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Meeks v. Burson

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 17, 2014

ANDREW L. MEEKS, II, Plaintiff,
v.
CHERYL BURSON, BENJAMIN KYKER, JAMES COBURN, CONNER WOLF, SEAN BLOOMFIELD, CHRISTOPHER TRAUTMAN, GUSTAVO SANCHEZ, TIMOTHY CHRISTIANSON, FRANK DREESEN, BRIAN WILLIAMS, and DAVID SINGER, Defendants.

BENCH ORDER

MIRANDA M. DU, District Judge.

I. SUMMARY

Plaintiff Andrew L. Meeks, II, is an inmate in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections ("NDOC"). Proceeding pro se, Plaintiff filed this action against correctional officers and other staff of the Southern Desert Correctional Center ("SDCC"), where the events giving rise to this action occurred. (Dkt. no. 4.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments by using excessive force, and retaliating and conspiring against him throughout September and October 2011. (Dkt. no. 4 at 6-22.)

In its Screening Order, the Court determined that Plaintiff stated colorable claims in each of 5 counts he alleges. (Dkt. no. 3 at 3-10.) In Count I, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Wolf, Coburn, Singer, Bloomfield, Trautman, and Sanchez attacked him on September 25, 2011 ("September Incident"). (Dkt. no. 3 at 3; dkt. no. 4 at 6-9.) In alleging this attack, Plaintiff states colorable claims for excessive force, retaliation, and racial discrimination in violation of his Eighth, First, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, respectively. (Dkt. no. 3 at 4-5.) Defendants contend that Plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies for his First Amendment retaliation claim against Coburn and Bloomfield. (Dkt. no. 111 at 2-3.)

In Count II, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Burson, Coburn, and Kyker failed to process grievances he filed after the September Incident in an attempt to cover up the attack. (Dkt. no. 4 at 10-13.) Plaintiff states colorable claims for violations of his First Amendment right to redress and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. (Dkt. no. 3 at 6.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not exhaust his administrative remedies for his First and Fourteenth Amendment claims against Coburn and Kyker. (Dkt. no. 111 at 4-5; dkt. no. 118 at 7-10.)

In Count III, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Christianson and Coburn conspired to incite inmates and prison officers to assault Plaintiff because of his criminal convictions. (Dkt. no. 4 at 14-16.) Plaintiff's claim that Christianson and Coburn conspired to use excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment is colorable. (Dkt. no. 3 at 8.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff did not exhaust his administrative remedies for his claim of conspiracy to use excessive force. (Dkt. no. 111 at 5-6.)

In Count IV, Plaintiff alleges that before the September Incident, he was warned that his practice of filing grievances put him on several prison officers' "radar." (Dkt. no. 4 at 17.) After Plaintiff filed a grievance based on this exchange, Bloomfield allegedly searched his cell and other cells in his wing to retaliate against his use of the grievance process. ( Id. at 17-19.) Plaintiff states a colorable claim that Bloomfield violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him. (Dkt. no. 3 at 8-9.) Defendants contend that Plaintiff never exhausted his administrative remedies for this claim. (Dkt. no. 111 at 6-7.)

Finally, in Count V, Plaintiff states a colorable claim that Defendants Burson, Dreesen, and Williams failed to prevent the September Incident, and, under a theory of supervisory liability, are liable for their subordinates' actions during the September Incident. (Dkt. no. 3 at 9-10.) Defendants concede that SDCC's administrative remedies were effectively unavailable to Plaintiff for this claim. (Dkt. no. 118 at 17-18.)

The Court held a bench trial on July 29, 2014, regarding Plaintiff's exhaustion of his administrative remedies. Testimony at trial concerned SDCC's grievance process and the contested grievances. Defendants' only witness was Defendant Dreesen, and Plaintiff served as his own sole witness. The Court finds that Plaintiff alleges sufficient facts to exhaust his administrative remedies for claims in Counts I, II, and III, and that SDCC's administrative remedies were effectively unavailable to Plaintiff for claims in Counts II, III, IV, and V. Plaintiff may proceed with the contested colorable claims in each count.

The Court has also considered Defendants' Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Objections (dkt. no. 122) ("Motion"). Because the Court overrules Plaintiff's objections, the Motion is denied.

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

SDCC uses a 3-level grievance system to process and respond to certain inmate complaints, including civil rights grievances. (Defs.' Exh. 520 at 2, 4-7; Dreesen Test.) SDCC requires an inmate to file an Informal-Level Grievance, followed by a First-Level Grievance, followed by a Second-Level Grievance. (Defs.' Exh. 520 at 4-7.)

SDCC staff and inmates refer to NDOC's Administrative Regulation 740 ("AR 740") for rules governing this process. (Defs.' Exh. 520; Dreesen Test.) Procedures to implement those rules appear in SDCC's Operational Procedure #740 ("OP 740"). (Defs.' Exh. 521; Dreesen Test.) At SDCC, the Grievance Coordinator is responsible for processing inmate grievances; Dreesen, SDCC's Associate Warden of Programs, currently plays this role. (Dreesen Test.) Between October 2010 and October 2012, Dreesen was SDCC's Warden of Operations. ( Id. ) Defendant Burson served as Grievance Coordinator between at least September 2011 and February 2012. ( See Defs.' Exhs. 502, 508; Meeks Test.)

Under AR 740, inmates filing civil rights grievances and seeking monetary remedies must file Form DOC-3095, the Administrative Claim Form ("ACF"), alongside their grievances. AR 740.05(7)(B); (Defs.' Exh. 520 at 5). The ACF, which applies only where inmates seek "monetary restitution or damages, " (Defs.' Exh. 520 at 5), asks inmates to sign a release stating "this is my entire claim against the State of Nevada/Department of Corrections." (Defs.' Exh. 502 at 6.)

Prison staff members use Form DOC-3098, the Improper Grievance Memorandum ("Form 3098"), to notify inmates of certain defects in their grievances. (Defs.' Exh. 520 at 5-6, 9.) Form 3098 states, "You may re-submit your grievance after correcting the above deficiencies. Failure to re-submit the grievance through the prescribed timeframe shall constitute abandonment." (Defs.' Exh. 502 at 9.)

Grievances may be denied on the merits, or rejected for procedural deficiencies. (Dreesen Test.)

A. Count I

1. Use of Excessive Force and Equal Protection

The parties stipulate that Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies for his Count I excessive force and equal protection claims by filing and appealing Grievance XXXX-XX-XXXXX ("Exhibit 504")[1] through each level of SDCC's process. (Defs.' Exh. 504; dkt. no. 118 at 11-12.)

2. Retaliation

a. Grievance XXXX-XX-XXXXX ("Exhibit 504")

On September 29, 2011, Plaintiff filed Informal-Level Grievance XXXX-XX-XXXXX, claiming that five correctional officers assaulted him during the September Incident, and identifying Defendants Singer, Christianson, and Bloomfield. (Defs.' Exh. 504 at 1-5.) Plaintiff wrote that after searching his cell, the five officers handcuffed him, removed him from his cell, and proceeded to beat him while shouting racial epithets and making derogatory comments about his criminal convictions. ( Id. at 2-4.) Plaintiff specified that during the attack, an officer pulled his arms away from his back to injure his wrists. ( Id. at 3.) Plaintiff noted that one officer called him a "cry baby who likes putting paperwork on officers, '" that another officer threatened to tell other inmates about Plaintiff's convictions, and that Christianson distributed handouts about his criminal convictions. ( Id. at 4-5.)

Plaintiff filed an ACF with his Informal-Level Grievance. ( Id. at 6-8.) Although he completed the first two pages of the form, he did not sign the last page. He instead wrote "I do not agree with the language of this statement and thus I wont [sic] sign it." ( Id. at 8.)

On October 3, 2011, Burson rejected the Informal-Level Grievance because Plaintiff was "pending a notice of charges for [the] incident." ( Id. at 1.) On October 10, 2011, Burson issued a Form 3098 noting the same defect. ( Id. at 9.)

Objecting to this procedural rejection, Plaintiff filed a First-Level Grievance on October 18, 2011, which Burson rejected three days later because Plaintiff's Informal-Level Grievance was not accepted. On October 24, 2011, Burson issued a Form 3098 specifying the same basis for rejection. ( Id. at 10-13.)

On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Second-Level Grievance objecting to Burson's rejection of his earlier two grievances. ( Id. at 14.) Burson rejected the Second-Level Grievance on November 2, 2011, because the "allegation was submitted for investigation." ( Id. ) On November 4, 2011, Burson issued a Form 3098 listing the same reason for rejection. ( Id. at 15.)

b. Grievance XXXX-XX-XXXXX ("Exhibit 517")

On November 16, 2011, Plaintiff filed Informal-Level Grievance XXXX-XX-XXXXX, writing that Coburn failed to process an Emergency Grievance he had filed about the September Incident. (Defs.' Exh. 517 at 1-2.) Plaintiff also filed an ACF. ( Id. at 3-5.) Tanya Hill, a caseworker, rejected the grievance on December 8, 2011. ( Id. at 5; Dreesen Test.) The next day, Burson issued a Form 3098 specifying that Plaintiff did not sign the ACF, which "ma[de] [Plaintiff's] submission incomplete and improper" and "constitute[d] abandonment of the grievance at [the informal] and all subsequent levels." (Defs.' Exh. 517 at 6.)

Plaintiff filed a First-Level Grievance on December 14, 2011, objecting to the ACF's signature requirement. ( Id. at 7.) The same day, Plaintiff signed the ACF under a handwritten note stating that he "do[es] not agree that this is [his] entire claim." ( Id. at 5.) On January 4, 2012, Hill rejected the First-Level Grievance and Burson issued a Form 3098 that quoted AR 740 and the ACF, and concluded that ...


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