Ninth Circuit: Former Gang Member Entitled to Jury Trial in § 1983 Jail Guard Retaliation Suit
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a prisoner’s lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Jail for intentionally housing him in the jail’s “gang module” as retaliation for his refusal to become a snitch should proceed to a jury trial. The pro se plaintiff’s attempts in the district court to obtain a jury trial and request appointment of counsel were improperly denied, the appellate court held.
Salvador Solis is a former Mexican Mafia “La Eme” gang member, now serving life without parole in state prison for murder. When he first entered the Los Angeles County Jail, he asked for protective custody because he feared for his safety from active gang members. Although given a jail segregation form to complete, he answered “no” where it asked if he feared for his safety, because at the time he was being observed by other gang members. Accordingly, he was placed in general population.
Later he privately asked jail guard Miguel Beltran to put him in the segregation module, explaining that he did in fact fear for his safety – showing Beltran documents proving his former gang affiliation. Beltran then asked Solis to become a snitch, which Solis refused. Allegedly in retaliation for that refusal, Beltran had Solis moved to the “gang module” that night. Two weeks later, gang members informed Solis that Beltran had told them who he was, and beat him severely. Solis filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights complaint against Beltran, Los Angeles County and jail officials.
With only an eighth grade education and as a pro per litigant, Solis was severely challenged before the district court. The court penalized him for not complying with all filing requirements by taking that as a waiver of his right to a jury trial. After dismissing all of the defendants except Beltran, the district court held a telephonic bench trial. While finding Solis’ version of the events “more credible than that of [Beltran]’s witnesses,” the court ruled in favor of Beltran.
Furthermore, the court taxed $1,115 for trial and deposition fees against Solis. He appealed, where he was represented by counsel. The Ninth Circuit first ruled that Solis’ notice of appeal was timely because it was filed within 30 days of entry of judgment on the civil docket.
The appellate court then held that the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of all the other defendants was inappropriate because Solis was not given fair notice of the requirements and consequences of a summary judgment motion, as mandated by Rand v. Rowland, 154 F.3d 952 (9th Cir. 1998) (en banc).
As to the denial of a jury trial, the Court of Appeals found that Solis had properly demanded a jury trial and that right could not be waived by a procedural rule of court. Moreover, Solis did not consent to such a waiver, as would be required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 38(d). But the mere existence of error on this issue was not sufficient; it also must have resulted in harm.
In reviewing the record, and particularly the admission of the trial court that Solis’ credibility on key facts was greater than Beltran’s witnesses, the Ninth Circuit held that a “reasonable jury could have found that Solis ... proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Beltran acted with deliberate indifference in transferring him to the gang module.” The erroneous denial of a jury trial therefore was not harmless, and Solis was entitled to a retrial before a jury.
Further, when Solis returns to the district court, he may reapply for appointment of counsel. The Ninth Circuit noted that the district court had denied Solis’ two prior written requests for counsel without explanation. If upon reapplication the district court again denies appointment of counsel, even after considering all of the relevant factors noted by the Court of Appeals, it must provide an adequate explanation of its reasons.
Accordingly, the appellate court reversed and remanded the case for a jury trial and vacated the bill of costs. See: Solis v. County of Los Angeles, 514 F.3d 946 (9th Cir. 2008).
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Related legal case
Solis v. County of Los Angeles
|514 F.3d 946 (9th Cir. 2008)
|Court of Appeals