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Stewart v. Jovanovich

United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division

September 4, 2018

LAURENCE STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
SAM JOVANOVICH, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge.

         Before the Court is Defendant Sam Jovanovich's ("Jovanovich") Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 74), and Plaintiff Laurence Stewart's ("Stewart") Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 87). Additionally, Stewart has filed a Motion for a Protective Order or Injunctive Relief (Doc. 91). On May 9, 2018 United States Magistrate Judge John T. Johnston entered his Findings and Recommendations, recommending that both motions for summary judgment be denied upon finding several disputes of material fact. (Doc. 92.) Additionally, on July 11, 2018 Judge Johnston recommended that Stewart's Motion for a Protective Order be denied. (Doc. 96.) Because Jovanovich timely objects, the Court will review de novo those findings and recommendations to which he specifically objects. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court reviews for clear error those findings and recommendations to which no party objects. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). Clear error exists if the Court is left with a "definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. Syrax, 235 F.3d 422, 427 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).

         For the reasons explained below, the Court adopts in full Judge Johnston's recommendation to deny both motions for summary judgment and deny the request for a preliminary injunction. Because the parties are familiar with the facts and procedural background of the case it will only be restated as necessary to understand the Court's order.

         Legal Standard

         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). The movant's burden is satisfied when the documentary evidence produced by the parties permits only one conclusion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Where the moving party has met its initial burden, the party opposing the motion "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but... must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 248 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Discussion

         I. Summary Judgment

         Judge Johnston recommended denying both motions for summary judgment, upon finding several disputes of material fact in reference to Stewart's First Amendment retaliation claim. A First Amendment claim for retaliation in the prison context requires a plaintiff to prove each of the following five elements: "(1) An assertion that a state actor took some adverse action against an inmate (2) because of (3) that prisoner's protected conduct, and that such action (4) chilled the inmate's exercise of his First Amendment rights, and (5) the action did not reasonably advance a legitimate correctional goal." Rhodes v. Robinson, 408 F.3d 559, 567-68 (9th Cir. 2005).

         Judge Johnston denied summary judgment, finding that there was a dispute as to whether: (1) Jovanovich was responsible for terminating Stewart; (2) Stewart was removed from his position because of his engagement in protected activity; and (3) Stewart was removed from his post absent a legitimate penological reason. (Doc. 92 at 16-17.) Lastly, Judge Johnston recommended that qualified immunity did not apply. (Id. at 20.)

         In response, Jovanovich raises four objections. He first argues that Judge Johnston erred in determining that "Stewart's alleged encouraging other inmates to file grievances regarding laundry issues bears on [his] retaliation claim." (Doc. 94 at 3.) Relatedly, he argues that absent this fact, only timing remains to support an inference of retaliatory intent. (Id.) Penultimately, Jovanovich argues that Stewart cannot preclude summary judgment by making bare, conclusory statements that he was terminated absent a legitimate penological reason. (Id.) Finally, he argues that Judge Johnston improperly denied qualified immunity. (Id.)

         A. Retaliation

         Jovanovich argues that Judge Johnston erred when he determined that the six grievances filed by other inmates at Stewart's behest had any bearing on Stewart's retaliation claim. The Court disagrees.

         After Stewart was hired in the prison's laundry room, he filed numerous grievances alerting prison staff to a clothing shortage, particularly in the larger garment sizes. (Doc. 88-1 at 15-23.) Though this issue predated Stewart's tenure in the laundry room, Stewart used his position of authority to identify and recommend that the prison stock certain items. (Doc. 76-4 at 1.) Despite his efforts, Stewart was unable to make headway on the issue, and because a number of inmates were similarly concerned, Stewart placed a stack of informal grievance forms in the dayroom and recommended that those who were unhappy could submit grievances on their own behalf. (Doc. 11 at 31.) Approximately six inmates took the suggestion and filed informal grievances. (Doc. 88-1 at 25-28.)

         It is not entirely clear why Jovanovich believes that Stewart's encouraging others to file grievances so that a shared issue could be brought to the forefront of the prison's administration is irrelevant to his retaliation claim. Jovanovich cites the general principal that "[i]nmates do not have a constitutional right to a specific grievance procedure" and observes that the prison's internal procedures specify that "an inmate may not submit a grievance form on behalf of another inmate." (Doc. 94 at 4-5 (citing Ramirez v. Galaza,334 F.3d 850, ...


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