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Federal Judge Sanctions Former Arizona DOC Director’s Foot-Dragging Attorneys in Pro Se Prisoner’s Suit

by Matt Clarke

On January 12, 2022, a federal judge advanced a former Arizona state prisoner one step closer to collecting fees for his own pro se legal work in a suit against the former Director of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), Charles Ryan, who had been required by a magistrate judge to pay sanctions for failing to comply with court-ordered discovery.

The magistrate’s order adopted his report and recommendation of June 2, 2021, that the plaintiff proceeding pro se be awarded the cost in attorney fees paid the state Assistant Attorney General (AAG) to defend Ryan against the motion to compel discovery and motion for sanctions.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona by Timothy Paul Olmos while he was still incarcerated by DOC, accusing Ryan of violating his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when he did not pay Olmos the interest earned on funds in his prison trust account. Olmos also alleged a violation of his Eighth Amendment rights because DOC provided free hygiene supplies only to prisoners whose spendable trust account balances were less than $12 in a month; that created a financial hardship, Olmos said, which forced him to choose between purchasing legal materials and basic hygiene products.

Ryan did not dispute the basic facts alleged by Olmos, replying instead that DOC’s expenses in incarcerating Olmos exceeded the interest earned on the prisoner’s trust account, an amount Ryan said was too small to worry about, anyway. Moreover, the defendant added, Olmos could not prove he was unable to afford hygiene products. The magistrate rejected both of those arguments, noting that the amount of interest was small as applied to Olmos, but the suit could cause other prisoners to litigate the issue and cost DOC a half million dollars or more.

Olmos had filed seven discovery requests, but Ryan’s attorneys, AAGs Michael Evan Gottfried and Roger William Hall, failed to completely respond. Olmos filed a motion to compel, which the Court granted in part, ordering Ryan and his counsel to provide discovery. However, the AAGs did not fully comply with the order, instead complaining it was too onerous because some of the materials were stored in numerous loose-leaf binders located in some 360 banker’s boxes, besides which the lead AAG was scheduled for surgery soon. Olmos filed a motion for sanctions.

Ryan then offered a stipulation to liability on the failure to pay interest and argued he had complied with discovery by providing one of the seven ordered supplemental responses. But the magistrate held this did not excuse the failure to fully obey the Court’s order. The magistrate then found that sanctions were appropriate because Ryan had already had a year to comply with the discovery requests—six months of which expired after the Court granted the motion to compel—and had been repeatedly warned that further delays would not be tolerated.

The magistrate determined that, since Olmos was not entitled to attorney’s fees because he was a pro se litigant, an appropriate sanction for the time he spent seeking discovery compliance would be for Ryan to pay him the amount of attorney’s fees the state incurred in defending against the two motions. Thus the magistrate recommended that the AAG’s office be ordered to determine how many hours it spent defending against those motions and for DOC to pay Olmos the cost of those hours at the rate the AAG routinely sought for reimbursement of attorney fees.

To prevent further foot-dragging in discovery, the magistrate also recommended that Olmos be awarded an additional ten hours of fees every 30 days after the Court files its order until compliance with discovery is achieved. See: Olmos v. Ryan, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104427 (D. Ariz.).

Insisting that Olmos was owed no more than $7.20, Ryan filed an appeal to that report and recommendation. That was denied by the district court judge in the order he issued on July 21, 2021. The Court’s January order affirmed that decision, noting that Ryan and his counsel had produced “a convoluted and confusing argument regarding judgment in his favor and damages,” including an alleged expiration of a statute of limitations, but that they “produced no evidence disputing Plaintiff’s claim.” Showing its weariness with Ryan and team, the Court said it would give them “a final chance” before ordering a trial on the issues raised.

Meanwhile, because Olmos had been released, his claims for injunctive relief were dismissed as moot. His claim for being denied free hygiene products was also dismissed because it failed to demonstrate a “substantial risk of harm,” but the Court gave him 45 days to refile a claim that met that standard. It then granted Olmos summary judgment on his discovery abuse claim and gave Ryan 45 days to show why he shouldn’t have to pay the damages laid out by the magistrate judge. See: Olmos v. Ryan, USDC (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:17-cv-03665-GMS-JFM. 

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Related legal case

Olmos v. Ryan