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HOENER v. COUNTY OF SONOMA

United States District Court, N.D. California


August 4, 2004.

IRENE HOENER, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF SONOMA, et al., Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES BREYER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

This is a civil rights case arising out of plaintiff Irene Hoener's arrest on March 1, 2002. Plaintiff filed this complaint in proper. The Court has given plaintiff several opportunities to amend her complaint in response to motions to dismiss filed by defendants. Plaintiff's Third Amended Complaint alleges causes of action against the County of Sonoma, Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Iverson, and Sonoma County District Attorney's Office Chief Investigator Michael Griffith (collectively "the Sonoma defendants"), and the City of Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Detective Karen Westling, and Santa Rosa Detective John Snetsinger (collectively "the Santa Rosa defendants"). Now before the Court are two motions for summary judgment, one from each set of defendants.

BACKGROUND

  I. Facts

  On March 1, 2002, plaintiff went to pick up her children from their school. When she arrived at the school, she was informed that her ex-husband, Sonoma County Sergeant Edward Hoener, had already picked up their children. Plaintiff and Mr. Hoener shared visitation rights to their children, and pursuant to a court visitation order, plaintiff had custody of the children on March 1, 2002. Mr. Hoener, however, asserts that because he feared for the well-being of his children, he withheld the children from their scheduled visit with plaintiff. Plaintiff was unaware that Mr. Hoener had taken this action, and when plaintiff discovered that her husband had taken the children, she called the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. The Sheriff's Department informed her that they would send an officer to the school. Rather than wait for the officer, plaintiff went to the home of Mr. Hoener and his new wife, Evane Hoener.

  When plaintiff arrived at her ex-husband's home, a dispute over the children and the visitation rights ensued. The dispute led to a physical altercation between plaintiff and her ex-husband Plaintiff called the Sheriff's Department to report the incident. Mr. Hoener also called the Sheriff's Department and requested that officers be sent to his home "Code 3." Evane Hoener videotaped portions of the incident.

  Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Iverson was the first to arrive on the scene. Immediately upon arriving at the scene, Iverson handcuffed plaintiff and placed her in the back of his patrol car. Plaintiff was later arrested for spousal abuse and brought to the Sheriff's Department by Deputy Brad O'Bryan.

  Because this incident involved Mr. Hoener, a member of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, pursuant to a County protocol,*fn1 the Santa Rosa Police Department was brought in to investigate the incident. Santa Rosa Police Department detectives Karen Westling and John Snetsinger came to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department where plaintiff was being detained. Westling and Snetsinger photographed plaintiff's injuries. Plaintiff asserts that her requests from medical attention were ignored. She claims that she was confined to an interrogation room, one arm handcuffed to a chair, for seven hours. Plaintiff was tried by a jury and convicted of misdemeanor spousal abuse on November 1, 2002 based on this incident. Her conviction was later affirmed on appeal.

  II. Procedural History

  Plaintiff originally brought this lawsuit on February 7, 2003. In response to defendants' first motion to dismiss, this Court dismissed some of plaintiff's claims and provided plaintiff leave to amend other claims in accordance with express instructions. Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint on July 23, 2003. Defendants again moved to dismiss, and the Court dismissed some of plaintiff's claims and provided plaintiff another opportunity to amend her complaint. Plaintiff filed a third amended complaint on October 29, 2003.

  On January 20, 2004, the Sonoma defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. On January 22, 2004, the Santa Rosa defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. A hearing for both summary judgment motions was scheduled for April 2, 2004. On March 10, 2004, plaintiff moved for a continuance of the summary judgment motions. The Court granted plaintiff's motion, and scheduled the hearing on the summary judgment motions for July 2, 2004. On May 26, 2004, plaintiff moved for another continuance in order to complete certain discovery. The Court held a telephone conference on May 28, 2004 with all parties to discuss plaintiff's motion. The Court granted plaintiff's motion to take depositions and continued the hearing until July 30, 2004 in order to provide plaintiff with ample time to complete discovery. The Court discussed the dates and location for plaintiff to take these depositions. On June 8, 2004, plaintiff informed the Court that she no longer intended to take the scheduled depositions.

  On June 16, 2004, plaintiff timely filed a memorandum in opposition to defendants' motions for summary judgment. Defendants timely filed reply memoranda on July 23, 2004.

  DISCUSSION

  I. Legal Standard

  Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R. Civ. P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable fact finder could find for the nonmoving party, and a dispute is "material" only if it could affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A principal purpose of the summary judgment procedure "is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no `genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Ind. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

  II. Motions for Summary Judgment

  The Sonoma defendants and the Santa Rosa defendants have moved for summary judgment on all causes of action asserted against them. The Court will evaluate the motions as to each defendant or group of defendants below.

  A. Defendants Westling and Snetsinger

  Plaintiff's complaint*fn2 alleges two claims against defendants Westling and Snetsinger, detectives with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

  1. Inadequate Medical Care

  Plaintiff's first cause of action alleges that defendants Westling and Snetsinger violated plaintiff's civil rights when they acted with "deliberate indifference" to her "serious medical needs." Compl. ¶ 22. In particular, plaintiff alleges that these defendants saw the injuries on plaintiff's "head, face, neck and limbs," and "administered no first aid or medical care and denied Ms. Hoener's request for medical care." Comp. ¶ 22.

  Because the plaintiff was a pretrial detainee at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, the claim for inadequate medical care arises from the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, not from the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 n. 16 (1979). Despite the fact that the claim arises from the Due Process Clause, the Eighth Amendment provides "a minimum standard of care for determining [plaintiff's] rights as a pretrial detainee, including his right to medical care." Jones v. Johnson, 781 F.2d 769, 771 (9th Cir. 1986) (citation omitted). The authorities "violate a prisoner's eight amendment rights if they are deliberately indifferent to the prisoner's serious medical needs. This indifference must be substantial to violate the constitution, and state prison authorities have wide discretion regarding the nature and extent of medical treatment." Id. (citations omitted).

  The Court concludes as a matter of law that plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence that her medical needs were serious. Plaintiff points to the cuts, abrasions, and bruises as evidence of her serious medical condition. However, the Court having reviewed the photographs concludes, as a matter of law, that they did not rise to the level of serious medical needs. Additionally, plaintiff received medical attention on her own after being released from custody, and the hospital records do not indicate that plaintiff had a serious medical need.

  Even if plaintiff did have a serious medical need, plaintiff has failed to establish any evidence of deliberate indifference. In fact, defendant Westling specifically asked plaintiff if there was anything that she needed, and plaintiff responded: "I need nothing." Accordingly, the Court concludes that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to this claim and summary judgment is warranted.

  2. Failure to Investigate (Count 2) — Westling and Snetsinger

  Plaintiff's second cause of action alleges another Fourteenth Amendment Due Process violation against defendants Westling and Snetsinger for failure to investigate her complaint against her ex-husband Plaintiff argues that these defendants failed to "acknowledge and investigate" her complaint that her ex-husband "violated a court order when he picked up the children and refused Ms. Hoener her visitation rights." Compl. ¶ 25. Plaintiff contends that this failure to investigate was a result of a conflict of interest arising from the close relationship between the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, where her ex-husband was employed. Plaintiff's claim for failure to investigate is without merit. If plaintiff is asserting that defendants' failure to investigate led to her arrest for spousal abuse, such a claim is barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), because it would necessarily mean that the conviction was invalid because it was based on an illegal investigation. If, however, her claim is based entirely on defendant's alleged failure to investigate her complaint that Mr. Hoener violated their child custody agreement, plaintiff has failed to offer any evidence that defendants Westling and Snetsinger had a duty to investigate that complaint. Additionally, even if they had such a duty, plaintiff has failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether they adequately investigated that complaint.

  First, plaintiff has failed to establish that these defendants had a duty to undergo an investigation of her complaint against her husband With respect to a police department's duties to a citizen, the Ninth Circuit stated the following:

There is, in general, no constitutional duty of state officials to protect members of the public at large from crime. However, such a duty may arise by virtue of a "special relationship" between state officials and a particular member of the public. Several courts have held that, to determine whether a "special relationship" exists, a court may look to a number of factors, including (1) whether the state created or assumed a custodial relationship toward the plaintiff; (2) whether the state affirmatively placed the plaintiff in a position of danger; (3) whether the state was aware of a specific risk of harm to the plaintiff; or (4) whether the state affirmatively committed itself to the protection of the plaintiff.
Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 901 F.2d 696, 699-700 (9th Cir. 1990).

  Plaintiff has not established that a special duty existed such that it was defendant Westling and Snetsinger's responsibility to protect plaintiff from her ex-husband's alleged crime.

  Second, even if these defendants had a duty to investigate her complaint, aside from plaintiff's mere assertions that defendants Westling and Snetsinger did not adequately investigate her complaint regarding her ex-husband, she has offered no evidence to establish that these defendants did not investigate the situation. She makes the assertion that because of the friendly relationship between defendants Westling and Snetsinger, their investigation was biased. However, her assertion is not evidence. The Court provided plaintiff with ample opportunities to conduct discovery and take depositions. Plaintiff did not avail herself of those opportunities, and has failed to produce evidence necessary to support her claims. On the other hand, defendants Westling and Snetsinger have offered evidence of their investigation of the situation. They spoke with several witnesses, reviewed the videotape of the incident, and attempted to interview plaintiff. Plaintiff does not deny that defendants undertook this investigation, she simply claims that it was biased due to defendants' relationship with Mr. Hoener. Again, this does not create a genuine issue of material fact.

  In sum, the Court concludes as a matter of law that plaintiff has failed to establish that defendants Westling and Snetsinger failed to adequately investigate her complaint in violation of her due process rights. Accordingly, summary judgment is warranted as to this claim.

  B. Defendant Iverson

  Plaintiff alleges two causes of action against defendant Iverson, a deputy with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. Plaintiff's third cause of action alleges that defendant Iverson used excessive force in "forcing [plaintiff's] arms behind her back, pinning her with the weight of his body against a vehicle and causing her to be handcuffed too tightly on the wrists." Compl. ¶ 28. Plaintiff asserts that these actions caused "unnecessary pain" and placed plaintiff "in immediate fear of severe bodily harm by cuffing her in such a rough and painful manner without just provocation or cause." Plaintiff's sixth cause of action alleges that this same conduct by defendant Iverson constituted a state law claim of negligence. The videotape shows the arrest.

  Defendant argues that summary judgment is warranted on these causes of action because the undisputed facts establish that the force used against plaintiff during her arrest was reasonable and not excessive as a matter of law.

  The standard for the lawful use of force by police under the Fourth Amendment is objective reasonableness. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989). The reasonableness of the officer's use of force is to be judged from the perspective of a reasonable police officer on the scene, not after the fact. See id. at 396-97. It is undisputed that the police arrested plaintiff after responding to calls from both plaintiff and Mr. Hoener regarding a domestic dispute. It is also undisputed that the police did not hit or kick or force plaintiff to the ground or use any weapon on plaintiff during her arrest. Plaintiff does not assert that her alleged injuries (abrasions, bruises, neck injury) were caused by the police; rather, such injuries were created in her altercation with her husband Plaintiff states in her declaration that defendant Iverson "grabbed [her] by the wrist, spun [her] around aggressively and put [her] in handcuffs while he pinned [her] against the car with the weight of his body." Plaintiff's Decl. ¶ 11. She further states that the handcuffs were too tight. Plaintiff's Decl. ¶ 12.

  The Supreme Court has held that "[p]ushes and shoves, like other police conduct must be judged under the Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 209 (2001). Other than the basic assertion in the complaint that the force used by the police officers was "unnecessary" and was "without just provocation or cause," plaintiff does not provide any evidence to establish that the force used was objectively unreasonable. Rather, plaintiff makes numerous assertions in her opposition to the motions for summary judgment, which are not supported by evidence. Plaintiff has failed to provide any evidence that defendant Iverson's actions were done with an intent to violate plaintiff's constitutional rights. Additionally, plaintiff makes numerous references to the fact that her ex-husband was the original aggressor, and therefore the arrest was unwarranted. However, those arguments are irrelevant because plaintiff cannot assert a section 1983 claim that would invalidate her state conviction for spousal abuse. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).

  Plaintiff also does not cite any cases holding that a similar degree of force was unreasonable. Because the amount of force used by the officers did not cause plaintiff to fall, to be injured, or to suffer considerable or prolonged pain, the amount of force used by police against plaintiff was objectively reasonable and defendants' motion for summary judgment of plaintiff's federal excessive force claim must be granted. See, e.g., Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. at 208-09 (holding that "gratuitously violent shove" by officers placing handcuffed suspect into van did not constitute excessive force); Jackson v. City of Bremerton, 268 F.3d 646, 653 (9th Cir. 2001) (no Fourth Amendment violation where arrested interfered with arrest of another person, was sprayed with chemical irritant, and was pushed to ground by three officers during handcuffing).

  As for plaintiff's state law negligence claim for this conduct, summary judgment is also appropriate. Plaintiff has failed to establish that defendant Iverson violated a reasonable standard of care owed to plaintiff. His conduct was not unreasonable. Accordingly, summary judgment is granted on plaintiff's state negligence claim against defendant Iverson.

  C. Defendant Griffith

  Plaintiff alleges two causes of action against defendant Griffith, an investigator with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office. Plaintiff's fourth cause of action, a federal due process claim, alleges that defendant Griffith and Mr. Hoener have a "friendly relationship" and "[b]ecause of this relationship and favoritism," Mr. Hoener "was able to procure unwarranted authorization for cancellation of Ms. Hoener's visitation with her children." Compl. ¶ 32. Plaintiff asserts that Griffith acted with deliberate indifference when he "ignored judicial procedure for changing court-ordered child visitation rules by deliberately giving verbal phone authorization for good cause" to withhold plaintiff's visitation. Id. Plaintiff's eighth cause of action alleges that the same conduct by defendant Griffith constitutes a state law negligence claim.

  California Penal Code section 278.7 provides that a person with a right to custody of a child who has a "good faith and reasonable belief that the child, if left with the other person, will suffer immediate bodily injury or emotional harm" can withhold that child from the other parent if he or she makes a report to the office of the district attorney of the county where the child resided within ten days of withholding the child. Cal. Penal Code § 278.7. Accordingly, if Mr. Hoener had a good faith and reasonable belief that his children, if left with plaintiff, would suffer immediate bodily injury or emotional harm, he could withhold the children from plaintiff if he made a report to the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office in a reasonable time. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Griffith, an investigator with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office who received Mr. Hoener's call regarding this custody situation, provided Mr. Hoener with "unwarranted authorization" for withholding plaintiff's visitation with her children. She asserts that he "ignored judicial procedure" by providing "verbal phone authorization for good cause" for Mr. Hoener to withhold visitation. However, Penal Code section 278.7 does not require the district attorney's office to give authorization for good cause in order for a parent to withhold a child. The code section provides that Mr. Hoener must have a "good faith and reasonable belief" regarding the harm to the children, and if he reports that to the district attorney's office, he can withhold visitation. Nothing in the statute requires the district attorney's office to have a good faith belief nor does it require that the parent have authorization from the district attorney's office. The penal code simply allows a parent to withhold a child based on their own, i.e., the parents own, good faith belief. Thus, even if Mr. Hoener and Griffith had a friendly relationship, and even if Griffith believed that Mr. Hoener had "good cause" for withholding plaintiff's visitation, Griffith's authorization was not required for Mr. Hoener to withhold the children from plaintiff and therefore nothing Griffith did can constitute an injury to plaintiff.

  Accordingly, there is no genuine issue of material fact and summary judgment is warranted as to plaintiff's claims against defendant Griffith.

  D. Defendants County of Sonoma and City of Santa Rosa

  Plaintiff's complaint alleges two causes of action against defendant County of Sonoma ("County") and City of Santa Rosa ("City"). Plaintiff's fifth cause of action is a Monell claim against the County and the City. Plaintiff asserts that the "County Wide Protocol for officer involved incidents" "did not adequately safeguard Ms. Hoener against bias and retaliation for her complaint against a member of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department" because of the "necessarily close and collaborative relationship" between the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and the Santa Rosa Police Department. Compl. ¶ 36.

  Plaintiff's seventh cause of action is a state law negligence claim against the County and the City. This cause of action asserts that the County and the City are liable for negligence by failing to "adequately train police in proper, unbiased investigations of complaints involving police officers" and "adequately train defendant police in the proper use of force and investigatory procedures." Compl. ¶¶ 43 & 46. Plaintiff asserts that the City and County "have demonstrated deliberate indifference to this pattern and practice of negligence by failing to take, appropriate or adequate measures to prevent the continued perpetuation of biased, retaliatory and harmful police conduct." Compl. ¶ 45.

  In Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the Supreme Court held that if the "execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury [then] the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983." Id. at 694. To establish such municipal liability, a plaintiff must satisfy four conditions: "(1) that [the plaintiff] possessed a constitutional right of which he was deprived; (2) that the municipality had a policy; (3) that this policy `amounts to deliberate indifference' to the plaintiff's constitutional right; and (4) that the policy is the `moving force behind the constitutional violation.'" Van Ort v. Estate of Stanewich, 92 F.3d 831, 835 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Oviatt v. Pearce, 954 F.2d 1470, 1474 (9th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted)).

  Plaintiff cannot state a Monell policy-or-practice claim when she herself suffered no constitutional violation. See Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) (city may be held liable under section 1983 when official policy, practice, or custom leads to a constitutional violation). Accordingly, summary judgment is warranted as to plaintiff's Monell claim against the City and County.

  With respect to plaintiff's state negligence claims against the City and County for this same conduct, the City and County are entitled to immunity from plaintiff's state law claim. The City and County are public entities. The Ninth Circuit has held that California law does not support a cause of action against a public entity for negligent hiring or supervision. See Van Ort v. Estate of Stanewich, 92 F.3d 831, 840-41 (9th Cir. 1996); see also Universal By-Products, Inc. v. City of Modesto, 43 Cal.App.3d 145, 153 (1974) (stating there is "no common law liability of a public entity; liability is wholly statutory"). This is consistent with sections of the California Government Code providing that a state governmental entity can be sued in tort only pursuant to an authorizing statute or enactment. See Cal. Gov't Code § 815 et seq.; Lopez v. Southern Cal. Rapid Transit Dist., 40 Cal.3d 780 (1985).

  Despite being given several opportunities to amend her complaint to provide a statutory basis for liability, plaintiff has not done so. Thus, having failed to provide a statutory basis for the City and County's liability for her claim, the City and County are immune from liability. Accordingly, summary judgment is warranted as to plaintiff's state negligence claim against the City and County.

  CONCLUSION

  For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS all defendants' motions for summary judgment in their entirety. Plaintiff has not produced any evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to any of her claims.

  IT IS SO ORDERED.

  JUDGMENT

  The Court having granted defendants' motions for summary judgment, it is hereby ORDERED that judgment be entered in favor of defendants.


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