Williams v. Williams

Filing 244


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1 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 2 FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 3 4 ISAIAH NOEL WILLIAMS, 5 No. C 07-4464 CW Plaintiff, ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW (Docket No. 238) 6 v. 7 D. WILLIAMS, 8 Defendant. ________________________________/ 9 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 Plaintiff Isaiah Williams moves for judgment as a matter of 11 law or, in the alternative, a new trial. 12 opposes the motion. 13 and oral argument, the Court denies the motion. 14 15 Defendant Debra Williams After considering the parties’ submissions BACKGROUND Plaintiff is an inmate in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security 16 Housing Unit (SHU). 17 action against Defendant, a Pelican Bay correctional officer, 18 alleging violations of his First and Eighth Amendment rights. 19 In 2007, he filed a pro se complaint in this Plaintiff alleges that, on August 16, 2006, Defendant opened 20 his cell door from a remote control tower while another inmate 21 from the same unit was unrestrained outside of Plaintiff’s cell. 22 According to Plaintiff’s amended complaint, Defendant knew that 23 Plaintiff and the other inmate were members of rival prison gangs 24 and should have known that opening Plaintiff’s cell door at that 25 moment would expose him to a serious risk of harm. 26 asserts that, after Defendant opened the cell door, Plaintiff and 27 the other inmate engaged in a physical altercation, during which 28 Defendant shot Plaintiff with four 40mm rubber bullets. The complaint Plaintiff 1 asserts that Defendant’s initial decision to open the cell door 2 and subsequent decision shoot him were both motivated by 3 retaliatory animus because Plaintiff had threatened to file a 4 grievance against her less than a week earlier. 5 In July 2012, after granting in part and denying in part 6 Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Court granted 7 Plaintiff’s motion to appoint counsel. 8 explained, “although Plaintiff is literate and has prosecuted this 9 action competently to this point, the issues that will go to trial Docket No. 95. The Court United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 require significant factual and legal development.” 11 Accordingly, the Court ordered the appointment of three attorneys 12 from Morrison & Foerster LLP pursuant to the in forma pauperis 13 (IFP) statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(1). Id. at 2. Docket No. 96. 14 In July 2013, the Court held a four-day jury trial. 15 returned a unanimous verdict on July 24 in favor of Defendant. 16 Docket No. 226, Jury Verdict. 17 retaliated against Plaintiff when she opened his cell door nor 18 when she shot him with 40mm rounds; (2) was not deliberately 19 indifferent to his safety when she opened his cell door nor when 20 she shot him with 40mm rounds; and (3) did not use excessive force 21 when she shot him with 40mm rounds. 22 of Defendant. 23 24 25 The jury It found that Defendant (1) had not Judgment was entered in favor This motion followed. LEGAL STANDARDS I. Judgment as a Matter of Law A motion for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict 26 renews the moving party’s prior Rule 50(a) motion for judgment as 27 a matter of law at the close of all the evidence. 28 50(b). Fed. R. Civ. P. Judgment as a matter of law after the verdict may be 2 1 granted only when the evidence and its inferences, construed in 2 the light most favorable to the non-moving party, permits only one 3 reasonable conclusion as to the verdict. 4 443 F.3d 1050, 1062 (9th Cir. 2006). 5 conflicting evidence, or if reasonable minds could differ over the 6 verdict, judgment as a matter of law after the verdict is 7 improper. 8 772, 775 (9th Cir. 1990); Air–Sea Forwarders, Inc. v. Air Asia 9 Co., 880 F.2d 176, 181 (9th Cir. 1989). United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 11 II. Josephs v. Pac. Bell, Where there is sufficient See, e.g., Kern v. Levolor Lorentzen, Inc., 899 F.2d New Trial A new trial may be granted if the verdict is not supported by 12 the evidence. 13 on such motions. 14 Court should grant the motion “[i]f, having given full respect to 15 the jury’s findings, the judge on the entire evidence is left with 16 the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been 17 committed.” 18 833 F.2d 1365, 1371–72 (9th Cir. 1987) (quoting 11 Wright & 19 Miller, Fed. Prac. & Proc. § 2806, at 48–49). 20 There is no easily articulated formula for passing Perhaps the best that can be said is that the Landes Constr., Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Canada, The Ninth Circuit has found that the existence of substantial 21 evidence does not prevent the court from granting a new trial if 22 the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence. 23 833 F.2d at 1371. 24 the credibility of witnesses, and need not view the evidence from 25 the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party.” 26 Therefore, the standard for evaluating the sufficiency of the 27 evidence is less stringent than that governing the Rule 50(b) 28 motions for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict. Landes, “The judge can weigh the evidence and assess 3 Id. 1 2 DISCUSSION I. Plaintiff Counsel’s Authority to Appear 3 Defendant contends that Plaintiff’s counsel lacks the 4 authority to appear on Plaintiff’s behalf now that the trial has 5 concluded. 6 appointing counsel did not expire upon completion of the trial and 7 the IFP statute does not impose any such limitation on the 8 duration of counsel’s appointment. 9 has recognized that the decision to appoint counsel is “within This argument is without merit. The Court’s order Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 ‘the sound discretion of the trial court’” and Defendant has not 11 presented any evidence or argument suggesting that the Court has 12 abused its discretion here. 13 F.3d 1101, 1103 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Franklin v. Murphy, 745 14 F.2d 1221, 1236 (9th Cir. 1984)). 15 under the IFP statute from representing clients in post-trial 16 matters serves no discernible purpose. 17 request to disqualify Plaintiff’s counsel is denied. 18 II. 19 Agyeman v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 390 Preventing counsel appointed Accordingly, Defendant’s Judgment as a Matter of Law Plaintiff moves for judgment as a matter of law with respect 20 to two of his claims: his Eighth Amendment claim of deliberate 21 indifference and his First Amendment claim of retaliation. 22 A. 23 To prevail on a deliberate indifference claim under the Deliberate Indifference 24 Eighth Amendment, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant 25 consciously “disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his 26 action.” 27 also Long v. Shah, 2005 WL 994553 (N.D. Cal.) (Henderson, J.) (“A 28 valid claim must allege that the prison official ‘consciously Bryan County v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 410 (1997); see 4 1 disregards a substantial risk.’” (citing Farmer v. Brennan, 511 2 U.S. 825, 847 (1994))). 3 this standard “is even higher than gross negligence” because it 4 “requires a culpable mental state.” 5 F.3d 965, 974 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing L.W. v. Grubbs, 92 F.3d 894, 6 898-900 (9th Cir. 1996)). 7 trial, the jury was not required to find that Defendant’s conduct 8 met this standard. 9 The Ninth Circuit has recognized that Patel v. Kent Sch. Dist., 648 Based on the evidence presented at Although Defendant admitted that she was aware of the risks United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 Plaintiff faced when she opened his cell door and shot him with 11 the 40mm rounds, she also presented evidence to show that she did 12 not consciously disregard those risks. 13 example, that she “mistakenly opened” Plaintiff’s door after 14 “forgetting” that the other inmate was unrestrained on the same 15 tier. 16 to see the area outside Plaintiff’s cell from her vantage point in 17 the control booth. 18 Plaintiff’s expert testified that Defendant’s failure to check 19 that area before opening his cell was “grossly negligent” and 20 constituted a “reckless disregard for established procedures,” id. 21 297:8, 297:16, he could not testify that Defendant acted with a 22 conscious or reckless disregard for risks to Plaintiff’s “health 23 or safety.” 24 prison official cannot be found liable under the Eighth Amendment 25 for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the 26 official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate 27 health or safety.” (emphasis added)); Wallis v. Baldwin, 70 F.3d 28 1074, 1076 (9th Cir. 1995) (noting that the level of culpability Trial Tr. 453:3-:4. Defendant testified, for She also testified that she was unable Id. 385:16-:21. Furthermore, while Farmer, 511 U.S. at 837 (“We hold instead that a 5 1 required to establish an Eighth Amendment violation “has been 2 defined as being ‘deliberately indifferent’ to an inmate’s health 3 or safety” (emphasis added)). 4 evidence, could reasonably conclude that Defendant’s conduct in 5 opening Plaintiff’s cell door did not constitute deliberate 6 indifference. 7 A jury, presented with this The same reasoning applies to Defendant’s decision to shoot Plaintiff with four 40mm rounds. 9 ordered Plaintiff to stop fighting before every shot, Trial Tr. 10 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 8 412:4-:23, and aimed each shot at Plaintiff’s legs, id. 413:14- 11 :15. 12 testified that he specifically ordered Defendant to shoot 13 Plaintiff in order to stop the fight. 14 himself admitted that he continued fighting with the other inmate 15 even after he heard the guards yelling at him and realized that 16 Defendant had begun shooting. 17 244:23-:25. 18 support Defendant’s assertion that she was justified in shooting 19 Plaintiff with the four 40mm rounds. 20 required to find that the shooting constituted deliberate 21 indifference. 22 Defendant testified that she Her account was supported by that of her supervisor, who Id. 461:21-:23. Plaintiff Id. 187:10-:15, 243:23-:244:2, Taken together, this evidence is sufficient to The jury was therefore not The trial record contains additional evidence supporting the 23 jury’s verdict. 24 jury to conclude from the evidence that Plaintiff’s injuries were 25 the result of his own actions rather than Defendant’s. 26 Circuit has stressed that, in cases where an inmate seeks to hold 27 a prison guard individually liable for failing to prevent harm 28 from another inmate, the plaintiff must establish a clear line of For instance, it was not unreasonable for the 6 The Ninth 1 causation between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s 2 injuries. 3 1988) (“When plaintiffs, such as the inmates, seek to hold an 4 individual defendant personally liable for damages, the causation 5 inquiry between the deliberate indifference and the eighth 6 amendment deprivation must be more refined. . . . Especially when, 7 as in this case, a prisoner seeks to hold a prison employee 8 individually liable because another prisoner attacked him, the 9 prisoner must establish individual fault.”). See, e.g., Leer v. Murphy, 844 F.2d 628, 633 (9th Cir. Here, Plaintiff United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 admitted that he left his cell to engage the other inmate in a 11 fight, Trial Tr. 185:6-:19, that he struck the other inmate first, 12 id. 235:35-15, that he could not recall the other inmate striking 13 him in return, id. 235:23, that he continued fighting even after 14 the first three shots were fired, id. 244:23-:25, and that he 15 realized Defendant might shoot him with a non-lethal weapon in 16 order to stop the altercation, id. 237:11-:14. 17 provide a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to conclude that 18 Plaintiff failed to establish the requisite level of causation to 19 prevail on his deliberate indifference claim. 20 must therefore be denied. These admissions Plaintiff’s motion 21 B. 22 The only evidence of retaliation that Plaintiff presented at Retaliation 23 trial was the temporal proximity between the August 16, 2006 24 incident and Plaintiff’s alleged threat to file a grievance 25 against Defendant. 26 protected activity and an alleged act of retaliation is typically 27 not sufficient to establish unlawful retaliation. 28 City of Napa, 2007 WL 1655624 (N.D. Cal.) (Patel, J.) (“Thus, On its own, temporal proximity between a 7 Cf. Ramadan v. 1 because plaintiffs have not offered any support beyond proximity 2 in time to meet their burden of showing pretext, defendants are 3 entitled to judgment as a matter of law on plaintiffs’ retaliation 4 claim under Title VII and FEHA.”). 5 retaliation is especially weak here, given Defendant’s unrebutted 6 testimony that “many inmates” had previously threatened to file 7 grievances against her. 8 to explain why Plaintiff alone was singled out for retaliation, 9 the jury was not required to infer that Defendant’s conduct on Plaintiff’s evidence of Trial Tr. 452:20. Without any evidence United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 August 16, 2006 was motivated by retaliatory animus. 11 Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on his 12 retaliation claim. 13 III. New Trial 14 Thus, Plaintiff argues that a new trial should be held for three 15 reasons: (1) the jury may have been prejudiced by evidence of his 16 alleged membership in a prison gang; (2) the jury may have been 17 concerned about Defendant’s ability to pay a verdict; and (3) the 18 jury may have expected Plaintiff to produce more evidence in 19 support of his claims. 20 granting a new trial. None of these provides a reason for 21 First, with respect to the evidence of Plaintiff’s alleged 22 gang membership, the Court took several precautions to minimize 23 whatever prejudice this evidence might have caused. 24 particular, the Court issued a limiting instruction regarding 25 Plaintiff’s alleged gang affiliation, excluded all references to 26 Plaintiff’s prison nickname, restricted the use of photographs 27 depicting Plaintiff’s gang tattoos, and questioned prospective 28 jurors during voir dire about their racial attitudes and opinions 8 In 1 of the criminal justice system. 2 Plaintiff’s alleged gang membership altogether was not a feasible 3 option. 4 Plaintiff’s alleged membership in a white supremacist gang is 5 highly relevant in this case because it speaks to the nature of 6 the gang rivalry between him and the inmate with whom he fought. 7 Docket No. 198, at 2 (“Concealing this fact from the jury would 8 deny them access to relevant information while creating 9 administrative difficulties for both parties.”). Omitting references to As explained in the order on motions in limine, Thus, in light United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 of the various precautions the Court took to avoid juror 11 prejudice, and the relevance of Plaintiff’s alleged gang 12 membership, the Court’s decision to admit certain evidence of 13 Plaintiff’s alleged gang affiliation does not justify a new trial. 14 Nor does the Court’s refusal to issue a limiting instruction 15 regarding Defendant’s ability to pay a judgment. 16 Mot. JMOL 11. 17 request for such an instruction at the close of trial, he never 18 explains why the instruction was necessary in the first place. 19 fails to cite any authority1 requiring such an instruction and 20 does not identify any evidence presented at trial regarding 21 Defendant’s ability to pay. 22 believe that the jury was actually concerned about this issue. Docket No. 238, Although Plaintiff notes that the Court denied his He As such, he offers no reason to 23 24 1 25 26 27 28 Although Plaintiff contends that his proposed instruction is “recommended by the Ninth Circuit on this issue,” Docket No. 238, Mot. JMOL, at 11, the instruction does not appear anywhere in the Ninth Circuit’s model jury instructions. Indeed, the specific instructions on damages that Plaintiff cites in his proposed jury instructions make no mention of a defendant’s finances or ability to pay a judgment. See Docket No. 172, Pl.’s Proposed Jury Instr., at 69 (citing Ninth Cir. Model Jury Instr. 5.1-.2). 9 1 Plaintiff’s final argument -- that certain jurors expected 2 him to present more evidence at trial -- is similarly unavailing. 3 The Court expressly instructed the jury as to Plaintiff’s 4 evidentiary burden and provided Plaintiff ample opportunity to 5 explain why he believed he met that burden. 6 after trial, “two jurors questioned why they did not see more 7 photographs, documents, or video footage of the fight,” McCollum 8 Decl. ¶ 2, does not demonstrate that the jury misunderstood or 9 misapplied the appropriate legal standards. The mere fact that, Plaintiff received United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 copies of every photograph and document that he requested during 11 discovery and was free to present any of these photographs and 12 documents at trial. 13 arguing that Defendant’s counsel misrepresented the availability 14 of certain documents and photographs before trial, Plaintiff has 15 not shown that he was prejudiced by his inability to argue that 16 point at trial. 17 evidence from Plaintiff, this pre-trial discovery dispute was not 18 relevant to Plaintiff’s legal claims and, ultimately, did not 19 undermine his ability to present the evidence to the jury. 20 Moreover, allowing Plaintiff to argue that Defendant’s counsel 21 made certain misrepresentations to the Court during discovery 22 would have likely prejudiced the jury against Defendant. 23 the Court’s decision to prevent Plaintiff from arguing this point 24 does not present grounds for a new trial. 25 // 26 // 27 // 28 // Although the Court precluded Plaintiff from Even if Defendant initially withheld certain 10 Thus, 1 2 CONCLUSION For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff’s motion for 3 judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new 4 trial (Docket No. 238) is DENIED. 5 IT IS SO ORDERED. 6 7 8 Dated: 10/11/2013 CLAUDIA WILKEN United States District Judge 9 United States District Court For the Northern District of California 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 11

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