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Turner v. High Desert State Prison

United States District Court, District of Nevada

March 27, 2015

John Turner Plaintiff,
v.
High Desert State Prison, et al., Defendants.

ORDER[## 36, 74]

JENNIFER DORSEY, United States District Judge

Pro se plaintiff John Turner claims his civil rights were violated by the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC), High Desert State Prison, the Nevada Inmate Bank System, and the State of Nevada when money was removed from his inmate account as restitution for two incidents of fighting. In the initial screening of plaintiff’s complaint under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), the court found that Turner stated a single claim for violation of his constitutionally protected property right to the funds in his inmate account, and this action was permitted to proceed as pled against the named defendants.[1]

NDOC now moves for summary judgment, arguing that (1) Turner’s claims are barred by the legal doctrine of res judicata because Turner brought-and lost-these very claims in Nevada’s small-claims court; and (2) NDOC cannot be a defendant in a § 1983 claim as a matter of law.[2]Turner’s small-claims actions were dismissed for failure to exhaust the prison-grievance process, leaving these matters without res judicata effect. And NDOC’s argument that it cannot be the subject of Turner’s § 1983 claim is confounded by its pronouncement in the same breath that it is “the only [d]efendant properly named in the suit.” I therefore reject NDOC’s res judicata argument, and I deny its motion as to the proper-defendant argument without prejudice. Because Turner’s failure-to-exhaust argument raises questions about the ripeness of this action, I also order Turner to show cause why this case should not be dismissed for failure to first complete the prison-grievance procedures. And finally, I deny Turner’s countermotion for summary judgment because he has failed to satisfy the burden placed on summary-judgment movants.

Background

Turner alleges that on two occasions the NDOC unlawfully withdrew money from his inmate account: $50 in April 2013, when Turner was ordered to pay restitution for medical care he received after a fight; and another $25 in restitution in June 2013, when Turner was ordered to pay for medical care following a second fight.[3] Turner contests that he “received no injuries & sought no medical attention” after these fights, so he initiated two actions in small-claims court to recover the money he believes was wrongfully taken from him.[4] Both actions were dismissed by the small-claims court for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.[5]

NDOC argues that Turner’s adjudication of these matters in small-claims court renders the instant claim barred by the doctrine of res judicata.[6] NDOC also argues that there is an additional reason Turner’s claims are barred: NDOC is not a proper target of Turner’s § 1983 claim.[7] Turner responds by pointing out that the small-claims actions were dismissed for failure to exhaust the grievance procedures, not on their merits; and he generally contests the notion that those dismissals-or the NDOC’s arm-of-the-state status-should now bar his § 1983 claim. In a document he characterizes as a “countermotion, ” he contends that both small-claims actions are “still open issue[s] being grievance exhaustion.”[8] I address both motions in turn.

Discussion

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and admissible evidence “show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[9] When considering summary judgment, the court views all facts and draws all inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[10] If reasonable minds could differ on material facts, summary judgment is inappropriate because summary judgment’s purpose is to avoid unnecessary trials when the facts are undisputed, and the case must then proceed to the trier of fact.[11]

If the moving party satisfies Rule 56 by demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the party resisting summary judgment to “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.”[12] The nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”; he “must produce specific evidence, through affidavits or admissible discovery material, to show that” there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable fact finder could find in his favor.[13] The court only considers properly authenticated, admissible evidence in deciding a motion for summary judgment.[14]And when a countermotion for summary judgment is filed on the same claim before the court, “the court must consider the appropriate evidentiary material identified and submitted in support of both motions, and in opposition to both motions, before ruling on each of them.”[15]

A. NDOC’s Motion for Summary Judgment

1. Res Judicata

“Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action.”[16] This doctrine extends to actions brought under § 1983.[17] For the court to find Turner’s claims barred by the doctrine, NDOC must demonstrate that his earlier suit (1) involved the same claim or cause of action as his later suit, (2) involved the same parties as his later suit, and (3) reached a final judgment on the merits.[18]

NDOC has not demonstrated that Turner’s small-claims cases resulted in a final judgment on their merits. Both cases were dismissed on the basis that Turner had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.[19] As the Ninth Circuit explained in Heath v. Cleary, dismissal of claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies is not considered a final judgment “on the merits.”[20]Turner’s small-claims actions, ...


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