CNMI govt, ex-DOC officials dismissed from Manila’s suit in official capacities

The federal court has dismissed the CNMI government and former Department of Corrections commissioners Robert A. Guerrero and Georgia Cabrera and former acting DOC commissioner Jose K. Pangelinan in their official capacities from the lawsuit filed by inmate Reynaldo A. Manila.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona said because the Commonwealth and any official capacity defendants are immune from suit for damages under Section 1983, the claim against them must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Section 1983 is the statute that creates a remedy for violations of federal violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law.

Manglona said because amendment to the lawsuit would be futile, the dismissal is with prejudice.

Dismiss with prejudice means that Manila can no longer re-file the claims against the CNMI government, Guerrero, Pangelinan, and Cabrera in their official capacities.

Manglona, however, noted that Manila’s amended complaint clearly describes deliberate indifference to serious medical needs, even if it doesn’t say so in so many words.

The judge said Manila’s claim and relief sought equally and clearly signal that the named officials are sought to be held personally liable for their actions.

For that reason, Manglona said, she will not dismiss Guerrero, Pangelinan, and Cabrera from the lawsuit at this juncture.

Manglona, however, granted Cabrera’s motion for a more definite statement and order Manila to file a second amended complaint supplying the missing information.

Manglona said all that Cabrera and the court need to know is whether Manila really means to sue the named DOC officials only in their official capacities.

The judge gave Manila no later than Feb. 21, 2019 to file the second amended complaint.

She said a second amended complaint placed in outgoing prison mail by Feb. 21 will be considered timely filed in the clerk receives it after that date.

In his amended complaint he filed pro se or without a lawyer, Manila, an inmate in DOC, alleges that DOC officers unreasonably delayed in sending him off-island for eye surgery—first for retinal detachment of his left eye, then for cataracts in his right eye.

In September 2016, Manila was told that acting DOC commissioner Georgia Cabrera was aware of his condition but refused to approve the surgery because his condition was not life-threatening.

He alleges that while on work assignments, Cabrera harassed him and wrongly disciplined him. Even after a Saipan eye doctor for a third time urged cataract surgery in July 2017, Cabrera refused.

When DOC commissioner Vince Attao approved the surgery in August 2017, Cabrera disagreed.

In October 2017, Cabrera refused to issue Manila extra toilet paper, which he needed to wipe his eye. In November 2017, he grieved mistreatment by Cabrera to Attao.

In January 2018, Manila had eye surgery in Guam, performed by a doctor at Pacific Retinal.

Subsequent medical reports indicated that the overall prognosis for his vision was only slight improvement. Manila complains that the delays in treatment caused by Cabrera and other DOC officials may result in his permanent blindness and have caused him prolonged pain and suffering.

He asked the court to find the defendants liable to pay him “general, consequential and compensatory damages” in an unspecified amount.

The CNMI government filed a motion to correct misjoinder and motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Cabrera also filed a motion for a more definite statement.

Manglona granted the motions to correct misjoinder and for a more definite statement.

Manglona granted the motion to dismiss, although not on grounds of sovereign immunity, as the Commonwealth urges, but because the Commonwealth is not a “person” within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

The CNMI asserts that its DOC lacks the capacity to sue and be sued, and that DOC therefore is not a party to this action.

Invoking Rule 21 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, it asks the court to drop DOC from the lawsuit and to add the CNMI as a proper party defendant.

Manglona said because CNMI law has not given DOC the capacity to sue and be sued, Manila cannot prosecute an action against that department.

Manglona agrees with the CNMI that the proper party is the Commonwealth, and to it will be added as a defendant and the caption in the case will be amended accordingly.

The Commonwealth, now substituted for DOC, asserts that it and the official capacity defendants enjoy “sovereign immunity against suits for damages in federal court” and must, therefore, be dismissed from this action.

Manglona said in his amended complaint, Manila does not state whether he brings his claims under Commonwealth law or federal law (or both).

Manglona said this omission is not fatal, for in a complaint a plaintiff is “not required to state the statutory or constitutional basis for his claim, only the facts underlying it.”

Still, the judge said, any Commonwealth civil rights claim that Manila might assert would have to be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Manglona said in his amended complaint, Manila made it clear he is seeking only damages, not injunctive relief.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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