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Settlement Moots Appeal of Claims Denied by Summary Judgment

Settlement Moots Appeal of Claims Denied by Summary Judgment

by David Reutter

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a prisoner’s civil rights appeal after finding it was rendered moot by the parties’ post-trial settlement agreement.

Nevada prisoner Christopher A. Jones was subjected to disciplinary action after guards at the Ely State Prison found a letter in his property during a search. The letter called upon fellow prisoners to work together in support of Jones’ class-action suit against prison officials.

Following the September 2000 search, guard Michael Nustad charged Jones with violating rules that prohibit prisoners from “organizing, encouraging, or participating in a work stoppage or other disruptive demonstration or practice.” At a disciplinary hearing, guard Mark Drain had Jones removed for disrupting the hearing by repeatedly requesting that he be provided a copy of the letter to review prior to or during the proceedings. Drain found Jones guilty and sanctioned him with 180 days in disciplinary segregation, 90 days loss of telephone privileges and forfeiture of the letter.

Jones’ appeals were denied and he filed suit, alleging violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment and the district court issued an order that: 1) granted Jones judgment on his procedural due process claims stemming from Drain’s refusal to produce the letter at the disciplinary hearing; 2) granted judgment to the defendants on Jones’ First Amendment and retaliation claims based on the exercise of his right to free speech; and 3) granted Jones judgment on his failure to supervise claim against Warden E.K. McDaniel, but denied judgment on the same claim against Commissioner Jackie Crawford.

The case proceeded to a damages trial. The jury awarded $1.00 in nominal damages against both Drain and McDaniel, and also awarded Jones punitive damages of $4,000 against Drain and $7,000 against McDaniel.

At a status conference, Jones agreed to waive the $2.00 in nominal damages. The defendants agreed to pay a total of $34,825.16, which included the $11,000 punitive damages award plus attorney fees and costs. They also agreed to expunge the disciplinary report from Jones’ file and return his letter.

Two days after an “Accord and Satisfaction” in the case was executed, Jones appealed the district court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants on his First Amendment claim. On June 10, 2013, the Ninth Circuit held the appeal was mooted by the settlement.

The appellate court said Jones failed to have the summary judgment order certified for appeal as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b), rendering that order merged with the final judgment. While the Accord and Satisfaction did not specifically mention the First Amendment claim, the Court of Appeals held Jones’ oral statement that the release related to all claims in the lawsuit was binding. Moreover, Jones obtained relief beyond the jury award that was responsive to his First Amendment claim.

The appeal was therefore dismissed as moot. Jones sought certiorari review with the Supreme Court, which was denied on March 31, 2014. See: Jones v. McDaniel, 717 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied.


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Related legal case

Jones v. McDaniel