United States District Court, D. Nevada
JOSEPH M. ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
NEVADA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS et al., Defendants.
IT C. JONES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
a prisoner civil rights case. Now pending before the Court is
an objection to the Magistrate Judge's order denying
Plaintiffs motion for spoliation of evidence. (Obj., ECF No.
168.) For the reasons given herein, the Court overrules the
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Joseph Anderson sued Defendants in state court under 42
U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, alleging violations of the
Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the Religious
Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
("RLUIPA"), and the Equal Protection Clause of the
Fourteenth Amendment, as well as retaliation in violation of
the First Amendment, and civil rights conspiracy. Following
removal of the action to this Court and a subsequent
amendment of the Complaint, Mr. Anderson was permitted to
proceed with his RLUIPA, First Amendment retaliation, Equal
Protection Clause, and civil rights conspiracy claims. His
due process claim was dismissed with prejudice. At summary
judgment, the majority of Mr. Anderson's claims were
resolved in favor of Defendants. Accordingly, the single
remaining claim in this case is for First Amendment
retaliation against Defendant Jethro Parks.
retaliation claim revolves around a single cell search
conducted on July 12, 2014. Mr. Anderson alleges that Mr.
Parks subjected him to an oppressive cell search because of
his religion, and that Parks told him such searches would
stop if he changed his religion. Parks denies these
allegations, maintaining the search was not related to
Anderson's religious beliefs or practices. In fact, Parks
argues that he does not have discretion to choose which cells
to search, but that they are selected by his shift
lieutenant, and that the searches are performed randomly for
safety and security reasons.
the day in question, Parks asserts that Anderson's name
was on a list of inmates whose cells were to be searched that
day, the list having been provided by the shift lieutenant. A
cell search log indicates this was the only time Parks ever
searched Anderson's cell. During the search, Parks
confiscated multiple unauthorized items, including a bottle
containing an "unknown liquid." According to Parks,
the bottle carried a label which was secured to the bottle by
tape. Because the bottle would not have had a taped-on label
when Anderson purchased it, Parks determined that the bottle
had been "altered" in violation of AR 711, and
therefore qualified as contraband. Anderson claims the bottle
contained consecrated baby oil for religious use, which
administrative regulations expressly authorize him to
the search, Mr. Anderson took steps to recover his
confiscated property. However, on July 30, 2014, he was
informed by prison officials that the confiscated items could
not be located. In subsequent responses to discovery
propounded during this litigation, Defendants confirmed that
the confiscated property is no longer in their possession,
suggesting it was either lost or discarded. On this basis,
Anderson filed a motion for spoliation of evidence, arguing
that his religious items are essential evidence in proving
his claim of First Amendment retaliation, to allow him to
establish that the confiscated items were in fact religious
in nature and not "ordinary every day hygiene
items." (Mot. Spoliation 17, ECF No. 151.)
motion hearing was held on April 9, 2018, before Magistrate
Judge William G. Cobb. Judge Cobb gave Mr. Anderson multiple
opportunities to articulate the evidentiary relevance of the
confiscated property with respect to his claim of First
Amendment retaliation. Mr. Anderson's response was that
he needed the bottle of baby oil to show that it actually
contained consecrated oil intended for religious use. This,
he argued, would serve to establish that the bottle was not
altered or modified and thus complied with administrative
regulations. After argument by both parties, Judge Cobb
denied the motion for spoliation on the basis that the
bottle's actual contents are not relevant evidence of
First Amendment retaliation. (Minutes, ECF No. 163.) Mr.
Anderson now asks the Court to set aside Judge Cobb's
ruling under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a).
72(a) permits a district court judge to modify or set aside a
magistrate judge's non-dispositive ruling that is clearly
erroneous or contrary to law. FED. R. Crv. P. 72(a); see
also D. Nev. Local R. IB 3-1(a). "A finding is
'clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence
to support it, the reviewing body on the entire evidence is
left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has
been committed." Concrete Pipe & Prod. of Cal,
Inc. v. Constr. Laborers Pension Tr. for S. Cal., 508
U.S. 602, 622 (1993). "A decision is 'contrary to
law' if it applies an incorrect legal standard or fails
to consider an element of die applicable standard."
Conant v. McCoffey, No. C 97-0139 FMS, 1998 WL
164946, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 16, 1998) (citing Hunt v.
National Broadcasting Co., 872 F.2d 289, 292 (9th Cir.
1989)). Rule 72(a) institutes an abuse-of-discretion-type
standard of review, under which the reviewing court must give
significant deference to the initial decision, and may not
simply substitute its judgment for that of the deciding
court. See Grimes v. City and Cnty. of S.F., 951
F.2d 236, 241 (9th Cir. 1991) (citing United States v.
BNS Inc, 858 F.2d 456, 464 (9th Cir. 1988)).
thorough review of the motion record and case file, the Court
is not convinced that a mistake has been made. See
Concrete Pipe & Prod. of Cal, Inc., 508 U.S. at 622.
Ultimately, Judge Cobb denied the motion for spoliation based
on Mr. Anderson's failure to demonstrate me evidentiary
relevance of his confiscated property:
[T]he subject of plaintiff s grievance relates to defendant
Parks' motivation behind the cell search and whether it
was motivated by religious animosity towards Mr.
Anderson's beliefs, not whether or not me substance
inside the bottle was permitted... It is the court's
opinion that the contents of the bottle, even if one assumes
is of religious nature, is irrelevant to this action... The
court encourages plaintiff to focus on defendant Parks'
motivation for conducting the cell search and seizing the
2, ECF No. 163.) Judge Cobb's relevance finding is not
clearly erroneous. For example, Mr. Anderson does not assert
that the label on the bottle was unaltered, which might be a
basis for arguing that the stated reason for confiscating the
bottle was a pretext. Instead, the focus of Mr.
Anderson's argument related exclusively to what the
bottle contained. As Judge Cobb recognized, the bottle's
actual contents are not probative of Mr. Parks'
subjective intent in confiscating it. Moreover, it does not
appear Parks has ever disputed what the bottle contained;
rather, he asserts only that the nature of the liquid in the
bottle was unknown ...