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Nordstrom v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 11, 2019

Scott Douglas Nordstrom, Plaintiff,
Charles L. Ryan, et al., Defendants.


          David Gh Campbell Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Scott Douglas Nordstrom, a death-sentenced inmate in state custody, brought an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Charles L. Ryan, Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections (“ADOC”), and others (collectively, “Defendant”). Doc. 1. The parties settled, and the Court dismissed the action. Docs. 39; 45. Plaintiff moves to enforce the settlement agreement. Doc. 64. No party requests oral argument. For the following reasons, the Court will deny Plaintiff's motion.

         I. Background.

         When Plaintiff filed his complaint in this action in October 2015, ADOC policy required death-sentenced inmates to be housed in maximum-security facilities, often referred to as “death row.” Doc. 1 at 2-3. Plaintiff was housed at the Arizona State Prison Complex (“ASPC”), Eyman, Browning Unit, and he alleged that death row conditions were significantly worse than general population conditions and maximum-security facilities for non-death-sentenced prisoners. Id. at 2. He asserted violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments related to death row conditions, including solitary confinement in small, constantly illuminated cells; poor sanitation; a total bar on contact visits; restricted recreation and exercise; limited employment opportunities; and no opportunity to participate in communal meals and group religious services. Id. at 2, 6-10, 13-14.

         Having already planned to make death row inmates eligible for reclassification to close-custody housing, ADOC settled with Plaintiff on March 3, 2017 (“the Settlement”). Docs. 66 at 2; 39. In part, the Settlement provided that

[ADOC would] eliminate the existing permanent classification of inmates with a death sentence to maximum custody units, and [] permit death row inmates to seek and obtain re-classification to close custody status based on the criteria currently available to non-death sentenced maximum custody inmates[;]
* * *
[The] conditions and restrictions of confinement, and quality of facilities, utilized for close custody housing for death sentenced inmates [would] be equivalent to that of existing close custody housing facilities used for non-death sentenced inmates.

Doc. 39 at 2 ¶¶ 1, 3. The parties stipulated to dismissal under this agreement, and the Court dismissed the action, incorporated the Settlement terms in its order, and retained jurisdiction to enforce the agreement. Doc. 45.

         Based on his disciplinary record, Plaintiff was eligible for reclassification and he eventually was transferred to close-custody housing at ASPC-Florence, Central Unit (“Central Unit”), in July 2017, along with other reclassified death-sentenced inmates. Docs. 39 at 3; 64 at 3. Central Unit is a close-custody facility and currently houses 721 non-death-sentenced and 82 death-sentenced inmates. Doc. 66-1 at 3.

         I. Jurisdiction.

         “In general, ‘[e]nforcement of [a] settlement agreement . . . whether through award of damages or decree of specific performance, is more than just a continuation or renewal of the dismissed suit, and hence requires its own basis for jurisdiction.'” Alvarado v. Table Mountain Racheria, 508 F.3d 1008, 1017 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 378 (1994)). But “a federal court has jurisdiction to enforce a settlement agreement in a dismissed case when the dismissal order incorporates the settlement terms, or the court has retained jurisdiction over the settlement contract” and a party alleges a violation of the settlement. Id. Under those circumstances, a breach of the agreement is a violation of the court's order, and the court has jurisdiction to enforce the agreement. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 381. Because the Court's order in this case incorporated the terms of the Settlement and retained jurisdiction (Doc. 45), the Court has jurisdiction to hear Plaintiff's motion.

         II. Legal Standard.

         In Arizona, “settlement agreements, including determinations as to the validity and scope of release terms, are governed by general contract principles.” Emmons v. Sup. Ct. in & for Cty. of Maricopa, 968 P.2d 582, 585 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1998); Knudsen v. C.I.R., 793 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2015); see Adams v. Johns-Manville Corp., 876 F.2d 702, 709 (9th Cir. 1989) (a motion to enforce a settlement agreement is essentially “an action to specifically enforce a contract”). The party seeking to enforce the agreement bears the burden of proving breach. See In re Andreyev, 313 B.R. 302, 305 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2004). “[I]nterpretation of a contract is generally a matter of law, ” Powell v. Washburn, 125 P.3d 373, 375 (Ariz. 2006), but whether a party has breached is a question for the trier of fact, see Walter v. F.J. Simmons, 818 P.2d 214, 218-19 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1991); Shiloh Custom Homes, Inc. v. Drywall, No. 1 CA-CV 07-0677, 2009 WL 690600, at *7 (Ariz.Ct.App. March 17, 2009). A party breaches a contract when it “fail[s], without legal excuse, to perform any promise which forms the whole or part of a contract.” Snow v. Western Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 730 P.2d 204, 210 (Ariz. 1986).

         Plaintiff seems to view the Settlement as tantamount to a court decree entered after a finding that the prison system violated constitutional rights. Among other relief, Plaintiff asks the Court to “[a]ppoint an independent monitor to ensure Defendant's future compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement.” Doc. 64 at 18. But the Court entered no decree after finding constitutional violations by Defendant. The Court's task, therefore, is not to bring the prison system into conformity with a constitutional decree and make broad determinations about what may or may not satisfy equal protection principles. The Court's task is to enforce a contract negotiated between the parties with the advice of their lawyers. Breach of the Settlement may empower the Court to enforce the contract as written, but it does not grant the Court license to impose conditions that were not specifically agreed to by the parties, nor the power to roam broadly through the close-custody operation seeking to apply equal protection principles. The Court will review the Settlement as a contract.

         III. Discussion.

         Plaintiff asserts two breaches of the Settlement: Defendant has failed to (1) provide conditions and restrictions of confinement, and quality of facilities for death-sentenced inmates, that are equivalent to existing close-custody facilities, and (2) permit all death-sentenced inmates to seek and obtain reclassification of their custody status. Doc. 64 at 5. Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies and lacks standing, and that Plaintiff cannot establish breach of the Settlement.

         A. Exhaustion.

         Defendant asserts that Plaintiff was required to exhaust administrative remedies under 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) before filing this motion. Doc. 66 at 3. Even if exhaustion is not required, Defendant argues that it would be “manifestly unfair” for Plaintiff to “evade the grievance procedure and begin litigation out of nowhere.” Id. But Plaintiff has not initiated a new lawsuit. He seeks to enforce the parties' Settlement, the terms of which were incorporated into the Court's dismissal order. See Doc. 45; Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 378; Alvarado, 508 F.3d at 1017. Section 1997e(a) requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a § 1983 suit, but Plaintiff has not filed a new suit.

         B. ...

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