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Ninth Circuit: Indefinite Stay and Denial of Guardian was Abuse of Discretion

Ninth Circuit: Indefinite Stay and Denial of Guardian was Abuse of Discretion

by Mark Wilson

On March 24, 2014, the Ninth Circuit held that a district court had abused its discretion in refusing to appoint a guardian ad litem for a pro se prisoner who was legally incompetent.

California state prisoner Kennard Lee Davis suffers from schizoaffective disorder, impulse control disorder and substance-related mental disorder. Since April 2007 he has been under court-ordered, long-term involuntary medication.

In 2008, Davis filed a pro se retaliation and deliberate indifference suit in federal court against staff at CSP Sacramento, alleging that “in retaliation for filing numerous lawsuits and prisoner complaints, prison officials forced him to push a cart containing over 100 pounds of legal documents for over half a mile while handcuffed.” He brought a second retaliation and deliberate indifference suit against prison medical staff in 2010.

While those actions were pending, Davis was also pursuing a federal habeas corpus petition. In that case, he was evaluated by a court-appointed mental health specialist who determined he was incompetent. The habeas court appointed a guardian ad litem, finding that Davis “does not have the ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and does not have a rational nor factual understanding of the proceedings against him.”

In the § 1983 civil rights actions, Davis filed numerous motions for appointment of a guardian ad litem or counsel. His motions were supported by a prison psychiatrist’s declaration detailing Davis’s mental health history, diagnoses and involuntary treatment.

A magistrate judge recognized that Davis had been found incompetent in his pending habeas action and was currently receiving long-term psychotropic medication pursuant to a court order. The district court denied the appointment of counsel or a guardian under FRCP 17(c), however, stating that “there is no individual available to serve as guardian ad litem for plaintiff, or to undertake the representation of plaintiff in this action.” The court indefinitely stayed both lawsuits, finding “the most appropriate available measure” to adequately protect Davis was “to stay the case until any party thereto provides evidence that plaintiff has been restored to competency and is capable of protecting his own interests through self-representation.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held the district court had abused its discretion by imposing a “lengthy and indefinite stay” that “puts Davis ‘effectively out of court.’”

“Given Davis’s circumstances, this stay order left his interests in the litigation completely unprotected and functionally operated as a dismissal with prejudice of Davis’s action,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Instead of satisfying the obligation created by Rule 17(c) to ensure that Davis’s interests in the litigation would be adequately protected, the district court closed the courthouse doors, aware of the strong probability that Davis would not soon return. The district court’s order was thus not an ‘appropriate order’ to fulfill its mandate to protect Davis’s interests” under FRCP 17(c)(2). See: Davis v. Walker, 745 F.3d 1303 (9th Cir. 2014).

On October 29, 2014, following remand, the district court found that Davis “remains legally incompetent to prosecute his civil rights actions,” and appointed his brother to serve as guardian ad litem in both his lawsuits and habeas corpus proceeding.


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Related legal case

Davis v. Walker