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Ninth Circuit: Prisoner Validated as Gang Member May Challenge Debriefing Procedures

Ninth Circuit: Prisoner Validated as Gang Member May Challenge Debriefing Procedures

by Mark Wilson

On January 15, 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a prisoner’s claim related to “debriefing” with respect to his alleged gang affiliation.

In 2007, California prisoner Ricky Gonzales was validated as a Northern Structure gang associate and indefinitely placed in segregation in a Secured Housing Unit (SHU).

He filed a state habeas corpus petition challenging the evidentiary basis for his gang validation. The Superior Court denied his petition, concluding that the validation was supported by “some evidence.” The California Court of Appeal and state Supreme Court upheld that decision.

On March 29, 2010, Gonzales filed suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the validation process. He also alleged that the prison system’s debriefing procedures, “by which validated gang members renounce their gang membership, divulge gang-related information, and earn their release back into the prison’s general population,” violated the Eighth Amendment because they placed him at risk of harm from other prisoners.

On initial screening, the district court dismissed the validation claims as being barred by claim preclusion due to the state habeas corpus ruling. Further, “[b]ecause Gonzales had consistently denied being a gang member, the district court concluded that he had ‘alleged no facts which would suggest that [he] could debrief,’ and therefore lacked standing to challenge the debriefing policy.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of Gonzales’ 19 validation-related claims due to “the claim-preclusive effect of California’s denial of his habeas petition,” and provided a detailed discussion of claim preclusion based on state court habeas rulings.

The appellate court reversed the dismissal of the debriefing claim, however, finding Gonzales did “not allege that it is impossible for him to debrief, but that it is impossible for him to debrief successfully. As an adjudicated gang member, he is eligible to debrief, regardless of whether he is, in fact, a member of Northern Structure. Of course, if his allegations are true, he will not be able to convince prison officials that he has renounced his non-existent gang membership, a requirement to debrief successfully.”

Regardless, “the risk of retaliation from other gang members ... inheres in becoming an ‘informant,’ regardless of whether his information is accurate,” the Court of Appeals concluded. Therefore, Gonzales had established standing for his debriefing claim. The dismissal of the validation claims was affirmed while the dismissal of the Eighth Amendment debriefing claim was reversed and remanded. See: Gonzales v. California Department of Corrections, 739 F.3d 1226 (9th Cir. 2014).

Following remand, on April 28, 2014 the district court allowed Gonzales to file an amended complaint, “because his complaint is deficient as to the one claim on which the Ninth Circuit reversed, and plaintiff has indicated he wants to file an amended complaint to assert an additional claim.” The court provided helpful instructions as to the elements that Gonzales should address or include in the amended complaint, noting that his original complaint “was needlessly long-winded because it included legal argument and general observations about the gang validation process, neither of which belong in a pleading.”

However, the district court then dismissed Gonzales’ amended complaint on September 11, 2014, finding it was almost identical to the claims raised in Ashker v. Brown – a federal class-action suit challenging SHU placement and conditions. [See: PLN, Oct. 2014, p.30]. The court wrote that “An individual suit for injunctive and equitable relief from allegedly unconstitutional prison conditions may be dismissed when it duplicates an existing class action’s allegations and prayer for relief,” and noted Gonzales was a class member in Ashker.

Less than three weeks later the district court granted Gonzales’ “short and simple” motion for reconsideration, reinstating the Eighth Amendment debriefing claim in his amended complaint while upholding the dismissal of his due process claim. Gonzales had successfully argued that while he was a member of the due process class in Ashker, he did not qualify as a member of the Eighth Amendment class in that case; therefore, his Eighth Amendment claim should not have been dismissed.

This case remains pending, with Gonzales proceeding pro se. See: Gonzales v.California Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:10-cv-01317-CW; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140485.

 

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Gonzales v. California Department of Corrections

Gonzales v.California Department of Corrections


 

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