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After Winning $15,000 Settlement, California Trans Prisoner Forces CDCR to Replace Missing Trust Account Deposits

by Douglas Ankney

On May 24, 2023, the Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate District, issued a mandate commanding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to restore over $2,600 to the trust account of state prisoner Mona Salcida Murillo.

She received three money orders in 2021 for $395, $325 and $800, along with a certified check for $1,100. Murillo gave the instruments to guards for deposit into her trust account, but the funds were not deposited because the mailroom failed to remove the instruments.

After exhausting grievance procedures, Murillo ultimately filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate seeking replacement of, or compensation for, all of the instruments. Murillo submitted extensive documentation, including a “notice of money order or check left in mail” signed by guards that “annotated the amounts” of each of the instruments and noted the identifying serial numbers of each one, stating that the instruments were attached. Murillo also submitted “prison request forms” with guards’ signatures that stated she had turned over the instruments, that the guards “took control and possession” of them and “process[ed] them to the accounting Dept. per policy.” Murillo also submitted the envelopes that had contained each instrument. The envelopes were stamped by the mailroom and included the mailroom’s notation acknowledging the instruments contained therein.

The Court of Appeal determined Murillo’s documentation supported her claims that the instruments were taken by guards, and CDCR agreed that the funds were never deposited into her account. The Court appointed counsel to Murillo and issued an alternative writ directing CDCR either to deposit the funds into Murillo’s account or to show cause why it should not do so. CDCR chose not to comply with the writ and filed a response, arguing that Murillo was not entitled to a writ of mandate because (1) she had other remedies at law available to her (a Tort Claim); (2) she failed to establish that CDCR violated a ministerial duty owed to her; and (3) she was obligated to contact the senders of the instruments who could then, in turn, seek replacements for the lost instruments.

At that point the Court of Appeal observed that “[a] writ of mandate may be issued by any court to any inferior tribunal, corporation, board, or person, to compel the performance of an act which the law specially enjoins, as a duty resulting from an office, trust, or station, or to compel the admission of a party to the use and enjoyment of a right or office to which the party is entitled, and from which the party is unlawfully precluded by that inferior tribunal, corporation, board, or person,” per Code Civ. Proc. § 1085(a). The writ of mandate “is a method of compelling the performance of a legal, usually ministerial duty,” the Court noted. “Generally, a writ will lie when there is no plain, speedy, and adequate alternative remedy; the respondent has a duty to perform; and the petitioner has a clear and beneficial right to performance,” the Court said, citing Walnut Valley Unified School Dist. v. Superior Court, 192 Cal.App.4th (2011).

Case Law Supports
Murillo’s Petition

The Court further observed that prisoners “may receive funds in the form of a money order, cashier’s check, or other negotiable instrument,” per Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 3140(a)(1), which also notes “the instrument shall be made payable to CDCR with the inmate’s last name and departmental identification number and sender’s name and address noted on the face of the instrument,” and that “[a]ny money order, cashier’s check, or other negotiable instrument that does not contain the sender’s name and address on its face is considered contraband and will be disposed of after the inmate is informed of its contraband nature.” Importantly, the regulation states that “[f]unds received in the mail shall be removed from the envelope by mailroom staff, and the envelope shall be imprinted with a stamp that reads ‘Funds Enclosed.’ The date, amount, and initials of the person processing the funds shall be recorded on the envelope before it is forwarded to the inmate. The stamped envelope is the [prisoner’s] receipt for the funds.”

In Escamilla v. Dep’t of Corr. & Rehab., 141 Cal.App.4th 498 (2006), a prisoner was seeking specific recovery of personal property or its value. The Court issued a writ of mandate, concluding it was not a “claim for money or damages” pursuant to the Tort Claims Act. The Escamilla court had relied on Minsky v. City of Los Angeles, 11 Cal.3d 113 (1974) wherein “an arrestee sought to recover $7,720” taken from him by police and “transferred to a pension fund for first responders.” The Minsky court held that “government in effect occupies the position of a bailee when it seizes from an arrestee property that is not shown to be contraband.” So an arrestee “who seeks in good faith to specifically recover property taken from him [or her] at the time of his [or her] arrest is exempt from the claim filing provisions of the Government Code, even if some or all of the property may have dissipated, and respondent may be compelled to respond in damages in lieu of property,” per Holt v. Kelly, 20 Cal.3d 560 (1978).

Finally, in Long v. City of Los Angeles, 68 Cal.App.4th 782 (1998), a plaintiff “filed suit seeking return of personal property seized from his home, and the city sought summary judgment because the plaintiff did not comply with the Tort Claims Act.” The Long court held “where confiscated property is lost and cannot be returned due to the government’s own negligence, the government may not benefit from its own wrongdoing by contending the resulting action, necessarily limited to monetary damages, is subject to the [Tort Claims Act].” Thus the Court concluded that Murillo was not required to pursue the alternative remedy of a tort claim.

As to CDCR’s second argument, Murillo had shown that she received the instruments and that CDCR accepted them for processing. Consequently, CDCR had a ministerial duty to process the instruments and deposit the funds into her account. Finally, CDCR failed “to provide legal authority to support that [Murillo] should bear the burden and expense of seeking any possible replacement money orders.”

Accordingly, the Court issued a mandate “commanding” CDCR “to perform its duty, as petitioner’s bailee, to deposit the money orders for $395, $325, and $800 and the cashier’s check for $1,100 into petitioner’s inmate trust account or credit her account in those amounts.” See: Murillo v. Dep’t of Corr. and Rehab., 2023 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 3044.

Earlier $15,000 Settlement

Murillo was housed at Salinas Valley State Prison south of San Francisco at the time she recovered her money orders and cashier’s check in 2023. The year before, in Murillo v. Ramos, USDC (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:22-cv-00548, the federal court for the Southern District of California granted her request to change her name from Ramon Murillo and her sex to female.

Prior to that, Murillo was held at the Richard J. Donovan State Prison at the time of an alleged vicious sexual and physical assault and harassment by guards. Under a settlement reached on June 21, 2018, CDCR agreed to pay Murillo $15,000 to resolve claims of excessive force and retaliation suffered from CDCR employees identified as J. Cedano, R. Cobb, R. Davis, J. Elias, D. Foston, T. Goff, A. Hernandez, J. Ives, R. Owens, D. Paramo, K. Reid, L. Romero, T. Rucker, E. Solis, D. Strayhorn, and T. Taylor.

Murillo alleged Owens and Rucker “slammed [him] on the ground” and then dragged him across the dayroom floor. After forcing him into a cell, Owens and Rucker “punched and kicked him in the face” and threatened Murillo, saying he “would regret it if he reported it.”

Murillo cut himself to obtain medical attention and report the incident. He was moved to the “crisis bed,” where a nurse and Cedano allegedly verbally assaulted him before Cedano shoved him so hard that he fell to the floor and struck his head on a concrete wall. Cedano then “jumped on” Murillo and choked him, Murillo claimed, attacking him in retaliation for reporting Rucker. Cedano also allegedly “covered up” the assault by claiming he had pinned down Murillo to give him a hormone shot.

After Murillo filed grievances on this, he alleged that he was sexually assaulted, beaten and deprived of his “medical appliance” by Paramo, Hernandez, Cobb, and Foston. He alleged Strayhorn and Romero further retaliated by calling him a “faggot” in the presence of other prisoners, searched his cell, and took his property.

Murillo also alleged that because he helped other prisoners file grievances, Davis threatened to have Murillo killed. Ives and Elias also allegedly warned Murillo that if he kept assisting others in filing staff complaints, he “would be sorry”.

The $15,000 payment to settle these claims included costs and fees for Murillo’s attorney, Danielle M. Lang of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. See: Murillo v. Rucker, USDC (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:12-cv-2642.  

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Related legal case

Murillo v. Rucker