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Nicholson v. County of Stanislaus

March 11, 2010

GORDON NICHOLSON, AN INDIVIDUAL; LORRAINE NICHOLSON, AN INDIVIDUAL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF STANISLAUS, A PUBLIC ENTITY; JANICE MCCLENDON, AN DOC. # 6 INDIVIDUAL; AND DOES 1 THROUGH 50, INCLUSIVE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anthony W. Ishii Chief United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

This is an action for damages and declaratory relief by plaintiffs Gordon and Lorraine Nicholson ("Plaintiffs") against defendants County of Stanislaus ("County") and individual defendant Janice McClendon ("McClendon") (collectively, "Defendants"). The action arises out of Defendants' determination, following an inspection by McClendon, that Plaintiffs' iris farm and iris sales activity violated county zoning ordinances. Defendants issued a Notice and Order to Abate" (hereinafter, the "Notice") directing Plaintiffs to cease operation of their iris business within 30 days. As a result of the Notice, Plaintiffs allege they destroyed approximately $100,000 worth of iris stock and notified established customers of the discontinuance of their business. Between three and four months after the issuance of the Notice, Plaintiffs received a memorandum from Defendants stating that, as a result of the original inspection, it was determined there was no code violation and Defendants were closing the file. This action followed. In the instant motion, Defendants seek dismissal pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Federal question jurisdiction exists pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Venue is proper in this court.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

For about eleven years prior to September 2008, Plaintiffs owned and operated an enterprise called "Woodland Iris Garden" (the "Property") which grew and sold iris bulbs or plants. The complaint alleges the Garden was "authorized and permitted pursuant to Stanislaus County Code § 21.20.020" and had been in operation for eleven years. Doc. # 1-3 at ¶ 8. The complaint alleges that on or about September 12, 2008, McClendon performed an inspection at the Property. Plaintiffs allege that McClendon made a number of "comments" to Plaintiffs during the inspection that stated inter alia that Plaintiffs must:

1. Cease operation of the iris farm because it operated in violation of county codes.

2. Remove a sign from the Property advertising "Woodland Gardens."

3. Take down an internet site that had been established to market Garden products.

4. Cease and desist from any further tours of the Property to potential customers. Doc. # 1 - 3 at ¶ 9.

The Notice, which is dated September 12, 2008, was delivered by mail to Plaintiffs and indicated a "compliance date" of October 28, 2008. The memorandum notifying Plaintiffs that it had been determined that the September inspection indicated there was no county code violation and that the file would be closed on Plaintiffs' case was dated December 31, 2008. Plaintiffs allege that Plaintiffs timely filed a claim against Stanislaus County pursuant to the California Tort Claims Act, and that the claim was denied.

The complaint was originally filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court on September 25, 2009. Defendants removed the case to this court on November 4, 2009. The complaint alleges a total of six claims for relief. Plaintiffs' first claim alleges inverse condemnation in violation of the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause. Plaintiff's fourth claim for relief alleges Defendants abridged Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs' second and third claims for relief allege state law claims for conversion and negligence, respectively. Plaintiffs' sixth claim for relief alleges slander of title. Plaintiffs' fifth claim for relief requests declaratory relief. Although the claim is somewhat ambiguous, it appears Plaintiffs seek declarations as to the validity of Defendants' practices with regard to the issuance of Notices of Abatement and with regard to the conformity of Plaintiffs' enterprise with existing applicable zoning ordinances.

Defendants' motion to dismiss was filed on November 6, 2009. Plaintiffs' opposition was filed November 30, 2009, and Defendants' reply was filed December 7, 2009. On December 10, 2009, the court vacated the hearing date of December 14, 2009, and took the matter under submission as of that date.

LEGAL STANDARDS

Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. It is a fundamental precept that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Limits upon federal jurisdiction must not be disregarded or evaded. Owen Equipment & Erection Co. v. Kroger, 437 U.S. 365, 374 (1978). The plaintiff has the burden to establish that subject matter jurisdiction is proper. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). This burden, at the pleading stage, must be met by pleading sufficient allegations to show a proper basis for the court to assert subject matter jurisdiction over the action. McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936); Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(1). When a defendant challenges jurisdiction "facially," all material allegations in the complaint are assumed true, and the question for the court is whether the lack of federal jurisdiction appears from the face of the pleading itself. Thornhill Publishing Co. v. General Telephone Electronics, 594 F.2d 730, 733 (9th Cir. 1979); Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F. 2d 884, 891 (3d Cir.1977); Cervantez v. Sullivan, 719 F. Supp. 899, 903 (E.D. Cal.1989), rev'd on other grounds, 963 F. 2d 229 (9th Cir.1992).

A defendant may also attack the existence of subject matter jurisdiction apart from the pleadings. Mortensen, 549 F. 2d at 891. In such a case, the court may rely on evidence extrinsic to the pleadings and resolve factual disputes relating to jurisdiction. St. Clair v. City of Chico, 880 F. 2d 199, 201 (9th Cir.1989); Roberts v. Corrothers, 812 F.2d 1173, 1177 (9th Cir.1987); Augustine v. United States, 704 F.2d 1074, 1077 (9th Cir.1983). "No presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims." Thornhill Publishing, 594 F.2d at 733 (quoting Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891).

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure can be based on the failure to allege a cognizable legal theory or the failure to allege sufficient facts under a cognizable legal theory. Robertson v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 749 F.2d 530, 533-34 (9th Cir.1984). To withstand a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must set forth factual allegations sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) ("Twombly"). While a court considering a motion to dismiss must accept as true the allegations of the complaint in question, Hospital Bldg. Co. v. Rex Hospital Trustees, 425 U.S. 738, 740 (1976), and must construe the pleading in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and resolve factual disputes in the pleader's favor, Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421, reh'g denied, 396 U.S. 869 (1969), the allegations must be factual in nature. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 ("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"). The pleading standard set by Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "does not require 'detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) ("Iqbal").

The Ninth Circuit follows the methodological approach set forth in Iqbal for the assessment of a plaintiff's complaint:

"[A] court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief."

Moss v. U.S. Secret Service, 572 F.3d 962, 970 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950).

DISCUSSION

The court will address Defendants' contentions with regard to the viability of Plaintiffs' claims in the order Defendants raise those contentions in their pleadings.

I. Plaintiffs' Due Process Claim Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Defendants advance four theories for dismissal of Plaintiffs' claim for violation of procedural due process in violation of 41 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter, Plaintiffs' "§ 1983 Claim"). Before addressing those theories individually, it is important to note what is the gravamen of Plaintiffs' § 1983 Claim. Plaintiffs' fourth claim for relief alleges "violation of [P]laintiffs' right to due process prior to the deprivation of [P]laintiffs' property . . . ." The claim goes on to allege as follows, in pertinent part:

In acting as alleged above, in particular with regards to the erroneous issuance of the Notice and the 6-month delay in failing to inform [P]laintiffs there was no violation as alleged, [D]efendants violated [P]laintiffs' right to due process prior to the deprivation of [P]laintiffs' property, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and by the California Constitution, Article 1, Section 7. ¶ Plaintiffs were afforded no opportunity to challenge the issuance of the Notice, short of violating the laws of Stanislaus County, all as set forth in greater detail in both the Notice and Stanislaus County Code.

Doc. # 1-3 at ¶¶ 36 - 37.

Plaintiffs' claim for relief for violation of procedural due process rights can be construed as having two components; a claim that the erroneous issuance of the Notice followed by a six-month delay in correcting the error constitutes a due process violation, and a claim alleging that the fact no opportunity was afforded to challenge the validity of the notice constitutes a due process violation. Given Plaintiffs' arguments in opposition to Defendants' motion, and given that Plaintiffs have alleged no standard by which any delay in the determination that the Notice was issued erroneously could be determined to be a constitutional violation, the court finds it reasonable to presume that the gravamen of Plaintiffs' due process claim is that they were not afforded a pre-depravation opportunity to be heard.

The court is aware that Plaintiffs theory of violation of their due process rights on the ground they were afforded no opportunity for pre-deprivation hearing can be interpreted as being based on either of two theories. In their opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs devote considerable effort to explaining how County's procedure following issuance of a Notice fails to provide any meaningful opportunity for pre-depravation opportunity to be heard short of being in violation of the zoning statutes and in jeopardy of criminal and civil penalties. Most of this information is absent from the complaint, however. On the other hand, the court can discern from the complaint Plaintiffs' contention that they were not provided notice of any pre-depravation hearing. The court finds that the parties' briefings regarding the adequacy of Plaintiffs' complaint to state a claim for due process violation is sufficient to allow decision by the court only with respect to the question of whether due process was violated because Defendants failed to provide adequate notice. Because the court will deny Defendants' motion to dismiss on that theory, the court will not address Plaintiffs' contention that County's process is itself constitutionally deficient. Rather, the court finds it more appropriate to address the constitutional sufficiency of County's substantive hearing procedure following issuance of a Notice at a later time and upon more developed facts and arguments.

A. Ripeness/Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' claim for violation of procedural due process rights in not cognizable where, as here, Plaintiffs have failed to avail themselves of the administrative remedies provided by county ordinance. While Defendants appear to recognize that there is, in general, no requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies to bring a section 1983 claim, they argue that, because the County has a "robust" administrative mechanism to address the claims Plaintiffs raise, there is no Fourteenth Amendment Violation. See Doc. # 6 at 16:13 - 19 (quoting Dusanek v. Hannon, 677 F.2d 538, 543 - 544 (7 Cir. 1982) (noting failure to use administrative remedies when they are made available implicated concerns of ripeness even though there is no requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies). Defendants' argument is somewhat improvidently labeled since it does not invoke exhaustion of remedies. Construing Defendants' contention for what it is -- a contention that there is no due process violation where adequate process exists -- the court must nonetheless deny Defendants motion on that ground.

Defendants appear to have misconstrued the gravamen of Plaintiffs' due process claim. Plaintiffs' due process claim is not based on the ultimate outcome of County's decision or on the existence of an adequate administrative remedy; it is based on the allegation that existing administrative remedies were not made available to them. In short, Plaintiffs' fourth claim for relief is about notice and an opportunity to be heard or the lack of it. The question posed by Plaintiffs' fourth claim for relief is, for purposes of the courts' present analysis, whether County made its administrative remedies available to Plaintiffs prior to any deprivation by providing adequate notice of those remedies.

Thus construed, Plaintiffs' due process claim became ripe at the time notice of an opportunity to be heard was due but was not given; that is, at a time reasonably before County would have been authorized to take unilateral action. Given that the Notice provides a 30-day time period before the County can take unilateral abatement action, notice of an opportunity to be heard was due at or shortly after the Notice was delivered to Plaintiffs. See Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 379 (1971) (due process "requires individual be given an opportunity for a hearing before he is deprived of a significant property interest"). Because Plaintiffs' claim for due process violation accrued at or near the time of delivery of the Notice, it is currently ripe for adjudication.

The court concludes that Defendants have failed to show that Plaintiffs' ยง 1983 Claim is non-justiciable for lack of ripeness or that exhaustion of administrative remedies is necessary before Plaintiffs' claim can proceed. Defendants' motion to dismiss ...


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