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Nguyen v. Uttecht

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

April 10, 2017

HUNG VAN NGUYEN, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFREY UTTECHT, Defendant.

          ORDER OVERRULING PETITIONER'S OBJECTION

          John C. Coughenour UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Petitioner Hung Van Nguyen's objection (Dkt. No. 56) to the order by the Honorable James P. Donohue, United States Magistrate Judge (Dkt. No. 52) denying Nguyen's motion to certify questions to the Washington Supreme Court (Dkt. No. 49). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby OVERRULES the objection (Dkt. No. 56) for the reasons explained herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner Hung Van Nguyen moved to certify to the Washington Supreme Court two questions regarding Washington law: (1) can a single Chief Judge on the Washington Court of Appeals “ ‘address the merits' of a non-frivolous personal restraint petition?” and (2) can the Washington Supreme Court Commissioner “ ‘address the merits' of a Motion for Discretionary Review?” (Dkt. No. 49 at 1.) These questions were seemingly motivated by Nguyen's concern that such orders were not adjudications “on the merits” and thus did not direct Judge Donohue's eventual ruling on the merits of Nguyen's habeas petition. (See Dkt. No. 56 at 1-2) (“The Magistrates of this Court have been improperly relying on the Orders of the Acting Chief Judge of the Washington Court of Appeals.”); see also Barker v. Fleming, 423 F.3d 1085, 1091 (9th Cir. 2005) (recognizing that a federal court may not grant habeas relief for “any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings . . . .” (emphasis added)). Nguyen appears to argue that, under Washington law, a lone judge on the Washington Court of Appeals cannot “address the merits” of Nguyen's claim by issuing a unilateral order. (Dkt. No. 56 at 1.) Thus, Nguyen argues that the Court should not consider the order when reviewing the merits of Nguyen's habeas petition. (Id. at 5-6.) Nguyen requested certification to resolve a perceived conflict with state precedent. (Id. at 2.)

         On review, Judge Donohue declined to certify the questions, ruling that Nguyen failed to meet the requirements for certification under Washington law. (Dkt. No. 52 at 2.) Furthermore, Judge Donohue determined that “[t]his Court is able to address the merits of [Nguyen's] habeas petition and does not require the assistance of the Washington Supreme Court.” (Id.) Nguyen objects to Judge Donohue's refusal to certify the questions. (See generally Dkt. No. 56.) Nguyen argues that Washington law entitles Nguyen to consideration of his questions for review by the Washington Supreme Court. (Id. at 4-5.)

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         A district court judge may designate a magistrate judge to hear and determine a non-dispositive pretrial matter. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). The district court may reconsider a magistrate judge's decision on a pretrial matter where it has been shown that the decision is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law. Id. The Court here considers Judge Donohue's decision declining to certify questions to the Washington Supreme Court.

         The standard for certification to the Washington Supreme Court is as follows:

When in the opinion of any federal court before whom a proceeding is pending, it is necessary to ascertain the local law of this state in order to dispose of such proceeding and the local law has not been clearly determined, such federal court may certify to the supreme court for answer the question of local law involved and the supreme court shall render its opinion in answer thereto.

Wash. Rev. Code § 2.60.020. Federal courts have broad discretion when determining whether it is “necessary to ascertain the local law” for certification in Washington. See Thompson v. Paul, 547 F.3d 1055, 1065 (9th Cir. 2008).

         B. Washington Law Does Not Require Certification In This Case

         Judge Donohue found that neither requirement for certification had been met and it was thus inappropriate to certify Nguyen's questions to the Washington Supreme Court when “this Court . . . [did] not require the assistance of the Washington Supreme Court.” (Dkt. No. 52 at 2.) However, Nguyen believes that In re Personal Restraint of Khan, 363 P.3d 577 (Wash. 2015), entitles him to certification. (Dkt. No. 56 at 2.)

         In Khan, the Washington Supreme Court read the state appellate procedural rules to prohibit a lone appellate judge from dismissing a personal restraint petition without finding frivolity. 363 P.3d at 579. When a lone judge dismissed a non-frivolous petition, the Supreme Court found the appropriate remedy was “consideration of [the petitioner's] motion for discretionary review.” Id. at 581. Nguyen argues that his petition was non-frivolous and thus Khan entitles him to certification to the ...


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