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Mattox v. State

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 19, 2017

RICHARD A. MATTOX, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3PA-09-01695 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa White, Judge.

          Appearances: Benjamin I. Whipple, Palmer, for Appellant.

          Susan M. West, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, Justices. [Winfree and Carney, Justices, not participating.]

          OPINION

          STOWERS, Chief Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In July 2009 Richard Mattox filed suit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) for injuries arising from an assault by another prisoner. Mattox alleged that DOC was negligent in failing to accommodate his requests for transfer to a different housing module prior to the assault and that DOC was negligent in permitting the correctional officer on duty to leave the module during the time the assault occurred. The superior court granted DOC's motion for partial summary judgment regarding classification and housing assignments and then granted DOC's motion for summary judgment on all other causes of action. On appeal, we remanded for further proceedings because there was a material question of fact regarding the foreseeability of the assault.

         At trial the parties discussed a jury instruction on discretionary function immunity, and the superior court gave the agreed upon instruction to the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of DOC. Following trial the judge invited the parties and counsel to meet informally with the jury. During that informal meeting, some of the jurors mentioned that the jury had applied the doctrine of discretionary function immunity when deciding whether DOC was negligent in permitting the correctional officer to leave the module unattended during the time Mattox was assaulted.

         Mattox moved for a new trial on the grounds that the jury erroneously applied the doctrine of discretionary function immunity in reaching its verdict when that question should have been decided by the court before trial. The court denied that motion and Mattox appeals. We conclude that because Mattox consented to have the jury apply an accurate statement of discretionary function immunity to the facts as the jury found them, he waived any challenge to the jury's application of the doctrine and the superior court committed no error by allowing the jury to apply the doctrine rather than applying the doctrine itself sua sponte. We therefore affirm the superior court's denial of Mattox's motion for a new trial.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         In July 2007 Richard Mattox and several other inmates were watching television in the Kilo housing module at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward.[1]Roxanne Dash, the correctional officer assigned to the Kilo module, briefly stepped away from her desk to deliver paperwork to the module office. During the television show, another inmate, Vincent Wilkerson, told Mattox to be quiet.[2] Mattox turned to a friend and asked if Wilkerson had been addressing Mattox.[3] Wilkerson then punched Mattox on the left side of his face.[4]

         Mattox developed a bloody nose as a result of the blow, and he used a nearby intercom to alert the control room that he needed medical attention.[5] The control room officer radioed Correctional Officer Dash, and she immediately returned to the television room. Mattox told Dash that he had been assaulted and eventually identified Wilkerson as his attacker. DOC later transported Mattox to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, where doctors diagnosed him with "[l]eft periorbital fractures, " a "right maxillary sinus fracture[, ] and a nasal fracture." After doctors performed surgery on Mattox, he returned to Spring Creek Correctional Center.

         In July 2009 Mattox filed suit against DOC for injuries arising from the assault. Mattox alleged that DOC was negligent in failing to accommodate his requests for transfer to a different housing module prior to the assault and that DOC was negligent in permitting Correctional Officer Dash to leave the module during the time the assault occurred. The superior court granted DOC's motion for partial summary judgment regarding classification and housing assignments and then granted DOC's motion for summary judgment on all other causes of action. On appeal, we remanded for further proceedings because there was a material question of fact regarding the foreseeability of the assault.[6]

         The matter proceeded to trial in the superior court in January 2015. At trial, DOC addressed Mattox's claims that it ignored his requests for placement in a different housing module, that these requests should have indicated to DOC that an assault was likely to occur, and that DOC's refusal to move Mattox to another housing module facilitated the assault. Correctional officers testified that Mattox often requested transfer out of his general population housing module and into a quieter module. But correctional officers explained that Mattox did not qualify for placement in the units Mattox requested. Correctional officers also testified that Mattox had never expressed concern for his safety, reported threats from other inmates in his housing module, or requested protective custody independently of or in connection with his requests for transfer to another module.

         DOC also addressed Mattox's claims that DOC was negligent because Correctional Officer Dash left the housing module and the assault occurred during her absence. Correctional officers and the assistant superintendent of the prison system explained that DOC policy permits module officers to briefly leave their desks to deliver paperwork to the module office, perform administrative duties, take bathroom breaks, obtain supplies, interview inmates in a more private setting, assist inmates with specific tasks, or respond to emergencies.

         During trial the superior court held a hearing outside the presence of the jury to discuss proposed jury instructions. DOC proposed a jury instruction which read:

You may not find that DOC failed to exercise reasonable care toward Richard Mattox because of how DOC made decisions regarding the allocation of money, employees, and other resources. DOC cannot be held liable for its resource allocation decisions. For example, you may not find DOC negligent because it did not have cameras installed in each of its housing modules. You may only consider whether DOC employees who had responsibilities toward Richard Mattox exercised reasonable care, given the money, employees, and other resources available to them under the circumstances.

         Mattox did not object to the DOC's proposed instruction. The trial judge ultimately announced her intention to instruct the jury as follows in Jury Instruction No. 13:

You may not find that DOC failed to exercise reasonable care toward Richard Mattox because of how DOC made decisions regarding the allocation of money, employees, and other resources. DOC cannot be held liable for its resource allocation decisions. You may only consider whether DOC employees who had responsibilities toward Richard Mattox exercised reasonable care.

         Mattox also did not object to this modified instruction. The trial judge read Jury Instruction No. 13 aloud before the jury began its deliberations. The jury returned a verdict in favor of DOC.

         Following trial, the judge invited the parties and counsel to meet informally with the jury. During that informal meeting some of the jurors mentioned that the jury had applied the doctrine of discretionary function immunity when deciding whether DOC was negligent for having left the module unattended by a correctional officer during the time Mattox was assaulted.

         Mattox moved for a new trial.[7] He argued that the jury erroneously applied the doctrine of discretionary function immunity in reaching its verdict. He also argued that the DOC's practice and policy of allowing correctional officers to briefly leave common areas to attend to other matters was a "dangerous institutional practice" that increased the risk of harm to inmates. DOC opposed the motion and after oral argument the superior court denied the motion and entered judgment in favor of DOC.

         Mattox appeals, arguing that Jury Instruction No. 13 was not meant to apply to the issue of whether DOC was negligent for leaving the module unattended, but rather that

[DOC] had raised the state discretionary function immunity defense to excuse the prison's inoperable video monitoring system.... Neither through pre-trial motion practice, nor in the court and counsel discussions regarding jury instructions during trial, when the jury was excused, did anyone apply the discretionary function immunity defense to the context of floor officers leaving the mod[ule] unattended.

         He explains that "[n]either party anticipated the jury's application of the discretionary function immunity doctrine to [DOC]'s practice of permitting the floor officer to briefly leave the mod[ule] unattended."

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "We have expressed great reluctance to interfere with a superior court's decision to deny a new trial, absent exceptional circumstances."[8] "The decision to grant or deny a new trial is ... within the trial court's sound discretion."[9] "We review denial of a new trial under an abuse of discretion standard wherein we disturb the trial court's discretion only in the most exceptional circumstances to prevent a miscarriage of justice."[10] "[G]enerally the verdict should stand unless the evidence clearly establishes a serious violation of the juror's duty and deprives a party of a fair trial."[11]

         " 'We review jury instructions de novo when a timely objection is made.' Absent a timely objection, we review only for plain error."[12] "Plain error will be found when an obvious mistake exists such that the jury instruction creates 'a high likelihood that the jury will follow an erroneous theory resulting in a miscarriage of justice.' "[13]

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Mattox's Post-Trial Discussions With Jurors Were Not Admissible When Determining Whether To Grant His Motion For A New Trial.

         Generally, under Alaska Evidence Rule 606(b) a court may not rely upon the jury's mental processes in reaching a verdict or a juror's testimony, affidavits, or other statements about what occurred during jury deliberations when determining whether to grant a new trial.[14] At the same time, Evidence Rule 606(b) carves out an exception to this general rule when "extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or . . . any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror."[15] The exception is meant to "ensur[e] that verdicts are accurate and that they are reached through a fair process."[16]

         In post-trial interviews, some jurors revealed that they had applied the discretionary function immunity doctrine to the question whether DOC was negligent in permitting correctional officers to briefly leave their posts in the modules. Those post-trial discussions with jurors formed the basis for Mattox's motion for a new trial. Mattox concedes that post-trial discussions with jurors are generally inadmissible in the superior court's consideration of a motion for a new trial. However, Mattox argues that when deciding whether DOC was negligent for leaving the module unattended during the time the assault occurred, both Jury Instruction No. 13 and the jury deliberations surrounding it were "extraneous prejudicial information" that impacted the jury's decision because Jury Instruction No. 13 was not meant to apply to that issue. We address each of these arguments in turn.

         1. Jury Instruction No. 13 did not constitute extraneous prej udicial information under Alaska Evidence Rule 606(b).

         Mattox argues that "the jury's exposure to the unvetted discretionary function immunity [instruction] did, in and of itself, constitute 'extraneous prejudicial information . . . brought to the jury's attention' within the meaning of [Evidence] Rule 606(b), and could thus be considered by the court." We find this argument without merit.

         In the context of Evidence Rule 606(b), " 'extraneous' information refers to information that reaches the jury other than through the normal trial processes."[17] In Turpin v. State, the Alaska Court of Appeals held that because a prosecutor's objectionable opening statement was brought to the jury's attention through normal trial processes, it was not extraneous information under Evidence Rule 606(b).[18] The court of appeals further explained that interpreting extraneous information to include the prosecutor's opening statement

would essentially gut Rule 606(b), since it would allow impeachment of a verdict whenever the jurors heard improper arguments of counsel, improperly admitted evidence, or any questions or answers to which objections were sustained. Because claims of such errors arise at practically every trial, virtually any jury verdict would be subject to inquiry under [such a] reading of Rule 606(b).[19]

         Similarly, in Tellier v. Ford Motor Co., we affirmed the denial of a motion for a new trial despite the admission of medical records for jury consideration containing information that should have been redacted.[20] In part because the parties could have inspected those records before trial and because the court had instructed the parties to review the records to ensure that they did not contain inadmissible evidence, we concluded that the records did not constitute extraneous information.[21] And in Titus v.Stat ...


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