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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 ...

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