (citing Nunez, 591 F.3d at 1226); accord Brown v. Valoff, 422 F.3d 926, 935 (9th Cir. 2005) (“The obligation to exhaust ‘available' remedies persists as long as some remedy remains ‘available.' Once that is no longer the case, then there are no ‘remedies . . . available,' and the prisoner need not further pursue the grievance.”).

         Dismissal of a prisoner civil rights action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies must generally be brought and decided pursuant to a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Albino, 747 F.3d at 1168. “Nonexhaustion” is “an affirmative defense” and defendants have the burden of “prov[ing] that there was an available administrative remedy, and that the prisoner did not exhaust that available remedy.” Id. at 1171-72. A remedy is “available” where it is “capable of use; at hand.” Williams v. Paramo, 775 F.3d 1182, 1191 (9th Cir. 2015) (quoting Albino, 747 F.3d at 1171). Grievance procedures that do not allow for all types of relief sought are still “available” as long as the procedures may afford “some relief.” Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 738 (2001). If a defendant meets the initial burden, a plaintiff then must “come forward with evidence showing that there is something in his particular case that made the existing and generally available administrative remedies effectively unavailable to him.” Albino, 747 F.3d at 1172. Remedies are “effectively unavailable” where they are “ineffective, unobtainable, unduly prolonged, inadequate, or obviously futile.” Id. (quoting Hilao v. Estate of Marcos, 103 F.3d 767, 778 n.5 (9th Cir. 1996)). “[T]he ultimate burden of proof, ” however, never leaves the defendant. Id.

         2. California's Inmate Appeal Process

         In California, prisoners may appeal “any policy, decision, action, condition, or omission by the department or its staff that the inmate or parolee can demonstrate as having a material adverse effect upon his or her health, safety, or welfare.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.1(a). Inmates in California proceed through three levels of appeal to exhaust the appeal process: (1) formal written appeal on a CDC 602 inmate appeal form; (2) second level appeal to the institution head or designee; and (3) third level appeal to the Director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”). Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.7. Under specific circumstances, the first level review may be bypassed. Id. The third level of review constitutes the decision of the Secretary of the CDCR and exhausts a prisoner's administrative remedies. See id. § 3084.7(d)(3). However, a cancellation or rejection decision does not exhaust administrative remedies. Id. § 3084.1(b).

         A California prisoner is required to submit an inmate appeal at the appropriate level and proceed to the highest level of review available to him. Butler v. Adams, 397 F.3d 1181, 1183 (9th Cir. 2005); Bennett v. King, 293 F.3d 1096, 1098 (9th Cir. 2002). In submitting a grievance, an inmate is required to “list all staff members involved and shall describe their involvement in the issue.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.2(3). Further, the inmate must “state all facts known and available to him/her regarding the issue being appealed at the time, ” and he or she must “describe the specific issue under appeal and the relief requested.” Id. §§ 3084.2(a)(4). The appeal should not involve multiple issues that do not derive from a single event. Id. § 3084.6(b)(8).

         An inmate has thirty calendar days to submit his or her appeal from the occurrence of the event or decision being appealed, or “upon first having knowledge of the action or decision being appealed.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15, § 3084.8(b).

         D. Legal Standards for Eighth Amendment Deliberate Indifference

         The Eighth Amendment prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII. The unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986); Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 670 (1977); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 105-06 (1976). Neither accident nor negligence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, as “[i]t is obduracy and wantonness, not inadvertence or error in good faith, that characterize the conduct prohibited by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.” Whitley, 475 U.S. at 319.

         What is needed to show unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain “varies according to the nature of the alleged constitutional violation.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5 (1992) (citing Whitley, 475 U.S. at 320). In order to prevail on a claim of cruel and unusual punishment, however, a prisoner must allege and prove that objectively he suffered a sufficiently serious deprivation and that subjectively prison officials acted with deliberate indifference in allowing or causing the deprivation to occur. Wilson, 501 U.S. at 298-99.

         For an Eighth Amendment claim arising in the context of medical care, the prisoner must allege and prove “acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 106. An Eighth Amendment medical claim has two elements: “the seriousness of the prisoner's medical need and the nature of the defendant's response to that need.” McGuckin v. Smith, 974 F.2d 1050, 1059 (9th Cir. 1992), overruled on other grounds by WMX Techs., Inc. v. Miller, 104 F.3d 1133 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc).

         A medical need is serious “if the failure to treat the prisoner's condition could result in further significant injury or the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.'” McGuckin, 974 F.2d at 1059 (quoting Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104). Indications of a serious medical need include “the presence of a medical condition that significantly affects an individual's daily activities.” Id. at 1059-60. By establishing the existence of a serious medical need, a prisoner satisfies the objective requirement for proving an Eighth Amendment violation. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994).

         If a prisoner establishes the existence of a serious medical need, he must then show that prison officials responded to the serious medical need with deliberate indifference. See Farmer, 511 U.S. at 834. In general, deliberate indifference may be shown when prison officials deny, delay, or intentionally interfere with medical treatment, or may be shown by the way in which prison officials provide medical care. Hutchinson v. United States, 838 F.2d 390, 393-94 (9th Cir. 1988).

         Before it can be said that a prisoner's civil rights have been abridged with regard to medical care, “the indifference to his medical needs must be substantial. Mere ‘indifference,' ‘negligence,' or ‘medical malpractice' will not support this cause of action.” Broughton v. Cutter Laboratories, 622 F.2d 458, 460 (9th Cir. 1980) (citing Estelle, 429 U.S. at 105-06); see also Toguchi v. Soon Hwang Chung, 391 F.3d 1051, 1057 (9th Cir. 2004) (“Mere negligence in diagnosing or treating a medical condition, without more, does not violate a prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights.”); McGuckin, 974 F.2d at 1059 (same). Deliberate indifference is “a state of mind more blameworthy than negligence” and “requires ‘more than ordinary lack of due care for the prisoner's interests or safety.'” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 835.

         Delays in providing medical care may manifest deliberate indifference. Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104-05. To establish a claim of deliberate indifference arising from delay in providing care, a plaintiff must show that the delay was harmful. See Hallett v. Morgan, 296 F.3d 732, 745-46 (9th Cir. 2002); Berry v. Bunnell, 39 F.3d 1056, 1057 (9th Cir. 1994); McGuckin, 974 F.2d at 1059; Wood v. Housewright, 900 F.2d 1332, 1335 (9th Cir. 1990); Hunt v. Dental Dep't, 865 F.2d 198, 200 (9th Cir. 1989); Shapley v. Nevada Bd. of State Prison Comm'rs, 766 F.2d 404, 407 (9th Cir. 1985). In this regard, “[a] prisoner need not show his harm was substantial; however, such would provide additional support for the inmate's claim that the defendant was deliberately indifferent to his needs.” Jett v. Penner, 439 F.3d 1091, 1096 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Finally, mere differences of opinion between a prisoner and prison medical staff or between medical professionals as to the proper course of treatment for a medical condition do not give rise to a § 1983 claim. See Toguchi, 391 F.3d at 1058; Jackson v. McIntosh, 90 F.3d 330, 332 (9th Cir. 1996); Sanchez v. Vild, 891 F.2d 240, 242 (9th Cir. 1989); Franklin v. Oregon, 662 F.2d 1337, 1344 (9th Cir. 1981).

         E. Legal Standards for First Amendment Retaliation

         “Within the prison context, a viable claim of First Amendment retaliation entails five basic elements: (1) An assertion that a state actor took some adverse action against an inmate (2) because of (3) that prisoner's protected conduct, and that such action (4) chilled the inmate's exercise of his First Amendment rights, and (5) the action did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal.” Rhodes v. Robinson, 408 F.3d 559, 567-68 (9th Cir. 2005) (footnote and citations omitted). The filing of an appeal or staff complaint qualifies as protected conduct under the First Amendment. Id. at 568.

         II. Plaintiff's Claims

         In the SAC, plaintiff primarily complains that each defendant failed to properly treat his pain and failed to properly record his symptoms. Below, this court examines plaintiff's claims against each defendant, determines whether plaintiff has exhausted each claim, and, for those exhausted claims, determines whether there are disputed issues of material fact regarding the issue of deliberate indifference.

         Plaintiff also mentions in his SAC, and frequently argues in his opposition to the summary judgment motion, that defendants should have known he required surgery. To the extent plaintiff is contending defendants violated his Eighth Amendment rights when they delayed surgical intervention, that issue is unexhausted. Plaintiff did not raise the issue in his prison appeals. Moreover, even if plaintiff properly raised the surgery issue, this court finds no material disputed issues of fact regarding it.

         First, while plaintiff complains that defendants did not consider surgery for him, the record shows otherwise. Plaintiff was sent out for a surgical consultation twice and saw a neurologist in between those visits. On November 10, 2009, plaintiff was seen by neurosurgeon Karl Gregorious, M.D. Gregorious found “no signs of myelopathy” and did not feel plaintiff had lumbar radiculopathy. He opined that plaintiff was not at that time “a candidate for a lumbar spine procedure.” However, if plaintiff's symptoms progressed, Gregorious felt he should be “referred back for consideration of an extensive decompressive operation.” (ECF No. 42-6 at 14-15.)

         In July 2010, plaintiff was seen by neurologist Donald Van Fossan, M.D. Dr. Fossan concluded that “[c]onservative management would certainly be preferable, however should this be intolerable, the next step would be an EMG of the upper extremities and possibly repeating MRI of the C-spine and referral back to Dr. Gregorious” (ECF No. 42-19 at 32.)

         Gregorious saw plaintiff for a second time on February 7, 2012. He again found no evidence of myelopathy and again felt that plaintiff was not a candidate for lumbar spine surgery. (ECF No. 42-6 at 45-46.) Plaintiff was transferred to Valley State Prison in early 2013. Six months later, he was seen by a neurosurgeon who diagnosed cervical radiculopathy and myelopathy and recommended surgery. Plaintiff had surgery in August 2013. (See ECF No. 42-4 at 27.)

         Plaintiff argues that defendants should have known Dr. Gregorious misdiagnosed him as not having lumbar radiculopathy or myelopathy. However, he provides little basis for this argument. Plaintiff points to an impression listed by defendant Tseng on March 25, 2010 that plaintiff had, among other things, lumbar radiculopathy. (See ECF No. 25-1 at 50.) However, it does not appear from plaintiff's medical records that this diagnosis was repeated. Further, Dr. Gregorious's 2012 examination of plaintiff did not reveal lumbar radiculopathy or other bases to advise surgery at that time. Therefore, plaintiff fails to show that Tseng's 2010 diagnosis would have expedited his surgery.

         Defendants had a right to rely on the opinion of the specialist, a neurosurgeon, regarding plaintiff's need for surgery. See Watkins v. Singh, No. 2:13-cv-0416 KJM CKD, 2015 WL 136015, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 9, 2015) (“It is generally not deliberate indifference to defer to a specialist.”), aff'd sub nom. Watkins v. Bick, 668 Fed.Appx. 220 (9th Cir. 2016). Plaintiff provides no authority or factual basis for this court to conclude that any defendant acted improperly in relying on Dr. Gregorious's opinion that plaintiff was not a surgical candidate. Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on any claim that they were deliberately indifferent to plaintiff's need for surgery.

         A. Defendant Todd

         In the SAC, plaintiff claims the following actions or inactions of defendant Todd violated his Eighth Amendment rights to medical care:

(1) At plaintiff's appointment with Todd on October 19, 2007, Todd failed to tell ...

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