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Mitchell v. Washington

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

March 14, 2016

GEORGE O. MITCHELL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF WASHINGTON; KELLY CUNNINGHAM, SCC Superintendent; DR. THOMAS BELL, Defendants-Appellees

         Argued and Submitted April 6, 2015, Pasadena, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. DC No. 3:12 cv-05403 BHS. Benjamin H. Settle, District Judge, Presiding.

          SUMMARY[*]

         Prisoner Civil Rights

         The panel affirmed the district court's summary judgment in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in which plaintiff, who is civilly committed as a sexually violent predator, alleged that defendants' refusal to treat his Hepatitis C with interferon and ribavirin violated his right to reasonable medical care and that the consideration of race in the denial of this treatment violated the Equal Protection Clause.

         The panel first held the district court erred by finding that the damages claims against the state defendants were barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The panel held that even though plaintiff testified in his deposition that he was suing defendants only in their official capacities, his amended complaint clearly stated that he was suing defendants in both their official and personal capacities for damages and injunctive relief and the record demonstrated that plaintiff, acting pro se, did not understand the legal significance of bringing claims against defendants in their official versus personal capacities.

         The panel held that plaintiff's claims for injunctive and declaratory relief were moot because he received the requested treatment. The panel next found that plaintiff had failed to show any evidence that defendants' decision not to administer interferon and ribavirin was unreasonable and failed to meet the appropriate standard of care.

         Addressing plaintiff's equal protection claim, the panel held that plaintiff set forth specific facts plausibly suggesting that defendant Dr. Bell employed an explicit racial classification sufficient to trigger strict scrutiny when he determined not to recommend plaintiff for interferon and ribavirin treatment. The panel held that Dr. Bell failed to meet his burden under the strict scrutiny because he failed to offer any compelling justification for the racial classification, let alone a justification that was narrowly tailored; instead, arguing only that plaintiff's equal protection claim failed because race was not the " primary" consideration in denying treatment. The panel nevertheless held that Dr. Bell was entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that a reasonable official would understand that the use of race-related success-of-treatment data as a factor in a medical treatment decision would be unconstitutional.

         Concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, Judge Clifton agreed with most of the specific conclusions of the majority opinion, including that the claims were not barred by the Eleventh Amendment, that the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief were moot, and that Dr. Bell was entitled to qualified immunity. Judge Clifton would not take up the question of whether the Constitution forbids a doctor from considering credible scientific evidence that individuals of a certain race respond poorly to a particular treatment. Nevertheless if required to do so, he would conclude that, under the circumstance, plaintiff's rights were not violated.

         Erwin Chemerinsky, Peter Afrasiabi, Kathryn Marie Davis, Appellate Litigation Clinic, University of California, Irvine School of Law; Tommy Du (argued), Catriona Lavery (argued), Law Students, Irvine, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

         Robert W. Ferguson, Attorney General of Washington, Grace C.S. O'Connor (argued) and Christopher Lanese, Assistant Attorneys General, Olympia, Washington, for Defendants-Appellees.

         Before: Dorothy W. Nelson, A. Wallace Tashima, and Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

         A. Wallace Tashima, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff-Appellant George Mitchell brought this action against Defendants-Appellees (" Defendants" ) for injunctive relief and damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging constitutionally inadequate medical care and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, and Mitchell timely appealed. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm.

         I.

         BACKGROUND

         George Mitchell, a fifty-nine year old African-American male, has been civilly committed as a sexually violent predator to the Special Commitment Center (" SCC" ) by the State of Washington since June 27, 2003. See In re Det. of Mitchell, 160 Wn.App. 669, 249 P.3d 662 (Wash. Ct. App. 2011).

         On approximately December 14, 2000, prior to his arrival at the SCC, Mitchell was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. From approximately 2003 to 2005, Mitchell met with one of SCC's consulting physicians, Dr. W. Michael Priebe, of the Tacoma Disease Center. As a consulting specialist, Dr. Priebe was limited to recommending certain courses of treatment, and did not have the authority to order treatment. In mid-2005, Dr. Priebe discussed treatment options with Mitchell. One of the treatment options discussed was the administration of interferon and ribavirin. Because interferon and ribavirin are weight-based medications (meaning dosage depends on the patient's weight), Mitchell agreed to postpone this type of treatment until he could lose weight.

         In May of 2009, Mitchell met with Dr. Thomas Bell, then the Medical Supervisor of SCC, to discuss his liver biopsy results and review treatment options. During that meeting, based on a belief that his condition was deteriorating, Mitchell requested interferon and ribavirin treatment. Dr. Bell informed Mitchell that the interferon and ribavirin treatment for his genotype had been largely unsuccessful on African-American males. In addition, after reviewing Mitchell's liver biopsy results, Dr. Bell told Mitchell that his Hepatitis C had not progressed to a level that would justify the harsh side effects of the requested treatment. Based on these factors, Dr. Bell did not recommend Mitchell for interferon and ribavirin treatment. In November of 2012, Mitchell was placed on interferon and ribavirin. The treatment was ultimately unsuccessful.

         Mitchell commenced this action on August 23, 2012, against Defendants Dr. Bell, Kelly Cunningham, Superintendent of SCC, and the State of Washington.[1] Mitchell sued Dr. Bell and Cunningham in their individual and official capacities. Mitchell alleged that Dr. Bell's refusal to refer him for interferon and ribavirin treatment violated the Fourteenth Amendment for two reasons:[2] (1) the denial of interferon and ribavirin treatment violated his right to reasonable medical care; and (2) the consideration of race in the denial of treatment violated the Equal Protection Clause.

         On referral of this case for a report and recommendation (" R& R" ), the Magistrate Judge recommended that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted. The Magistrate Judge first ruled that all claims against the State of Washington were barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Second, she ruled that because Mitchell testified in his deposition that is he suing Cunningham and Dr. Bell in their official capacities, all claims for damages against them are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Magistrate Judge then excluded a declaration proffered by Mitchell because it was unsigned and because the declarant lacked sufficient qualifications and personal knowledge. She next ruled that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because Mitchell failed to assert a constitutional violation. Specifically, the Magistrate Judge ruled that Mitchell presented no evidence that Dr. Bell's treatment of Mitchell did not meet the appropriate standard of care for a medical provider, and that Mitchell's equal protection claim failed because he had not shown that Defendants acted with the intent or purpose to discriminate.

         The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's R& R and entered judgment against Mitchell.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

          This Court reviews a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Vasquez v. Cty. of L.A., 349 F.3d 634, 639 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court must " determine whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court correctly applied the relevant substantive law." Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1131 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (citing Balint v. Carson City, 180 F.3d 1047, 1050 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc)).

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

          The Eleventh Amendment bars claims for damages against a state official acting in his or her official capacity. Pena v. Gardner, 976 F.2d 469, 472 (9th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). It does not, however, bar claims for damages against state officials in their personal capacities. Id. Moreover, when a plaintiff sues a defendant for damages, there is a presumption that he is seeking damages against the defendant in his personal capacity. Romano v. Bible, 169 F.3d 1182, 1186 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Mitchell's First Amended Complaint clearly states that he is suing Cunningham and Dr. Bell in both their official and personal capacities for damages and injunctive relief. The district court, however, relying on Mitchell's deposition testimony that he is suing Cunningham and Dr. Bell only in their official capacities, held that all claims for damages against Cunningham and Dr. Bell should be dismissed. But the record clearly demonstrates that Mitchell, who was acting pro se, did not understand the legal significance between bringing claims against Dr. Bell and Cunningham in their official versus personal capacities. Further, in questioning Mitchell, Defendants' attorney failed adequately to explain the significance of the difference, even after Mitchell signified that he did not understand the legal jargon and would need assistance. As a result, we conclude that Mitchell is not bound by his deposition testimony and Mitchell's damages claims against Defendants in their individual capacities are not barred by the Eleventh Amendment.[3] To hold otherwise would " threaten[] to ensnare parties who may have simply been confused during their deposition testimony and may encourage gamesmanship by opposing attorneys." Van Asdale v. Int'l Game Tech., 577 F.3d 989, 998 (9th Cir. 2009).

         B. ...


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