Eldridge v. Block

Decision Date22 December 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-5851,86-5851
Citation832 F.2d 1132
PartiesEdward G. ELDRIDGE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Sherman BLOCK, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Mark B. Helm, Los Angeles, Cal., for plaintiff-appellant.

Ladell H. Muhlestein, Los Angeles, Cal., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before ANDERSON, FERGUSON and NOONAN, Circuit Judges.

FERGUSON, Circuit Judge:

I.

Appellant Edward Eldridge, a pro se plaintiff incarcerated in a Maryland prison, was ordered by a California court to file an amended complaint that complied with local rules of form. Eldridge filed a timely request for an extension of time in which to comply with the court order, since the Maryland jail's law library did not contain a copy of the local rules for the Central District of California. A magistrate denied his request. The district court for the Central District of California then dismissed Eldridge's section 1983 action. Eldridge filed this appeal from the district court's order.

II.

Edward Eldridge, who is currently incarcerated in Maryland, was arrested in Los Angeles, California on February 15, 1983 on a fugitive warrant. After his arrest, Eldridge appeared in California state court for arraignment on a California complaint which charged him with being a Maryland fugitive. On April 7, 1983, a preliminary examination was held, at which time the court continued the matter until April 21, 1983. The case was apparently continued to determine if the extradition request issued by the Governor of Maryland was a sufficient "Demand" under Article IV, section 2, clause 2, of the United States Constitution. 1

Despite the continuance, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department sent a teletype to the Maryland authorities informing them that, as of April 7, 1983, Eldridge was available for pick-up in Los Angeles. The teletype also stated that no further court appearances were necessary. On April 16, 1983, two Maryland State Troopers removed Eldridge from the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff.

On November 30, 1984 Eldridge filed pro se a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 2 in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland against Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, and the two Maryland State Troopers. Eldridge alleged that they violated his due process right to a hearing on the propriety of his extradition to Maryland from California pursuant to a warrant of extradition issued by the Governor of California. Shortly thereafter, the Maryland magistrate recommended that the court enter judgment for the state troopers. 3 The Maryland magistrate determined, however, that Eldridge might have a valid cause of action against the Los Angeles County officials who apparently released him to the Maryland authorities despite actual or constructive notice of the April 21 court date. The magistrate recommended that the case be transferred to the Central District of California for resolution of a motion to dismiss for summary judgment filed by Sheriff Block.

Following transfer to the Central District of California, a magistrate determined that Eldridge had not alleged sufficient facts to show that Block personally engaged in any conduct that deprived Eldridge of his constitutional rights. On August 26, 1985, the magistrate ordered Eldridge to submit an amended complaint correcting this deficiency within 20 days or face dismissal of the action. On September 3, 1985 plaintiff filed a document entitled "Petitioner's Amended Filing." In that document, Eldridge set forth specific facts indicating that although he had informed Sheriff Block that he was fighting extradition, Block still denied Eldridge access to the jail law library and released Eldridge to the Maryland authorities. For reasons that are not clear, the California magistrate interpreted Eldridge's "amended filing" to be a motion for review and reconsideration of his August 26th order.

On January 29, 1986 the magistrate again ordered Eldridge to file an amended complaint, this time one that conformed with "the local rules of court". The order stated that the action would be dismissed unless an amended complaint was not filed by February 28, 1986. That order was mailed to Eldridge by certified mail on February 3, 1986.

On February 21, 1986, Eldridge timely moved for an extension of time in which to file an amended complaint, on the grounds that the Maryland prison law library did not have a copy of the local rules for the Central District of California. On March 4, 1986, the California magistrate denied the motion, finding that Eldridge had failed to show good cause for failure to file his amended complaint by the February 28 deadline. On April 14, 1986, the district court entered an order dismissing Eldridge's action.

Eldridge filed a timely notice of appeal on April 14, 1986. 4

III.

Three issues are presented for this panel's determination: first, whether the district court abused its discretion in denying Eldridge an extension of time in which to file an amended complaint; second, whether the district court erred by dismissing Eldridge's section 1983 action for failing to comply with court orders requiring submission of an amended complaint; and finally, whether Eldridge's allegation that a sheriff's willful release of him for extradition prior to the scheduled date of the extradition hearing constitutes a claim under section 1983.

A.

In exercising its discretion with regard to the amendment of pleadings, "a court must be guided by the underlying purpose of Rule 15--to facilitate decision on the merits rather than on the pleadings or technicalities." United States v. Webb, 655 F.2d 977, 979 (9th Cir.1981). This court has noted "on several occasions ... that the 'Supreme Court has instructed the lower federal courts to heed carefully the command of Rule 15(a), F[ed]. R.Civ.P., by freely granting leave to amend when justice so requires.' " Gabrielson v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 785 F.2d 762, 765 (9th Cir.1986) (quoting Howey v. United States, 481 F.2d 1187, 1190 (9th Cir.1973) (citations omitted). Thus "Rule 15's policy of favoring amendments to pleadings should be applied with 'extreme liberality.' " Webb, 655 F.2d at 979 (citing Rosenberg Brothers & Co. v. Arnold, 283 F.2d 406 (9th Cir.1960) (per curiam)).

This policy is applied even more liberally to pro se litigants. Thus in Armstrong v. Rushing, 352 F.2d 836 (9th Cir.1965), this court established that a pro se litigant bringing a civil rights suit must have an opportunity to amend the complaint to overcome deficiencies unless it is clear that they cannot be overcome by amendment. 352 F.2d at 837 (pro se litigant entitled to procedural protections, including right to amend complaint unless futile); see Noll v. Carlson, 809 F.2d 1446, 1448 (9th Cir.1987); Potter v. McCall, 433 F.2d 1087, 1088 (9th Cir.1970) (per curiam).

Courts, in fact, "provide a pro se litigant with notice of the deficiencies in his or her complaint" to ensure that the litigant uses the opportunity to amend effectively. Noll v. Carlson, 809 F.2d 1446, 1448 (9th Cir.1987). While a statement of deficiencies need not provide great detail or require district courts to act as legal advisors to pro se plaintiffs, district courts must at least draft a few sentences explaining the deficiencies. Noll, 809 F.2d at 1448-49. Moreover, "strict time limits ... ought not to be insisted upon" where restraints resulting from a pro se prisoner plaintiff's incarceration prevent timely compliance with court deadlines. Tarantino v. Eggers, 380 F.2d 465, 468 (9th Cir.1967); see Veit v. Heckler, 746 F.2d 508, 512 (9th Cir.1984) (holding that extension of time was proper where evidence established just cause).

Reliance upon time limits can in fact aggravate the court's failure to appraise a plaintiff of deficiencies. In Ham v. Smith, 653 F.2d 628 (D.C.Cir.1981), the D.C. Circuit found the harshness of a district court's failure to provide an explanation of the risks of not responding to a summary judgment motion to a pro se recently-released prisoner plaintiff was "aggravated in this case by the court's denial of [plaintiff's] request for an extension of time." Id. at 630. Thus the Circuit held that it was an abuse of discretion for the district court to deny a request for an extension of time where hardship in complying with the original deadline is explained by the plaintiff and clearly constitutes just cause for awarding the extension. Id. at 631.

The California magistrate's January 29th order requiring Eldridge to file an amended complaint "complying with the Local Rules of this Court in form ... otherwise the action will be dismissed," did not contain any explanation as to how the complaint was deficient in form. As in Ham, this was aggravated when the district court did not grant the extension of time. Such an extension was obviously necessary in Eldridge's case because of the unlikelihood of obtaining, in a Maryland prison law library, the local rules for the Central District of California. A court reviewing the dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim should assess whether the plaintiff was denied meaningful access to a law library.

Eldridge's inability to comply with a procedural order of the court due to the inaccessibility of the necessary legal materials, was clearly sufficient cause for granting a timely request for an extension of time. Considering Eldridge's out-of-state incarceration, his pro se status, and his previous, but rejected, attempt to amend, 5 Eldridge's request for an extension of time in which to file an amended complaint should have been granted. The district court's refusal to grant an extension of time was clearly an abuse of discretion.

B.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b), the district...

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