United States District Court, D. Nevada
CHRISTOPHER A. JONES, Plaintiff,
HOWARD SKOLNIK, et al., Defendants.
LARRY R. HICKS, District Judge.
Before the Court is Defendants' Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Order (Doc. #225) and Request to Stay Discovery on Former Defendants Williams, Cox, and Skolnik. Doc. #229. Plaintiff filed a Response (Doc. #231), to which Defendants did not reply.
This action was referred to the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Rule 1B 1-4 of the Rules of Practice of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. The Court has conducted a de novo review of this case, and has fully considered Defendants' Objection, the pleadings and memoranda of the parties, and other relevant matters of record pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule IB 3-2. The Court determines that the Magistrate Judge's Order (Doc. #225) shall be sustained in full. The Court further determines that Defendants' Objection shall be overruled and their Request to Stay Discovery shall be denied.
I. Facts and Procedural History
This is a pro se prisoner civil rights action, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff is currently incarcerated at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections ("NDOC"). Doc. #147. On December 28, 2010, the Court screened Plaintiff's Amended Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, and permitted several claims to proceed. Doc. #15. The Court dismissed Plaintiff's claim against Defendants Warden Williams, then NDOC Assistant Director Cox, and then Director Skolnik for violations of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. Id. at 7. Specifically, in his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he was improperly denied a witness at his disciplinary hearing, which lead to a finding of guilt and a sanction of eighteen months in disciplinary segregation. Doc. #16, pp. 21-22. Plaintiff further alleges that he provided actual notice of the constitutional violation to Warden Williams when he appealed the disciplinary proceeding. Id. at 22. Williams denied the appeal. Id. Assistant NDOC Director Cox upheld Williams' denial at the next level of review. Id. at 23. Plaintiff then sent a letter and a copy of all documents related to the disciplinary proceeding and appeal to NDOC Director Skolnik. Id. at 24. Skolnik replied to Plaintiff upholding the disciplinary sanctions and stating "you were answered appropriately in the second level response." Id. at 24. Plaintiff's claims against Williams, Cox, and Skolnik are founded on the notion that they "are high ranking NDOC officials that directly participate in or oversee disciplinary processes and actions of their subordinate officers" and that they "[p]articipat[ed] in deliberate indifference to and ratif[ied] constitutional violations and refus[ed] to correct [those violations] notwithstanding actual knowledge, duty and opportunity to act violating the 14th Amendment." Doc. #16, p. 31.
In dismissing this claim, the Court reasoned that the United States Supreme Court had rejected the idea that "knowledge and acquiescence" of subordinates' conduct is enough to hold supervisory officials liable under § 1983. Doc. #15, p. 7 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)). The Court further held that "[a]bsent vicarious liability, each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct." Id. The Court then concluded that Plaintiff failed to state a cognizable civil rights claim against Williams, Cox, and Skolnik and dismissed those Defendants with prejudice. Id. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration and Clarification (Doc. #20), which the Court denied (Doc. #24). Plaintiff then filed a Motion to Challenge Errors in Order #24 (Doc. #31), which the Court denied (Doc. #38). The Court also denied Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint. Doc. #150.
Finally, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Relief from the Court's Screening Order (Doc. #15) Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5). Doc. #202. Therein, Plaintiff argued that he just recently became aware of the Ninth Circuit's decision in Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202 (9th Cir. 2011). He contends that Starr clarifies that Iqbal dealt only with intentional discrimination, and that "knowledge and acquiescence" of subordinates' conduct in the context of a procedural due process violation does in fact state a claim for which relief may be granted. Doc. #202, p. 7. Defendants opposed Plaintiff's Motion on the grounds that (1) the time for seeking such relief had long expired, (2) attempts to revive the claims against supervisory Defendants had been rejected on numerous occasions, and (3) the claims were lacking a sufficient causal link between the supervisory Defendants and the claimed constitutional violation. See Doc. #229, p. 4 (clarifying Defendants' opposition).
On December 10, 2013, the Magistrate Judge issued the Order that is the subject of Defendants' present Objection. Doc. #225. Therein, the Magistrate Judge agreed with Plaintiff and concluded that "[w]hen a supervisory liability claim does not involve purposeful discrimination, a plaintiff may state a claim based on a defendant's knowledge of and acquiescence in a subordinates' conduct." Id. at 6. Because Defendants had not shown that they would suffer prejudice if Plaintiff's claim were allowed to proceed, the Magistrate Judge granted Plaintiff's Motion for Relief and permitted Plaintiff's claim against Williams, Cox, and Skolnik to proceed on a theory of supervisory liability. Id.
On December 24, 2013, Defendants filed the present Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Order before the Court. Doc. #229. Defendants reassert their previous arguments and further oppose reinstatement of Plaintiff's claim on the basis of prejudice to Williams, Cox, and Skolnik. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a Response refuting Defendants' Objection. Doc. #231.
Rule 60(b)(5) provides that "the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding" if "the judgment has been satisfied, released or discharged; it is based on an earlier judgment that has been reversed or vacated; or applying it prospectively is no longer equitable ...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(5) (emphasis added). In his Motion, Plaintiff seeks relief solely on the ground that enforcement of the Court's Screening Order (Doc. #15) is no longer equitable. Doc. #202, p. 3. A party seeking modification of a judgment or order on the ground that applying it prospectively is no longer equitable "bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the [Order]." Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk Cnty. Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 383 (1992); Horne v. Flores, 129 S.Ct. 2579, 2593 (2009). A party seeking relief "may meet its initial burden by showing... a significant change in either factual conditions or in law. " Rufo, 502 U.S. at 384 (emphasis added); Horne, 129 S.Ct. at 2593.
The Court finds that Plaintiff has met his burden of establishing that a significant change in the law warrants revision of the Court's Screening Order. In Starr, the Ninth Circuit clarified that "[a] claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, unlike a claim of unconstitutional discrimination, may be based on a theory of deliberate indifference." 652 F.3d at 1206. Thus, when a supervisory claim for deliberate indifference does not involve purposeful discrimination, a plaintiff may state a claim based on a defendant's knowledge of and acquiescence in a subordinates' unconstitutional conduct. Id. at 1207. However, "[e]ven under a deliberate indifference theory of individual liability, the [p]laintiff must still allege sufficient facts to plausibly establish the defendant's knowledge of' and acquiescence in' the unconstitutional conduct of his subordinates." Hydrick v. Hunter, 669 F.3d 937, 942 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Starr, 652 F.3d at 1206-07). Moreover, whereas here, a plaintiff's supervisory liability claim is predicated on a due process violation, it is not enough to merely allege that a supervisor is liable on the basis of his or her role as a supervisor of the officers who allegedly perpetrated the due process violation or on the basis of his or her role in reviewing the disciplinary proceeding via an appeal process. Rather, to prevail on a theory of supervisory liability, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant either: "personally participated in the alleged deprivation of constitutional rights; knew of the violations and failed to act to prevent them; or promulgated or implemented a policy so deficient that the policy itself is a repudiation of constitutional rights and is the moving force of the constitutional violation." Hansen v. Black, 885 F.2d 642, 646 (9th Cir. 1989) (internal quotations omitted); see also Jones v. Williams, 297 F.3d 930, 937 (9th Cir. 2002) (supervisory liability attaches to a defendant only if supervisor is personally involved in the alleged constitutional violation or deprivation, or if a sufficient causal connection exists between the supervisor's wrongful conduct and the violation or deprivation) (quoting Redman v. Cnty. of San Diego, 942 F.2d 1435, 1446 (9th Cir. 1991)).
Contrary to Defendants' averments, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim sufficiently alleges a causal link between the supervisory Defendants and the claimed constitutional violation. Plaintiff alleges that he spent 18 months in disciplinary segregation as a direct result of an improper denial of a witness at his disciplinary hearing. Plaintiff further alleges that he provided actual notice of the procedural due process violation to Williams, Cox, and Skolnik when he appealed the disciplinary proceeding and later notified Skolnik of the violation. Plaintiff detailed each Defendant's role as a direct participant in or a supervisor of the disciplinary process and as a supervisor of their subordinate officers. Finally, he alleged that Williams, Cox, and Skolnik had the opportunity and authority to correct their subordinate officers' violations, but refused to do so, thereby depriving him of his constitutional right to be free from disciplinary segregation without due process of law. Assuming arguendo that Plaintiff's allegations are correct, Defendants Williams, Cox, and Skolnik would have had the opportunity and authority to discern and remedy the ongoing effects of a known due process violation. In other words, they could have vacated the penalty that they knew had been imposed in violation of Plaintiff's due process rights. The Court finds that these allegations are sufficient to support a claim of supervisory liability.
Defendants cite Bradberry v. Nevada Department of Corrections for the proposition that "post-event knowledge, " which does not amount to a "failure to act to prevent a constitutional violation, " is insufficient to state a claim for supervisory liability. No. 3:11-CV-00668-RJC-VPC, 2013 WL 4702953, at *15 (D. Nev. Aug. 30, 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, Bradberry is clearly distinguishable from the present case. There, the plaintiff sought supervisory liability on the basis of defendants' alleged awareness of his after-the-fact complaints of excessive force. Id. The court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff's supervisory liability claims, finding that the supervisory defendants could not have protected the plaintiff from an act that occurred prior to his grievances, of which they had no knowledge would occur. Id. at 15-17, 19. Ultimately, there was nothing defendants could have done to remedy the alleged use of excessive force because the violation was already complete. Here, however, ...