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Winters v. Jordan

July 19, 2010

BRENT ALLEN WINTERS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DELORES JORDAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER & FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Presently before the court is a special motion to strike plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16, a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and related requests for judicial notice, all filed by defendant Valerie Logsdon ("Logsdon"). (Dkt. Nos. 72-76, 97.) The court submitted this matter without oral argument.*fn1 (Dkt. No. 102.) The undersigned has fully considered the parties' briefs and the record in this case and, for the reasons that follow, will: (1) grant Logsdon's separately filed requests for judicial notice, and (2) recommend that all of plaintiffs' claims against Logsdon, except for plaintiff Christy Winters' civil battery claim, be dismissed with prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

Plaintiffs' operative complaint, the Third Amended Complaint,*fn3 is a wide-ranging, 25-page complaint that alleges, in eight-point font, 38 claims for relief against 61 defendants. (Dkt. No. 66.) In dismissing plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint (Dkt. No. 15), which spanned 163 pages and 607 numbered paragraphs, the court ordered that plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint could not exceed 25 pages and must conform to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), including the requirement that the pleading contain a short and plain statement of the claims alleged instead of recounting all of the evidence and arguments in support of those claims. (Dkt. No. 56 at 3.) The court had stated that "[t]his will be plaintiffs' last chance to comply." (Id.)

The claims against Logsdon arise out of an underlying internecine family dispute between the Winters family and defendant Virginia Armstrong. The Third Amended Complaint alleges that in or around the year 2002, plaintiff Susan Winters' elderly parents, Joe and Virginia Armstrong, encouraged plaintiffs Susan and Brent Winters to sell their house in Illinois and move to Nevada City, California, to live with the Armstrongs. (Third Am. Compl. at 4.) Plaintiffs allege that before plaintiffs returned to California, Joe Armstrong passed away and that Virginia Armstrong eventually transferred properties from the Armstrong Living Trust dated July 29, 1994 to the Virginia Armstrong Living Trust. (Id.) Plaintiffs allege that Virginia Armstrong took these actions due, in part, to the undue influence of defendants Valerie Logsdon, who was Virginia Armstrong's attorney, and Michael Armstrong, Virginia Armstrong's son and an attorney. (Id.)

The relationship between Virginia Armstrong and plaintiffs resulted in several proceedings in the Nevada County Superior Court. Relevant here, Logsdon, acting as Virginia Armstrong's attorney, filed an unlawful detainer action on her client's behalf seeking to evict members of the Winters family from Ms. Armstrong's home. (Third Am. Compl. at 5; Req. for Judicial Notice, Ex. 1, Dkt. No. 75.) In connection with the unlawful detainer action, plaintiffs allege that an Assistant United States Attorney from Illinois wrote a letter to Logsdon "offering any aid to help her evict the Winters from their home in Nevada City, California," and Logsdon filed that letter in the unlawful detainer action.*fn4 (Third Am. Compl. at 6.) Plaintiffs further allege that Logsdon caused declarations or other documents to be filed in connection with the issuance of a restraining order by a judge of the Nevada County Superior Court. (Id.) Plaintiffs also allege that on May 18, 2008, Logsdon physically pushed plaintiff Christy Winters while Logsdon was being served with papers, causing Christy Winters to trip down some stairs. (Id. at 16.) Additionally, Logsdon represented Virginia Armstrong in estate planning matters, including the transfer of property to the Virginia Armstrong Living Trust. (Id. at 4.)

Plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint alleges the following claims against Logsdon: abuse of process (claim 6); battery (claim 9); trespass to chattels (claim 13); violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (claim 14); civil conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (claim 15); civil conspiracy (claim 18); "Slander, Libel, and Slander & Libel Per Se" (claim 21); breach of contract (claim 22); conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. 1962(d) (claim 31); loss of consortium (claim 36); and intentional infliction of emotional distress (claim 38).

In response to the filing of the Third Amended Complaint, Logsdon filed a combined anti-SLAPP special motion to strike and motion to dismiss. (Dkt. No. 72.) Curiously, Logsdon also filed an answer to the Third Amended Complaint on the same day she filed her special motion to strike and motion to dismiss. (Dkt. No. 77.)

There are several, separately-filed motions pending before the court. Despite the court's previous order that plaintiffs file a separate opposition to each pending motion (Dkt. No. 89 at 6), plaintiffs filed a consolidated opposition, which hardly addresses Logsdon's motions (see Dkt. No. 99). Plaintiffs filed their opposition on January 13, 2010, despite a court-ordered deadline of January 6, 2010. (Compare Dkt. Nos. 89 with 99.) Although plaintiffs' opposition was untimely and need not be considered, the undersigned has considered that opposition in arriving at the findings and recommendations that follow.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Logsdon's Request for Judicial Notice

In connection with her special motion to strike, Logsdon filed a request for judicial notice and a supplemental request for judicial notice.*fn5 (Dkt. Nos. 75, 97.) She requests that the court take judicial notice of several documents from the Nevada County Superior Court's file, including complaints, requests, motions, and declarations filed with the Superior Court. In essence, these documents relate to Logsdon's representation of Ms. Armstrong before the Superior Court.

The court may take judicial notice of filings in state court actions where the state court proceedings have a direct relation to the matters at issue. See, e.g., Betker v. U.S. Trust Corp. (In re Heritage Bond Litig.), 546 F.3d 667, 670 n.1, 673 n.8 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing U.S. ex rel. Robinson Rancheria Citizens Council v. Borneo, Inc., 971 F.2d 244, 248 (9th Cir. 1992)); Bias v. Moynihan, 508 F.3d 1212, 1225 (9th Cir. 2007); Cactus Corner, LLC v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 346 F. Supp. 2d 1075, 1092 (E.D. Cal. 2004); see also Reyn's Pasta Bella, LLC v. Visa USA, Inc., 442 F.3d 741, 746 n.6 (9th Cir. 2006) ("We may take judicial notice of court filings and other matters of public record."). Because all of the documents at issue are state court records that directly relate to Logsdon's interactions with plaintiffs that form the basis of the dispute before this court, the court grants Logsdon's request for judicial notice and supplemental request for judicial notice. However, the grant of these requests is limited in that the court does not take notice of the truth of any factual findings stated in the noticed documents. See Wyatt v. Terhune, 315 F.3d 1108, 1114 & n.5 (9th Cir. 2003) ("[W]e have held that taking judicial notice of findings of fact from another case exceeds the limits of [Federal Rule of Evidence] 201.").

B. Logsdon's Anti-SLAPP Special Motion to Strike

Logsdon contends that all of the state law claims against her should be dismissed as a result of her special motion to strike, filed pursuant to California's anti-SLAPP*fn6 statute, California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16. Generally speaking, a party may bring an anti-SLAPP special motion to strike in federal court.*fn7 Thomas v. Fry's Elecs., Inc., 400 F. 3d 1206, 1206 (9th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has summarized the purpose and general mechanics of California's anti-SLAPP statute as follows:

The anti-SLAPP statute establishes a procedure to expose and dismiss meritless and harassing claims that seek to chill the exercise of petitioning or free speech rights in connection with a public issue. Analysis of an anti-SLAPP motion to strike involves a two-step process. First, the defendant must show that the cause of action arises from any "act of that person in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue...." Cal. Code Civ. P. § 425.16(b)(1).

If the court determines that the defendant has met this burden, it must then determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits. To establish a probability of prevailing, the plaintiff must show that "the complaint is both legally sufficient and supported by a sufficient prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable judgment if the evidence submitted by the plaintiff is credited."

Kearny v. Foley & Lardner, LLP, 590 F.3d 638, 648 (9th Cir. 2009) (footnote and citations omitted); accord Metabolife Int'l, Inc. v. Wornick, 264 F.3d 832, 839-40 (9th Cir. 2001); Jarrow Formulas, Inc. v. La Marche, 31 Cal. 4th 728, 733, 74 P.3d 737, 740 (2003). The anti-SLAPP statute should be construed broadly. Mindys Cosmetics, Inc. v. Dakar, No. 09-55134, -- F.3d --, 2010 WL 2652480, at *1 (9th Cir. July 6, 2010) (citing Cal. Code Civ. P. § 425.16(a), and Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1109 (9th Cir. 2003)).

Plaintiffs' state law claims consist of claim 6 (abuse of process), claim 9 (battery), claim 21 (slander and libel), claim 36 (loss of consortium), and claim 38 (intentional infliction of emotional distress). The state law claims asserted by plaintiffs against Logsdon, except for the claim of battery, are the proper subject of a special motion to strike.*fn8 Those claims arise out of Logsdon's representation of Virginia Armstrong in connection with an unlawful detainer action before the Nevada County Superior Court.*fn9 In addition, plaintiffs' abuse of process claim appears to allege that Logsdon filed certain declarations in another Superior Court proceeding. (Third Am. Compl. at 13.) However, plaintiffs' battery claim arises from alleged physical contact between Logsdon and plaintiff Christy Winters that occurred when Logsdon was being served with papers. (Id. at 16.) As alleged, Logsdon's contact with Christy Winters was not in furtherance of the her right of ...


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