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Branch v. Umphenour

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 5, 2019

Louis Branch, Plaintiff-Appellant,
D. Umphenour, Building 250 Officer, Avenal Prison; L. Szalai, C/O; J. Alvarez, C/O, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted June 13, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California No. 1:08-cv-01655-SAB Stanley Albert Boone, Magistrate Judge, Presiding

          Jeremy C. Keeney (argued) and Joshua S. Johnson, Vinson & Elkins LLP, Washington, D.C., for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          KevinA. Voth (argued), Deputy Attorney General; Neah Huynh, Supervising Deputy Attorney General; Monica N. Anderson, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Xavier Becerra, Attorney General; Office of the Attorney General, San Francisco, California; for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: Mary M. Schroeder and Milan D. Smith, Jr., Circuit Judges, and Jed S. Rakoff, [*] District Judge.


         Prisoner Civil Rights

         The panel vacated a magistrate judge's denial of plaintiff's motion to withdraw consent to magistrate judge jurisdiction, vacated screening orders entered by various magistrate judges, and remanded.

         Plaintiff is a pro se prisoner who brought suit in 2008 alleging civil rights violations by prison officials. Shortly after filing his action, plaintiff consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. Defendants declined to consent until more than seven years later, in 2015.

         The panel first found no error in the magistrate's decision to adjudicate certain pending motions for reconsideration. The panel held that once all parties consented to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction, the magistrate judge was authorized to decide the pending motions. The panel held that although it was clear that plaintiff was entitled to seek district court review of the magistrate judge's decision before all parties accepted the magistrate judge's jurisdiction, it was equally clear that, after all parties consented, plaintiff had no right to return to the district court for further review.

         The panel held that only a district judge may rule on a motion to withdraw consent to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge under section 636(c)(4). Therefore, the magistrate judge lacked jurisdiction to rule on plaintiff's motion to withdraw consent. The panel acknowledged that although other sister circuits had reached different conclusions, the panel found those decisions unpersuasive. In determining the proper remedy, the panel rejected plaintiff's contention that this was a structural error requiring automatic vacatur of the judgment. The panel held that because the injury to plaintiff was that he was denied review of his motion to withdraw by an Article III court, the proper remedy was to remand to the district court to consider the motion to withdraw consent in the first instance. On remand, if the district judge found, either based on good cause or extraordinary circumstances, that plaintiff ought to have been permitted to withdraw consent, then the district court would be required to vacate the judgment.

         The panel further held that the magistrate judge who screened plaintiff's various complaints lacked jurisdiction to dismiss plaintiff's claims before the defendants had not yet consented to jurisdiction. The panel held that without consent, a magistrate judge is limited to submitting a report and recommendation on dispositive pretrial motions, including motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A), (B). The panel therefore vacated the screening orders entered by various magistrate judges that dismissed certain of plaintiff's claims and remanded for further proceedings on those claims.



         Appellant Louis Branch, a prisoner in the California state prison system, brought this pro se suit alleging civil rights violations by various prison officials. After the conclusion of a bench trial before a magistrate judge, the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants on all claims. Branch now appeals, arguing primarily that the magistrate judge exceeded his jurisdiction in adjudicating certain motions addressed to the district court assigned to the case. We agree, in part. Specifically, Branch's motion to vacate the referral to the magistrate judge was one that could only be decided by the district judge. We therefore remand with instructions for the district judge to consider that motion in the first instance. Additionally, the magistrate judges who screened Branch's complaint lacked jurisdiction to dismiss his claims. We therefore vacate the dismissal of those claims and remand for further proceedings.


         On July 7, 2008, Branch filed a pro se complaint alleging that several prison guards and officials had deliberately infringed his constitutional rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Branch's complaint alleged that, while incarcerated at Avenal State Prison in June of 2004, he submitted a declaration in support of another prisoner's complaint.[1] He was then "confronted" by Officer Daniel Umphenour, who said Branch would be "[d]ealt with" for submitting a "false declaration against an [o]fficer." Branch then submitted complaints to Warden Kathy Mendoza-Powers and Armando Mancinas, the prison's "Classification and Parole Representative." Thereafter, he was repeatedly transferred between prison facilities over a short period of time. After one such transfer, Branch was stabbed and beaten by fellow inmates. Branch claimed that Umphenour, as well as Officers Louis Szalai and Jose Alvarez, stood by and watched the beating without intervening or sounding the alarm. Subsequently, in August of 2004, he was transferred to Mule Creek State Prison. Branch claimed that Umphenour was the official responsible for inventorying his property and that, upon arrival at Mule Creek, his property was found to have been "sabotaged."

         Branch's complaint asserted claims against Umphenour, Szalai, Alvarez, Mendoza-Powers, and Mancinas for (1) deliberate indifference to his wellbeing, in violation of the Eighth Amendment; (2) retaliation for Branch's support of another prisoner's complaint, in violation of the First Amendment; and (3) violation of Branch's "substantive Fourteenth Amendment right to personal safety." As an incarcerated plaintiff, Branch's complaint was subject to screening. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. He ultimately filed three amended complaints, each of which were screened by magistrate judges without district judge review. Branch's Fourteenth Amendment claim was dismissed as duplicative of his claims arising under the more specific First and Eighth Amendments. His claims against Mendoza-Powers and Mancinas were dismissed because none of the facts alleged supported an inference that either defendant acted out of retaliatory animus, nor that they were aware of any significant threat to Branch's safety. The deliberate indifference claims against Umphenour, Szalai, and Alvarez were all permitted to proceed based on the allegation that they failed to intervene as Branch was beaten. The magistrate judge also permitted the retaliation claim against Umphenour based on his failure to intervene, since retaliatory intent could be inferred from Umphenour's alleged statement that Branch would be "dealt with." The magistrate judge dismissed, however, the retaliation claim premised on Umphenour's "sabotage" of Branch's property, and dismissed all retaliation claims against Szalai and Alvarez, finding that the complaints failed to plead that either defendant knew of Branch's protected activity.

         Shortly after this action was filed, the parties were notified that they could consent to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge for all purposes, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(2). Branch consented in September of 2008. Defendants declined to consent.[2] The case remained assigned to a magistrate judge[3] for all pretrial purposes, under the supervision of the district judge, as provided by the Eastern District of California Local Rule 302.

         On August 15, 2014, about two months following the close of discovery, defendants served, in connection with summary judgment briefing, two copies of previously-undisclosed chronology reports (or "Chronos") purportedly prepared by Szalai and Alvarez regarding the events of the day that Branch was attacked. The Chronos suggested that neither defendant was present for the attack. Branch moved to preclude the use of the documents, and in response defense counsel filed an affidavit claiming that the Chronos "were discovered in Branch's prison central file" the month they were disclosed. The trial court denied the motion to preclude, but permitted additional discovery related to the Chronos. As part of that discovery, Branch served an interrogatory stating: "On 09/16/2013, you were served with plaintiff's Summons and Complaint (Doc. 103), but you failed to inform your counsel, Mr. Kosla, of your 7-11-2004 General Chrono, why?" Defendants objected that the interrogatory sought information protected by the attorney-client privilege, and Branch moved to compel a response. The magistrate judge denied Branch's motion on the ground that neither party had filed the interrogatory or defendants' response to it. In fact, defendants had included a copy of both with their filed opposition papers.

         On June 5, 2015, Branch filed a motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a) and Local Rule 303(c) "for reconsideration by the district court" on the ground that the magistrate judge's decision was "clearly erroneous and/or contrary to law." The district court entered an order on June 9 denying Branch's motion, but it referred to a different plaintiff and was apparently intended for docketing in another case. Branch then filed another motion for reconsideration, pointing out the error.

         While Branch's second motion for reconsideration was still pending, on November 3, 2015, defendants consented to the magistrate judge's jurisdiction for all purposes. The magistrate judge then decided both of Branch's motions for reconsideration, but treated them as arising under Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Applying that standard, the magistrate judge held that Branch "failed to show any newly discovered evidence or that there has been a change in controlling law." The magistrate judge further concluded that the interrogatory "specifically sought details of ...

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