(PC) Guzman v. Valdez et al

Filing 19

ORDER to Randomly Assign a District Judge; FINDINGS and RECOMMENDATIONS to Dismiss Case re 17 Amended Prisoner Civil Rights Complaint signed by Magistrate Judge Helena M. Barch-Kuchta on 6/3/2024. Referred to Judge Sherriff. Objections to F&R due within fourteen (14) days. (Lawrence, A)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 SAMUEL SAMSON GUZMAN, 12 Plaintiff, 13 Case No. 1:21-cv-00621-HBK (PC) ORDER TO RANDOMLY ASSIGN A DISTRICT JUDGE v. 14 R. VALDEZ, M. JIMENEZ, V. CUEVAS, and SCOTT FRAUENHEIM, 15 FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO DISMISS CASE1 (Doc. No. 17) Defendants. 16 FOURTEEN-DAY OBJECTION PERIOD Pending before the Court for screening under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A is Plaintiff’s Third 17 18 Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 17, “TAC”). For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned 19 recommends the district court dismiss the TAC because it fails to state any cognizable federal 20 claim and any further amendments would be futile. SCREENING REQUIREMENT 21 A plaintiff who commences an action while in prison is subject to the Prison Litigation 22 23 Reform Act (“PLRA”), which requires, inter alia, the court to screen a complaint that seeks relief 24 against a governmental entity, its officers, or its employees before directing service upon any 25 defendant. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. This requires the court to identify any cognizable claims and 26 dismiss the complaint, or any portion, if it is frivolous or malicious, if it fails to state a claim upon 27 1 28 This matter was referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 302 (E.D. Cal. 2023). 1 which relief may be granted, or if it seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from 2 such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1), (2). 3 At the screening stage, the court accepts the factual allegations in the complaint as true, 4 construes the complaint liberally, and resolves all doubts in the plaintiff’s favor. Jenkins v. 5 McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421 (1969); Bernhardt v. L.A. County, 339 F.3d 920, 925 (9th Cir. 6 2003). The Court’s review is limited to the complaint, exhibits attached, materials incorporated 7 into the complaint by reference, and matters of which the court may take judicial notice. Petrie v. 8 Elec. Game Card, Inc., 761 F.3d 959, 966 (9th Cir. 2014); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c). A court 9 does not have to accept as true conclusory allegations, unreasonable inferences, or unwarranted 10 deductions of fact. Western Mining Council v. Watt, 643 F.2d 618, 624 (9th Cir. 1981). Critical 11 to evaluating a constitutional claim is whether it has an arguable legal and factual basis. See 12 Jackson v. Arizona, 885 F.2d 639, 640 (9th Cir. 1989). 13 The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that a complaint include “a short and 14 plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief . . ..” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). 15 Nonetheless, a claim must be facially plausible to survive screening. This requires sufficient 16 factual detail to allow the court to reasonably infer that each named defendant is liable for the 17 misconduct alleged. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Moss v. U.S. Secret Service, 18 572 F.3d 962, 969 (9th Cir. 2009). The sheer possibility that a defendant acted unlawfully is not 19 sufficient, and mere consistency with liability falls short of satisfying the plausibility standard. 20 Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Moss, 572 F.3d at 969. Although detailed factual allegations are not 21 required, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory 22 statements, do not suffice,” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citations omitted), and courts “are not required 23 to indulge unwarranted inferences,” Doe I v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 572 F.3d 677, 681 (9th Cir. 24 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). 25 If an otherwise deficient pleading can be remedied by alleging other facts, a pro se litigant 26 is entitled to an opportunity to amend their complaint before dismissal of the action. See Lopez v. 27 Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127-29 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc); Lucas v. Department of Corr., 66 F.3d 28 245, 248 (9th Cir. 1995). However, it is not the role of the court to advise a pro se litigant on how 2 1 to cure the defects. Such advice “would undermine district judges’ role as impartial 2 decisionmakers.” Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 231 (2004); see also Lopez, 203 F.3d at 1131 3 n.13. Furthermore, the court in its discretion may deny leave to amend due to “undue delay, bad 4 faith or dilatory motive of the part of the movant, [or] repeated failure to cure deficiencies by 5 amendments previously allowed . . ..” Carvalho v. Equifax Info. Srvs., LLC, 629 F.3d 876, 892 6 (9th Cir. 2010). 7 BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF OPERATIVE PLEADING 8 9 Plaintiff, a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, initiated this action by filing a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. No. 1). Prior to the Court screening 10 his Complaint, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 5, “FAC”). On August 2, 11 2023, the undersigned screened Plaintiff’s FAC and found that it failed to state any cognizable 12 constitutional claim. (See Doc. No. 10). The Court advised Plaintiff of the pleading deficiencies 13 and applicable law and afforded Plaintiff the opportunity to file a second amended complaint. 14 (Id.). Plaintiff timely filed a Second Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 11) (“SAC”). On January 15 19, 2024, the undersigned screened Plaintiff’s SAC and found it failed to state any cognizable 16 constitutional claim. (Doc. No. 12). After being granted two extensions of time, Plaintiff filed 17 the instant Third Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 17, “TAC”). 18 The events in the TAC took place at Pleasant Valley State Prison (“PVSP”). (See 19 generally id.). The TAC identifies the following CDCR staff as Defendants: (1) ISU Officer R. 20 Valdez; (2) ISU Sergeant M. Jimenez; (3) Acting Lieutenant V. Cuevas; (4) Scott Frauenheim, 21 retired Warden,2 (5) Librarian Samantha Kutney; and (6) Librarian Bertha Lopez. (Id. at 2-3). 22 Plaintiff sues all Defendants in their individual capacities. The TAC alleges claims under the 23 First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. (See id. at 3-4). The following facts are presumed to 24 be true at this stage of the screening process. 25 26 On April 22, 2020, Plaintiff filed an inmate grievance challenging his eligibility for a Security Threat Group (“STG”) Validation Termination Review after being denied a requested 27 2 28 Although named in the caption, Warden Frauenheim is not listed under the names of Defendants Section III of the complaint form. 3 1 review. (Id. at 3). The grievance was granted. (Id.). On July 13, 2020, prior to Plaintiff’s STG 2 Termination Review hearing, Defendants Valdez and Jimenez searched Plaintiff’s cell. (Id.). 3 Plaintiff’s “cell was tossed up and a copy of an Angel & Butterfly was confiscated.” (Id.). 4 On July 20, 2020, Plaintiff filed an inmate grievance “based on the arbitrary nature of the 5 [July 13, 2020] cell search.” (Id.). Three days later, on July 23, 2020, Plaintiff was issued an 6 RVR for STG behavior by Defendants Valdez and Jimenez. (Id.). Based on “[t]he suspicious 7 timing” of the RVR, Plaintiff asserts a First Amendment retaliation claim against Defendants 8 Valdez and Jimenez. (Id. at 3-4). 9 The TAC also asserts a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim because Plaintiff 10 received an RVR for STG behavior based on “a newly certified STG symbol that was never 11 posted on the facility in violation of the U.S. Constitution Amendment XIV.” (Id. at 4). 12 Specifically, Plaintiff complains that the law library was closed during COVID, and the “newly 13 certified symbol of a butterfly” was never disseminated to the general population by librarians S. 14 Kutney and Lopez. 15 16 17 As relief, Plaintiff seeks nominal, punitive, and compensatory damages, as well as “relief from the RVR guilty finding” including expungement of the charge. (Id. at 5). APPLICABLE LAW AND ANALYSIS 18 A. First Amendment Retaliation 19 It is clear prisoners have First Amendment rights to file a grievance or civil rights 20 complaint against correctional officials. Brodheim v. Cry, 584 F. 3d 1262, 1269 (9th Cir. 2009). 21 To state a claim for First Amendment retaliation, a plaintiff must allege five elements: (1) he 22 engaged in protected activity; (2) the state actor took an adverse action against the plaintiff; (3) a 23 causal connection between the adverse action and the protected conduct; (4) the defendant’s 24 actions would chill or silence a person of ordinary fitness from protected activities; and (5) the 25 retaliatory action did not advance a legitimate correctional goal. Chavez v. Robinson, 12 F.4th 26 978, 1001 (9th Cir. 2021) (quoting Rhodes, 408 F.3d at 567–68). A retaliatory motive may be 27 shown by the timing of the allegedly retaliatory act or other circumstantial evidence, as well as 28 direct evidence. Bruce v. Ylst, 351 F.3d 1283, 1288–89 (9th Cir. 2003); McCollum v. Ca. Dep’t 4 1 of Corr. And Rehab., 647 F.3d 870, 882 (9th Cir. 2011). Mere speculation that a defendant acted 2 out of retaliation is not sufficient. Wood v. Yordy, 753 F.3d 899, 905 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing 3 cases). 4 Here, Plaintiff asserts that three days after he filed a grievance based on the search of his 5 cell during which the butterfly drawing was located, the same officers who conducted the search 6 filed a Rule Violation Report against him for STG behavior. (Doc. No. 17 at 3). Plaintiff 7 contends the timing was “suspicious.” (Id.). The RVR was also issued 10 days after the officers 8 found the evidence of alleged STG behavior. It is not obvious to the Court whether a gap of 10 9 days between discovering evidence of an RVR and the filing of a RVR is significant to suggest 10 that it was only filed in response to Plaintiff’s grievance. Alternatively, the Court could 11 reasonably infer that the July 23, 2020 RVR was simply issued in response to the discovery of the 12 STG-related imagery on July 13, 2020, making the timing not suspicious at all. For reasons 13 discussed below, the Court need not resolve this question. 14 Even assuming the Court were to infer a causal connection between the July 23, 2020 15 RVR and Plaintiff’s filing of a grievance on July 20, 2020, Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the fifth 16 element of a retaliation claim. The alleged retaliatory action—issuance of an RVR for STG 17 behavior—advanced the legitimate correctional goal of discouraging STG behavior and ensuring 18 compliance with prison regulations. Thus, even if Defendants Valdez and Jimenez were acting in 19 part in response to Plaintiff’s filing of a grievance, their actions were not improper as they 20 advanced a legitimate correctional goal. Accordingly, the TAC fails to state a First Amendment 21 retaliation claim.3 22 B. Fourteenth Amendment Due Process 23 The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “[n]o state shall . . . deprive any person of life, 24 liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. “The 25 requirements of procedural due process apply only to the deprivation of interests encompassed by 26 the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of liberty and property.” Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 27 3 28 Under Claim 1, the TAC also lists “U.S. Constitution Amendment VIII (Cruel & Unusual Actions)” as a legal basis for the claim but does not assert any facts plausibly supporting such a cause of action in the body of the claim and appears focused entirely on the alleged retaliation. 5 1 U.S. 564, 569 (1972). “To state a procedural due process claim, [a plaintiff] must allege ‘(1) a 2 liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution; (2) a deprivation of the interest by the 3 government; [and] (3) lack of process.’” Wright v. Riveland, 219 F.3d 905, 913 (9th Cir. 2000) 4 (quoting Portman v. Cnty. of Santa Clara, 995 F.2d 898, 904 (9th Cir. 1993)). 5 A prisoner is entitled to certain due process protections when he is charged with a 6 disciplinary violation. Serrano v. Francis, 345 F.3d 1071, 1077 (9th Cir. 2003) (citing Wolff v. 7 McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 564-571 (1974)). “Such protections include the rights to call 8 witnesses, to present documentary evidence and to have a written statement by the fact-finder as 9 to the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action taken.” Id. These 10 procedural protections, however, “adhere only when the disciplinary action implicates a protected 11 liberty interest in some ‘unexpected matter’ or imposes an ‘atypical and significant hardship on 12 the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.’” Id. (quoting Sandin v. Conner, 13 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995)); Ramirez v. Galaza, 334 F.3d 850, 860 (9th Cir. 2003). Prisoners bear 14 the burden to demonstrate that they did not receive due process during their disciplinary hearing. 15 See Parnell v. Martinez, 821 Fed. Appx. 866, 866-867 (9th Cir. 2020). 16 Although the level of the hardship must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and “[i]n 17 Sandin’s wake the Courts of Appeals have not reached consistent conclusions for identifying the 18 baseline from which to measure what is atypical and significant in any particular prison system,” 19 Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209, 223 (2005), courts in the Ninth Circuit look to: 20 21 22 23 1) whether the challenged condition ‘mirrored those conditions imposed upon inmates in administrative segregation and protective custody,’ and thus comported with the prison’s discretionary authority; 2) the duration of the condition, and the degree of restraint imposed; and 3) whether the state’s action will invariably affect the duration of the prisoner’s sentence. 24 Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 861 (quoting Sandin, 515 U.S. at 486-87); see also Chappell v. Mandeville, 25 706 F.3d 1052, 1064-65 (9th Cir. 2013). Only if the prisoner alleges facts sufficient to show a 26 protected liberty interest must courts next consider “whether the procedures used to deprive that 27 liberty satisfied Due Process.” Ramirez, 334 F.3d at 860. 28 As an initial matter, Plaintiff fails to set forth facts sufficient to demonstrate that the 6 1 deprivations he suffered because of his disciplinary conviction imposed the type of “atypical and 2 significant hardships” that under Sandin entitled him to Wolff's procedural safeguards. The TAC 3 is silent as to what punishment Plaintiff received because of the RVR guilty finding4, thus he fails 4 to show that he was entitled to the due process protections of Wolff. Notably, Plaintiff’s FAC 5 alleged that the guilty finding resulted in him being denied termination of his STG status at his 6 August 20, 2020 STG hearing, and that “[t]his will reflect very negatively upon the [Board of 7 Parole Hearings and] it will prolong my life sentence [and] hurt [] my programming 8 opportunities.” (See Doc. No. 5 at 5).5 9 It is well settled that prisoners have no constitutional right to a particular classification 10 status, even if the classification status results in a loss of privileges. Moody v. Daggett, 429 U.S. 11 78, 88 n. 9 (1976) (expressly rejecting claim that prisoner classification and rehabilitative 12 programs invoked due process protections); Hernandez v. Johnston, 833 F.2d 1316, 1318 (9th 13 Cir. 1987) (agreeing inmate had no constitutional right to a particular classification status and 14 further finding no independent right under state law). An inmate can state a claim based on his 15 classification if the classification was done for unconstitutional reasons, e.g., done in retaliation 16 for exercising his First Amendment rights, or done for religious, political, or racial discriminatory 17 reasons. This is because decisions regarding an inmate’s classification level or where to house 18 inmates are at the core of prison administrators’ expertise. McKune v. Lile, 536 U.S. 24, 39 2002) 19 (citing Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 225 (1976)); see also Frost v. Agnos, 152 F.3d 1124, 20 1130 (9th Cir. 1998). 21 Moreover, a vague and speculative contention that Plaintiff will face greater difficulty 22 obtaining parole is insufficient to trigger the due process protections of Wolff.6 See Ramirez, 334 23 4 24 25 26 27 28 Because Plaintiff does not allege the RVR guilty finding affected the length of his sentence, the Court does not find that his claim seeking reversal of the RVR is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997) (holding that a suit challenging a prison disciplinary conviction on due process grounds was barred by Heck because the RVR punishment included revocation of good time credits affecting plaintiff’s sentence). 5 Although these facts concerning Plaintiff’s STG Termination hearing are not alleged within his TAC, the Court liberally construes Plaintiff’s pleadings and garners relevant facts from his previous filing. See Yong Lor v. Asuncion, 2018 WL 6177228, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2018). 6 According to Plaintiff’s prior pleadings, he is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. (See Doc. No. 5 at 5). 7 1 F.3d at 861; Sandin, 515 U.S. at 487 (finding no due process protections triggered where plaintiff 2 failed to show disciplinary conviction “will inevitably affect the duration of his sentence”) 3 (emphasis added); see also Bennett v. Curry, 386 F. App’x 645, 646 (9th Cir. 2010) (dismissing 4 due process claim where plaintiff found “unsuitable for parole for several independently adequate 5 reasons and not only because of the disciplinary record he seeks to challenge. Because his 6 disciplinary record did not ‘alter the balance’ in his parole suitability determination, its effect if 7 any on the duration of his sentence ‘is simply too attenuated to invoke the procedural guarantees 8 of the Due Process Clause.’”) citing Sandin, 515 U.S. at 487. While Plaintiff’s guilty finding for 9 “STG behavior” may affect his future suitability for parole, there are no facts to indicate it “will 10 inevitably affect the duration of his sentence” and thus Plaintiff has not established a liberty 11 interest triggering the due process protections of Wolff. Thus, because the undersigned finds the 12 TAC fails to articulate a liberty interest that implicates the due process clause, the TAC fails to 13 state a viable Fourteenth Amendment claim. 14 Even if the RVR for STG behavior triggered Plaintiff’s due process rights, the TAC fails 15 to allege that prison staff violated any recognized right. Unlike criminal prosecutions, prison 16 disciplinary proceedings do not entitle an accused to “the full panoply of rights due a defendant” 17 in a criminal proceeding. Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. at 556. The minimum procedural 18 requirements of prison disciplinary proceedings include: (1) written notice of the charges; (2) at 19 least 24 hours between the time the prisoner receives written notice and the time of the hearing, 20 so that the prisoner may prepare his defense; (3) a written statement by the fact finders of the 21 evidence they rely on and reasons for taking disciplinary action; (4) the right of the prisoner to 22 call witnesses in his defense, when permitting him to do so would not be unduly hazardous to 23 institutional safety or correctional goals; and (5) legal assistance to the prisoner where the 24 prisoner is illiterate or the issues presented are legally complex. Wolff, 418 U.S. at 563–71. 25 The TAC does not allege that Plaintiff lacked notice of the charges against him or any of the other 26 minimum procedural protections provided by Wolff. Rather, Plaintiff complains that officials did 27 not adequately disseminate an April 13, 2020 memorandum deeming a butterfly a certified STG 28 symbol to the prison population. (Doc. No. 17 at 4). However, the TAC does not cite any 8 1 authority indicating that failure to do so was a violation of Plaintiff’s constitutional rights, nor is 2 the Court aware of any authority that mandates that prisoners must be notified of new regulations 3 or prison guidelines in a specified manner that would give rise to a federal constitutional 4 violation. Indeed, federal courts have rejected similar due process claims predicated upon prison 5 officials’ failure to post prison rules and regulations. See Lucas v. Collins, No. 2:17-CV-04146, 6 2018 WL 6333702, at *4 (S.D.W. Va. Aug. 30, 2018), report and recommendation adopted, No. 7 2:17-CV-04146, 2018 WL 4940904 (S.D.W. Va. Oct. 12, 2018) (finding no liberty interest 8 triggered by prison officials’ failure to post prison rules and regulations informing inmates how to 9 be IRPP7 compliant); Hall v. Zickefoose, 448 F. App'x 184, 186 (3d Cir. 2011) (finding no due 10 process right violation from BOP’s failure to provide notice that punishment for charged conduct 11 due to cell phone being deemed hazardous tool under regulation). 12 Because federal due process did not require that Plaintiff be notified of new prison 13 regulations before he could be charged with violating them, he fails to allege a constitutional 14 claim based on officials’ alleged failure to disseminate the April 13, 2020 memorandum deeming 15 the butterfly a STG symbol. 16 CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATION Based on the above, the undersigned finds Plaintiff’s TAC fails to state any cognizable 17 18 claim. The TAC suffers from many of the same pleading deficiencies that the undersigned 19 identified and explained to Plaintiff in screening his first and second amended complaints. 20 Despite being provided with guidance and the appropriate legal standards, Plaintiff was unable to 21 cure the deficiencies identified above. A plaintiff’s repeated failure to cure a complaint’s 22 deficiencies constitutes “a strong indication that the [plaintiff has] no additional facts to 23 plead.” Zucco Partners, LLC v. Digimarc Corp., 552 F.3d 981, 1007 (9th Cir. 2009) (citation and 24 internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, the undersigned recommends that the district court 25 dismiss the TAC without further leave to amend. McKinney v. Baca, 250 F. App’x 781 (9th Cir. 26 2007) (citing Ferdik v. Bonzelet, 963 F.2d 1258, 1261 (9th Cir.1992)) (noting discretion to deny 27 28 7 IRPP stands for “Individual Reentry Program Plan.” 9 1 leave to amend is particularly broad where court has afforded plaintiff one or more opportunities 2 to amend his complaint). 3 ACCORDINGLY, it is ORDERED: 4 The Clerk of Court randomly assign this case to a district judge for consideration of these 5 Findings and Recommendation. 6 It is further RECOMMENDED: 7 The Third Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 17) be dismissed under § 1915A for failure to 8 state a claim and this case be dismissed. 9 NOTICE TO PARTIES 10 These Findings and Recommendations will be submitted to the United States District 11 Judge assigned to this case, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l). Within 14 days 12 after being served with a copy of these Findings and Recommendations, a party may file written 13 objections with the Court. Id.; Local Rule 304(b). The document should be captioned, 14 “Objections to Magistrate Judge’s Findings and Recommendations.” The assigned District Judge 15 will review these Findings and Recommendations under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(l)(C). A party’s 16 failure to file objections within the specified time may result in the waiver of certain rights on 17 appeal. Wilkerson v. Wheeler, 772 F.3d 834, 839 (9th Cir. 2014). 18 19 20 Dated: June 3, 2024 HELENA M. BARCH-KUCHTA UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 10

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