United States District Court, D. Nevada
For John S. Olausen, Plaintiff: Northern Nevada Correctional Center, c/o Librarian, LEAD ATTORNEY, Carson City, NV.
For Sgt. Murguia, Sgt. Wagner, Defendants: Charles W. Lehman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nevada Attorney General's Office, Carson City, NV; John L Ward, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nevada Office of the Attorney General, Carson City, NV.
MIRANDA M. DU, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Before the Court is Defendants' objection to the Magistrate Judge's Order denying their motion to stay proceedings pending the Court's screening of Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint filed over a year after the action was initiated (" Objection"). (Dkt. no. 91.) The Court has also reviewed Plaintiff's response (dkt. no. 92). Defendants' Objection is premised on their contention that the Magistrate Judge made a legal error by finding that post-answer screening of an inmate's proposed complaint is discretionary under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (" PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. There is no question that the PLRA requires courts to engage in pre-answer screening of an inmate's complaint. Defendants contend, however, that this compulsory judicial screening requirement extends to every proposed amended complaint filed post-answer. The Court disagrees and overrules Defendants' Objection.
Plaintiff, a prisoner in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections, initiated this action on July 23, 2013. (Dkt. no. 1.) On October 7, 2013, the Court screened Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. (Dkt. no. 3.) The Court permitted Plaintiff's due process and retaliation claims to proceed and dismissed his Fourth Amendment and Eighth Amendment claims with prejudice. (Id. at 5-6.) The Court imposed a ninety (90) day stay and encouraged the parties to engage in informal settlement discussions. (Id.; dkt. no. 6.) The stay was lifted on January 9, 2014. (Dkt. no. 21.) The case has since progressed through the normal phases of litigation until August 2014 -- the parties have filed numerous motions and Plaintiff pursued an appeal of the Court's decisions, which was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. ( See, e.g., dkt. nos. 16, 17, 19, 31, 40, 53.) On August 25, 2014, Plaintiff requested a ninety (90) day stay to permit the parties to engage in settlement discussion, citing discovery of new evidence. (Dkt. no. 69.) Defendants agreed that the case should be stayed but suggested that the parties could complete settlement negotiations within forty-five (45) days. (Dkt. no. 78.) On September 9, 2014, the Court issued an order scheduling a settlement conference for September 25, 2014. (Dkt. no. 79.) Settlement was not accomplished. (Dkt. no. 84.)
In the meantime, on September 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed a motion for leave to amend his complaint based on newly discovered evidence (" Motion to Amend"). (Dkt. no. 73.) On October 2, 2014, the Magistrate Judge issued an Order addressing pending motions and setting a briefing schedule on Plaintiff's Motion to Amend. (Dkt. no. 86.) Defendants waited until October 17, 2014, the deadline for Defendants to respond to Plaintiff's Motion to Amend as established by the Court's Order, to move to stay proceedings, taking the position that the Court is mandated to re-screen Plaintiff's proposed amended complaint. (Dkt. no. 88.) The Magistrate Judge promptly denied Defendants' motion (dk. no. 89), which led to Defendants' filing of their Objection.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
Magistrate judges are authorized to resolve pretrial matters subject to district court review under a " clearly erroneous or contrary to law" standard. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); L.R. IB 3-1(a) (" A district judge may reconsider any pretrial matter referred to a magistrate judge in a civil or criminal case pursuant to LR IB 1-3, where it has been shown that the magistrate judge's ruling is clearly erroneous or contrary to law."). Section 636(b)(1)(A) " would also enable the court to delegate some of the more administrative functions to a magistrate, such as . . . assistance in the preparation of plans to achieve prompt disposition of cases in the court." Gomez v. United States, 490 U.S. 858, 869, 109 S.Ct. 2237, 104 L.Ed.2d 923 (1989). A magistrate judge's pretrial order issued under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) is not subject to de novo review, and the reviewing court " may not simply substitute its judgment for that of the deciding court." Grimes v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 951 F.2d 236, 241 (9th Cir. 1991). Where the magistrate judge's ruling involves question of law, however, the standard of review is de novo. See Wolpin v. Philip Morris Inc., 189 F.R.D. 418, 422 (C.D. Cal. 1999) (" [L]egal conclusions are freely reviewable de novo to determine whether they are contrary to law."). Because the Magistrate Judge's decision involves the legal question whether a court must carry out post-answer screening under the PLRA, the Court reviews the Magistrate Judge's legal conclusion de novo.
Defendants rely on three statutes governing inmate litigation to argue that a federal district court is compelled to screen every amended complaint before a defendant is required to respond: 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1). Defendants are correct that the determination of a statutory mandate begins with the statute's plain meaning, but they err in interpreting such plain meaning here. As the Supreme Court recently cautioned, in construing the PLRA, the lower court's " job is to construe the statute-not to make it better, " such that courts " must not read in by way of creation, but instead abide by the duty of restraint, the humility of function as merely the translator of another's command." Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 216, 127 S.Ct. 910, 166 L.Ed.2d 798 (2007) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Heeding this warning, the Court will address each of Defendants' cited statutes.
A. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)
Defendants argue that 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) supports their contention that the screening of a complaint filed by a plaintiff who seeks in forma pauperis status is mandatory. True enough. Courts are required to screen an in forma pauperis complaint to determine whether dismissal is appropriate under certain circumstances. Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1126 (9th Cir. 2000) (noting that section 804(a)(5) of the PLRA is codified as part of the in forma pauperis statute at 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), which requires a district court to dismiss an in forma pauperis complaint for the enumerated reasons). However, Defendants read more into the statute by arguing that the screening requirement extends to every proposed amended complaint filed after service of process and a defendant's response. Section 1915(e)(2)(B) states, in pertinent part, that " [n]otwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines" that the action is frivolous or fails to state a claim. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Just because a court has authority to dismiss the case at any time does not mean it is compelled ...