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Ernest v. State

United States District Court, D. Nevada

April 22, 2019

Howard J. Ernest, Plaintiff,
v.
State of Nevada, Defendants.

          SCREENING ORDER

          ANDREW P. GORDON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Howard Ernest is a prisoner in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections (“NDOC”). He has submitted a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and has filed an application to proceed in forma pauperis.[1] ECF No. 1, 1-1. I now screen the civil rights complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         I. SCREENING STANDARD

         Federal courts must conduct a preliminary screening in any case in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must identify any cognizable claims and dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), (2). Pro se pleadings, however, must be liberally construed. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two essential elements: (1) the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         In addition to the screening requirements under § 1915A, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires a federal court to dismiss a prisoner's claim if “the allegation of poverty is untrue” or if the action “is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). Dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is provided for in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and the court applies the same standard under § 1915 when reviewing the adequacy of a complaint or an amended complaint. When a court dismisses a complaint under § 1915(e), the plaintiff should be given leave to amend the complaint with directions as to curing its deficiencies, unless it is clear from the face of the complaint that the deficiencies could not be cured by amendment. See Cato v. United States, 70 F.3d 1103, 1106 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Review under Rule 12(b)(6) is essentially a ruling on a question of law. See Chappel v. Lab. Corp. of America, 232 F.3d 719, 723 (9th Cir. 2000). Dismissal for failure to state a claim is proper only if it is clear that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle him or her to relief. See Morley v. Walker, 175 F.3d 756, 759 (9th Cir. 1999). In making this determination, the court takes as true all allegations of material fact stated in the complaint and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Warshaw v. Xoma Corp., 74 F.3d 955, 957 (9th Cir. 1996). Allegations of a pro se complainant are held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. See Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980). While the standard under Rule 12(b)(6) does not require detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff must provide more than mere labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action is insufficient. Id.

         Additionally, a reviewing court should “begin by identifying pleadings [allegations] that, because they are no more than mere conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported with factual allegations.” Id. “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.

         Finally, all or part of a complaint filed by a prisoner may be dismissed sua sponte if the prisoner's claims lack an arguable basis either in law or in fact. This includes claims based on legal conclusions that are untenable (e.g., claims against defendants who are immune from suit or claims of infringement of a legal interest which clearly does not exist), as well as claims based on fanciful factual allegations (e.g., fantastic or delusional scenarios). See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327-28 (1989); see also McKeever v. Block, 932 F.2d 795, 798 (9th Cir. 1991).

         II. SCREENING OF COMPLAINT

         Ernest sues multiple defendants for events that took place while he was incarcerated by the NDOC. ECF No. 1-1 at 1-3. He sues the State of Nevada, the Nevada Department of Corrections, the Offender Management Division, Warden Brian Williams, and James Dzurenda. Id. Ernest alleges five counts and seeks monetary damages. Id. at 8, 11.

         Ernest's five counts are based on five different convictions and sentences. Id. at 4-8. For each sentence, Ernest alleges that the Nevada Department of Corrections did not apply NRS § 209.4465(7)(b) to his minimum term. Id. Section 209.4465(7)(b) concerns the application of statutory credits to determine the date when a person becomes eligible for parole. For each sentence, Ernest alleges that the failure to apply NRS § 209.4465(7)(b) directly caused him to be in prison longer. Id. He alleges this violated his rights to due process and equal protection. Id.

         Because Ernest alleges no facts to indicate that the Equal Protection Clause applies, I construe his claims as Fourteenth Amendment due process claims only.

         A. Heck Bar

         First I must determine if Ernest's claim is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In Heck, the Supreme Court held that “in order to recover damages for [an] allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254.” Id. at 486-87. “A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been . . . invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.” Id. at 487. Thus, when a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983 suit, the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of the duration of his confinement; if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the period of confinement has already been invalidated. Id. A prisoner usually may not use ยง 1983 to challenge the very fact ...


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