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Romero v. Nevada Department of Corrections

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 30, 2014

Helen Jane Romero, et al., Plaintiffs,
Nevada Department of Corrections, et. al., Defendants


JENNIFER A. DORSEY, District Judge.

This §1983 and wrongful-death case arises from the violent death of prisoner Anthony Beltran, who was fatally shanked by his cellmate. Beltran's mother, on behalf of his estate and children, sued the State of Nevada, the Nevada Department of Corrections, prison administration, guards, and caseworkers. All defendants except corrections officer Trent Howes (due to apparent confusion over who represented Howes) obtained summary judgment on everything but the wrongful death claim. Doc. 144. Howes now moves for summary judgment on the claims against him based on a lack of admissible evidence. I find that plaintiff has failed to sustain her burden with admissible evidence, and I grant Howes's motion. And because the entry of summary judgment on the claims against Howes leaves only a state-law claim, I also exercise my discretion to decline to retain jurisdiction over the remainder of this case and remand the lone remaining wrongful death claim back to the Eighth Judicial District Court.


Anthony G. Beltran was fatally stabbed by his cellmate Douglas Potter on December 28, 2006, while the two men were inmates at the Ely State Prison ("ESP"), operated by the Nevada Department of Corrections ("NDOC"). Beltran's mother Helen Romero-as administratrix of Beltran's estate and guardian ad litem of his children-sued NDOC; NDOC director Glenn Whorton; warden E.K. McDaniel; corrections officers Trent Howes, Michael Stolk, Theresa Landon, and Robert Otero; and caseworkers Robert Chambliss and Mark Drain. Doc. 24. Romero generally alleges that while Beltran was having his handcuffs fastened by guard Howes through the food slot in the cell door prior to being led to the shower, Potter attacked Beltran with a shank fashioned from a metal piece of a typewriter-all to gain greater status in the Aryan Warriors organization. See id. Romero theorizes that Beltran's death "was made possible" by NDOC's policies and practices regarding cellmate selections and protecting prisoners from other violent inmates. Id. at 3-4. She contends that the defendants, including Howes, acted with deliberate indifference to Beltran's safety and constitutional rights and celled Beltran with Potter despite knowledge of Potter's Aryan Warriors affiliation and threats of violence to any cell mate. See id. She asserts two claims against Howes: a § 1983 claim for violations of Beltran's Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and a wrongful death claim. Id. at 17-25.

The poorly utilized discovery period in this case closed four years ago. See Doc. 144 at 6. Much of this six-year-old case has been whittled away on summary judgment. All of Romero's claims against the doe and roe defendants have been dismissed, along with her negligent hiring, training, and supervision claim. Id. at 5, 11, 28. All other defendants have also obtained summary judgment in their favor on Romero's § 1983 claim. Id. Thus, as I undertake to evaluate Howes's summary-judgment motion, [1] it is with this backdrop of still-viable claims: a § 1983 claim against Howes and a wrongful death claim against all defendants.


A. Summary Judgment Standard and Burdens

"A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense-or the part of each claim or defense-on which summary judgment is sought." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burdens on summary judgment are key. A party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of informing the Court of those portions of the pleadings and discovery that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). When the nonmovant bears the burden at trial, the movant can meet its burden by either (1) presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonparty's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonomoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24. "When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict of the evidence went uncontroverted at trial." C.A.R. Transportation Brokerage Co. v. Darden Resorts, Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).

After the movant has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue of material fact remains for trial. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). Although "[t]he evidence of [non-movant] is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor, " id. at 587, she "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id. The nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations unsupported by facts. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). "A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record... or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited 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). "A trial court can only consider admissible evidence in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, " and evidence must be authenticated before it can be considered. Orr v. Bank of America, 285 F.3d 764, 773-74 (9th Cir. 2002). A principal purpose of summary judgment is "to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24. "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

B. Howes's Motion for Summary Judgment on Claim #1 - Deprivation of Constitutional Rights Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Romero's § 1983 cause of action against Howes is based on three constitutional-violation theories: an Eighth Amendment violation alleging deliberate indifference to Beltran's safety and post-attack medical needs; an Eighth Amendment violation based on policies and actions that caused Beltran to suffer cruel and unusual punishment, and a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim alleging that Howes' created and implemented policies and took or failed to take actions that resulted in Beltran's disparate treatment based on race. See Doc. 24 at 21-22. Howes argues that plaintiff's § 1983 claim fails because plaintiff has no admissible evidence to support any of her theories. Doc. 145 at 7-10.

1. Howes is entitled to summary judgment on Romero's § 1983 Eighth Amendment claim because Romero has not offered admissible proof to support her Eighth Amendment-violation theories.

Civil liability for Eighth Amendment violations lies when a state actor is deliberately indifferent to a serious medical need. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976). In general, the "deliberate indifference" inquiry requires a court to first determine whether the deprivation was sufficiently serious. Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 834 (1994). "Seriousness" hinges on whether the prisoner was deprived of the "minimal civilized measure of life's necessities, " Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, 298 (1991) (quotation omitted), by showing that the defendants knew of but disregarded an excessive risk to the plaintiff's safety. Tochugi v. Chung, 391 F.3d 1051, 1057 (9th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). This standard goes beyond gross negligence, Wood v. Housewright, 900 F.2d 1332, 1334 (9th Cir. 1990), and an "error in good faith" will not trigger § 1983 liability for Eighth Amendment violations, "whether that conduct occurs in connection with establishing conditions of confinement, supplying medical needs, or restoring official control over a tumultuous cellblock." Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986). Even where officials "actually knew of a substantial risk of inmate health or safety [they] may be found free from liability if they responded reasonably to the risk...." Farmer, 511 U.S. at 844.

Romero argues that Howes was deliberately indifferent to Beltran's safety and medical needs. She has failed, however, to provide ...

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