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Vega v. County of Yolo


July 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge


Through the present lawsuit, Plaintiff Robert Vega ("Plaintiff") seeks redress, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for alleged violations of his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Named Defendants include Yolo County and Sheriff E.G. Prieto, in his capacity as Yolo County Sheriff ("Defendants"). Plaintiff claims, among other alleged federal constitutional violations, that Defendants followed an informal policy that constitutes deliberate indifference to the medical needs of inmates at the county jail. Plaintiff also asserts several pendent state law claims.

Defendants have brought this Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on grounds that the sovereign immunity granted by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution shields Sheriff Prieto from liability because he should be considered a state, as opposed to county, actor. Defendant Yolo County, in turn, argues that it cannot be derivatively liable for Sheriff Prieto's actions if he was not acting on the County's behalf with respect to the allegations leveled by Plaintiff in this lawsuit. Defendants also move to dismiss the state law claims on the ground that they are barred by the relevant statute of limitations contained within California Government Code § 911.2.

Plaintiff concedes that the state law claims are time-barred, but argues that he has stated a viable § 1983 claim because a sheriff acts for the county, not the state, in overseeing the county jail. Plaintiff consequently contends that neither Yolo County nor Sheriff Prieto are protected by the Eleventh Amendment's sovereign immunity. For the reasons set forth below, this motion is granted as to the pendent state law claims, but denied as to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims, as set forth in the First, Second, Fourth and Seventh Causes of Action.*fn1


According to his Complaint, on or about October 31, 2007, Plaintiff, who was then incarcerated at the Yolo County Jail, was beaten by other inmates. After learning of the incident and upon hearing reports that Plaintiff had sustained "significant injuries," deputies of Defendant Sheriff E.G. Prieto ("Defendant") isolated Plaintiff from the other inmates. When Plaintiff complained of increasing pain, Defendant's deputies instructed Plaintiff to fill out a pink slip, apparently for purposes of obtaining medical care. Several hours later the deputies did give Plaintiff a blank pink slip, but told him to wait until the morning pill call before proceeding further. Plaintiff continued to complain about his worsening condition, but did not receive any medical treatment until the following morning, when deputies found him nearly unconscious, having vomited and lost bladder control. Plaintiff was transported to the intensive care unit of Davis Medical Center, where doctors determined that he had a ruptured spleen and surgically removed the ruptured organ.


On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact must be accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," in order to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed. 2d 80 (1957). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the "grounds" of his "entitlement to relief" requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554-56, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed. 2d 929 (2007) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Id. at 21 (citing 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216, pp. 235-236 (3d ed. 2004) ("The pleading must contain something more . . . than . . . a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action").


Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an individual may sue "[e]very person who, under color of [law] subjects" him "to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." In order to be subject to suit under § 1983, however, the alleged offender must be a "person" acting under color of state law. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 60 (1989).

States do not qualify as "person[s]" for § 1983 purposes because the Eleventh Amendment affords them sovereign immunity. Id. at 71. By contrast, local governments, including counties, qualify as "person[s]" within the meaning of § 1983. See Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

The Supreme Court established the framework for determining whether an official acts for the state or county for § 1983 purposes in McMillian v. Monroe County, 520 U.S. 781 (1997). As an initial matter, a court must "ask whether governmental officials are final policymakers for the local government in a particular area, or on a particular issue." Id. at 785 (citing Jett v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 491, U.S. 701, 737 (1989)). More importantly, if the court answers the first question in the affirmative, it must then examine "the actual function of [the] governmental official, in a particular area" based on "the definition of the official's functions under relevant state law." Id. at 786. Although this inquiry requires an examination of the "state's constitution, statutes and case law," Brewster v. Shasta County, 275 F.3d 803, 806 (9th Cir. 2001), it is ultimately a question of federal law. See Weiner v. San Diego County, 210 F.3d 1025, 1029 (9th Cir. 2000).

Since the parties do not contest that Sheriff Prieto exercises final policymaking authority regarding the provision of medical services at the county jail, the determinative question before the court is whether Sheriff Prieto acts for the county or the state in adopting and implementing such policies.

As set forth below, binding circuit precedent compels the conclusion that Sheriff Prieto acts for the county in setting policy regarding the provision of medical services at the county jail. Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment does not immunize Sheriff Prieto from liability in this action.

The Ninth Circuit has twice applied the principles articulated in McMillian to the management of county jails by California sheriffs, and in each of these cases it held that the sheriffs are county (not state) actors under § 1983. See Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552, 561 (9th Cir. 2001) (the sheriff acts on behalf of the county in "the oversight and management of the local jail"); Cortez v. County of Los Angeles, 294 F.3d 1186, 1189 (9th Cir. 2002) ("We ... hold that the County is subject to § 1983 liability for the Sheriff's actions taken here pursuant to his role as administrator of the county jail."). In Streit and Cortez, the Ninth Circuit found two discrepancies between the legal status of California sheriffs and the Alabama sheriffs in McMillian particularly salient in reaching its holdings. First, the Ninth Circuit observed in Cortez that California counties exercise ultimate control over the management of local jails by sheriffs, as opposed to the circumstances confronted by the Supreme Court in McMillian, where the State of Alabama exercised final authority over the law-enforcement duties of its sheriffs. See Cortez, 294 F.3d at 1190. Second, in Streit the Ninth Circuit emphasized that in contrast to Alabama law, which provides that the state is liable for § 1983 judgments against sheriffs, California law requires counties to indemnify sheriffs for their constitutional torts. 236 F.3d at 562.

Since under current California law counties still have final control over the management of county jails, see Cal. Gov. Code § 23013 (authorizing counties to transfer control of the local jail from the sheriff to a department of corrections), and remain liable for § 1983 judgments against the county sheriff, see Cal. Gov. Code § 815.2, the Ninth Circuit's application of McMillian in Streit and Cortez requires this court to conclude that the Sheriff acted on behalf of the County in this case, and may therefore be sued under § 1983.

Defendants rely almost entirely on the California Supreme Court's decision in Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, 32 Cal. 4th 820 (2004) in urging this court to reach a contrary result. In Venegas, the court held that a county sheriff sued under § 1983 for unreasonable search and seizure is a state actor entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. 32 Cal. 4th at 828; see also, Bougere v. County of Los Angeles, 141 Cal. App. 4th 237, 246-48 (2006) (holding that a sheriff acts for the state when placing inmates within the jail to ensure safety). Defendant contends that this court should not apply existing Ninth Circuit precedent, but rather predict how the Ninth Circuit is likely to rule post-Venegas. Moreover, after re-framing the pertinent inquiry in this way, Defendant conjectures that the Ninth Circuit will most likely overrule Cortez and Streit in light of Venegas. This theory is untenable for at least two reasons.

First, federal case law governs the issue of whether the sheriff is a state or county actor under § 1983. As the Ninth Circuit has explained, federal courts may look to state case law to the extent that it is persuasive, but need not "blindly accept its balancing of the different provisions of state law in determining liability under § 1983." Weiner v. San Diego County, 210 F.3d at 1029. When confronted with a conflict between state decisions and its own precedents, the Ninth Circuit has made it pellucidly clear that its own cases are controlling because "section 1983 ... questions implicate federal, not state, law." Streit, 236 F.3d at 564. Indeed, in both Streit and Cortez, the Ninth Circuit squarely rejected arguments that it should defer to a California appellate court's ruling in County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Peters), 68 Cal. App. 4th 1166 (1998) in deciding whether sheriffs are state or county actors. Id. at 564; Cortez, 294 F.3d at 1191 (citing Brewster v. Shasta County, 275 F.3d 803, 811 (9th Cir. 2001) ("We are not bound by the determination of the California Court of Appeal in Peters that sheriffs are state actors.")). Significantly, analogous post-Venegas district court decisions have refused to adopt arguments that closely resemble the contention proffered by Defendants on this motion, instead deferring to the applicable Ninth Circuit precedents. See, e.g., Smith v. County of Los Angeles, 535 F. Supp. 2d 1033, 37, fn. 1 (C.D. Cal. 2008) ("administering medical care to inmate-patients already in custody 'involve[s] jail oversight and management, not law enforcement.'" (quoting Clemmons v. City of Long Beach, No. CV 05-05525, 2006 WL 4599674, at *5 (C.D. Cal. 2006))); Miller v. Butte County, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84648, *13 (E.D. Cal. 2008) (sheriff is a county actor in § 1983 suit for withholding medical care from an inmate).

Second, even if Venegas were binding authority, it is inapplicable to the present case. Venegas held that the sheriff acts on behalf of the state "while performing state law enforcement duties such as investigating possible criminal activity." 32 Cal. 4th at 839. Because Venegas involved an unreasonable search and seizure claim, which arose during the sheriff's performance of a core law-enforcement function, it is wholly dissimilar to the instant case both in its facts and in the principle for which it stands.


For the reasons stated above, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is DENIED, except as to the Third, Sixth and Eighth Causes of Action. Defendants' request that those claims be dismissed was unopposed and is accordingly GRANTED.


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