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Tater-Alexander v. County of Fresno

August 18, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge


(Docs. 5 & 6)

On June 10, 2010, Plaintiff Michael Tater-Alexander, proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed a complaint raising multiple claims under the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and California law arising from Fresno County's refusal to provide an administrative hearing to review a parking ticket (Doc. 1). The complaint was referred for screening by the Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rules 72-302 and 72-304. On June 18, 2010, this Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, granting Plaintiff thirty days to amend (Doc. 4).

On July 19, 2010, Plaintiff filed a first amended complaint, which he styled as a qui tam action (Doc. 6). Plaintiff substituted "The People of the County of Fresno" and "The People of the State of California" as the plaintiffs and added 22 new defendants.*fn1 On July 22, 2010, Plaintiff moved to amend the first amended complaint to further modify the parties and to add further information. Having reviewed the first amended complaint and the motion to amend in light of the alleged facts and applicable law, this Court finds that the first amended complaint fails to state a cognizable claim upon which relief could be granted. Accordingly, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion to amend again be denied and that this matter be dismissed with prejudice.

I. Screening Requirement

A court has inherent power to control its docket and the disposition of its cases with economy of time and effort for both the court and the parties. Landis v. North American Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254-55 (1936); Ferdik v. Bonzelet, 963 F.2d 1258, 1260 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 915 (1992). Notwithstanding any filing fee, or any portion thereof, that may have been paid, in cases in which the plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis, the court shall dismiss the case at any time if the court determines that . . . the action or appeal . . . is frivolous or malicious . . . or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).

II. Procedural and Factual Background*fn2

When Plaintiff attended a DSS administrative hearing on April 21, 2009, "[t]here [was] no ample parking" (¶ 40). Since 20-25 empty spaces were available in an adjacent county parking lot, Plaintiff parked there, reasoning that, as a disabled person,*fn3 he was entitled to "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans With Disabilities Act (¶ 41). When Plaintiff returned 20 minutes later, he had received a parking ticket (¶¶40, 41). He maintains that, since the lot still contained empty parking spaces, the ticket should not have issued since he had done no harm (¶ 41). Plaintiff mailed a request to dismiss the parking ticket for "excusable neglect, inadvertence or harmless error" (¶¶ 42, 43).

In a written decision dated May 26, 2009, Defendant Fresno County denied Plaintiff's request (¶ 43). The envelope in which Plaintiff received the decision was postmarked May 29, 2009 (¶ 43). Because California law provides 21 days to request an administrative hearing, Plaintiff decided that his request was due 21 days after the envelope was postmarked or June 19, 2009 (¶ 45). The envelope in which Plaintiff mailed his request was postmarked June 16, 2009*fn4 (¶ 46).

On or about July 15, 2009, Plaintiff received a notice from Fresno County advising him that the citation was valid, the unpaid fine had doubled to $70.00, and that his vehicle registration could be withheld (¶ 47). Plaintiff responded by writing letters explaining the "error" to Defendants Fresno County, County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, and the Parking Citation Service Center (¶¶ 48, 49, 50, 51). Plaintiff received no responses (¶¶ 48, 49). Plaintiff contends that these letters constituted "Direct and Constructive Notice" to the County that it would be liable for all future liability arising from its error (¶ 50).

On July 17, 2009, the registration of Plaintiff's van expired (¶ 51). Plaintiff knew that, because he had not paid the parking ticket, DMV would refuse to reregister it (¶ 50). Plaintiff told DMV manager Barbara Helm-Mendez that the county intentionally miscalculated the 21-day rule so it could collect a double fine (¶ 51). Plaintiff asked DMV for a hearing, which it denied (¶ 51). Plaintiff also filed a claim for damages from the County, which the Board of Supervisors rejected on December 1, 2009 (¶ 52).

On August 3, 2009, Plaintiff obtained a temporary motorcycle operator's permit so he could legally move a motorcycle (¶ 68). He specifically did not elect to renew his driver's license at the same time (¶ 68). Plaintiff's driver's license expired on August 30, 2009 (¶ 67).

Plaintiff continued to drive the van even though it was no longer registered. He intended to provoke a traffic stop to force "due process re the withholding of his registration to address and resolve the matter" (¶ 65). "[P]laintiff demanded due process even if it meant the possibility of arrest, the impounding of [P]laintiff's vehicle, potential loss of use of [P]laintiff's vehicle and other damages rather than be extorted by the County on its illegal parking scam" (¶ 66).*fn5

On September 6, 2009, Plaintiff was stopped by officers of Defendant Clovis Police Department and cited for driving an unregistered vehicle in violation of California Vehicle Code § 4000(a)(1) and for driving with an expired operating permit (¶ 63). Plaintiff refused to sign the citations upon the officers' request. Ultimately, Plaintiff was arrested, and his vehicle was impounded and towed (¶ 63).*fn6

Somehow, Plaintiff ended up at Community Regional Medical Center's emergency room (¶ 108). The first amended complaint does not allege whether Plaintiff was somehow injured or became ill in the course of his arrest or whether Plaintiff requested treatment of one or more of his existing medical problems. While detained in the emergency room, Plaintiff alleges that he was restrained by handcuffs or chains or both, and that his requests for administration of prescription medication(s) he had with him and of certain medical tests were denied (¶¶ 108, 109, 111, 112). Police officers repeatedly advised Plaintiff that he could be released if he signed the traffic citations (¶¶ 110, 113). Plaintiff interpreted these statements as coercion or abuse. Ultimately, Plaintiff signed the citations in order to be able to take his medication and to address Plaintiff's perceived need to address symptoms that he recognized as impending hypoglycemia (¶ 114). Plaintiff alleges that his treatment (or lack of treatment) in the emergency room was intended to coerce him to sign the citations against his will.

Before Plaintiff's trial on the traffic citations, Plaintiff attempted to renew his driver's license but was unable to do so (¶ 69). At one point, a DMV employee told Plaintiff that, since he had a pending application for a motorcycle permit, he would need to surrender the motorcycle permit before DMV could process his driver's license application (¶ 69). Plaintiff refused to surrender the motorcycle permit unless DMV would agree to refund the $14.00 fee that Plaintiff had paid for it (¶ 70). DMV refused (¶ 70).

Plaintiff's trial was scheduled for December 22, 2009. Because "Plaintiff ha[d] previous dealings with the Fresno Superior Court and believes they are corrupt," he moved for a stenographic reporter and verbatim record of the proceedings (¶71). Plaintiff also subpoenaed as witnesses DMV manager Helm-Mendez, Parking Ticket Service Center Supervisor Armando Hindman and employee Brian Varela, to testify that Plaintiff could not receive a driver's license unless he surrendered the motorcycle permit and that DMV would not refund the fee paid for the motorcycle permit if Plaintiff surrendered it (¶¶ 70, 71, 72).

Plaintiff, two unnamed Clovis police officers, Hindman and Varela were present at trial (¶ 73). Helm-Mendez declined to appear (¶74). Because no district attorney or city attorney was present, Plaintiff alleges that Judge Fain assumed the role of prosecutor and was biased against Plaintiff (¶ 73).

Judge Fain denied Plaintiff's motion for a bench warrant to compel Helm-Mendez's attendance (¶ 78). Plaintiff contends that because Helm-Mendez was to have provided the foundation for the testimony of Hindman and Varela, he was unable to present Hindman's and Varela's testimony (¶ 80).

III. Pleading Standards

Rule 8(a)'s simplified pleading standard applies to all civil actions, with limited exceptions," none of which applies to § 1983 actions. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N. A., 534 U.S. 506, 512 (2002). Pursuant to Rule 8(a), a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). "Such a statement must simply give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 512. Detailed factual allegations are not required, but "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of the cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009), citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). "Plaintiff must set forth sufficient factual matter accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'"

Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949, quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. While factual allegations are accepted as true, legal conclusions are not. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

Although accepted as true, "[f]actual allegations must be [sufficient] to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). A plaintiff must set forth "the grounds of his entitlement to relief," which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. at 555-56 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). To adequately state a claim against a defendant, a plaintiff must set forth the legal and factual basis for his claim.

IV. Preliminary Matters

A. Class Action

Plaintiff proposes to broaden the scope of his qui tam action and convert this case to a class action. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) provides:

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all members only if:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable;

(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class;

(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and

(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

That the action in question are being prosecuted pro se is fatal to the requirement that "the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class." Fed. R.. Civ. Proc. 23(a)(4). Plaintiff is a layman who could not proceed to represent others in a class action.

[L]aymen such as plaintiffs--who do have an absolute right to represent themselves individually--are not entitled to practice law by representing others.

That absolute prohibition reflects in part the societal judgment that non-lawyers do not possess the legal training and expertise necessary to protect class interests. Over and above that the potential for conflicts of interest militate against certifying a class in which the class representative (even though a lawyer) also seeks to act as class counsel.

Harris v. Spellman, 150 F.R.D. 130, 132 n. 2 (N.D. Ill. 1993).

B. Color of State Law: Private Parties

The first amended complaint includes constitutional claims against Community Regional Medical Center, a non-governmental entity. In addition, as this Court understands the first amended complaint, some of the John Does are intended to be Medical Center employees. Generally, private parties are not acting under color of state law. See Price v. Hawaii, 939 F.2d 702, 707-08 (9th Cir. 1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 938 (1992). If a private party conspires with state officials to deprive others of constitutional rights, however, the private party is acting under color of state law. See Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914, 920 (1984); Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 27-28 (1980); Franklin v. Fox, 312 F.3d 423, 441 (9th Cir. 2002); DeGrassi v. City of Glendora, 207 F.3d 636, 647 (9th Cir. 2000); George v. Pacific-CSC Work Furlough, 91 F.3d 1227, 1231 (9th Cir. 1996) (per curiam), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1081 (1997); Kimes v. Stone, 84 F.3d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 1996); Howerton v. Gabica, 708 F.2d 380, 383 (9th Cir. 1983). "To prove a conspiracy between the state and private parties under [§] 1983, the [plaintiff] must show an agreement or meeting of minds to violate constitutional rights. To be liable, each participant in the conspiracy need not know the exact details of the plan, but each must at least share the common objective of the conspiracy." United Steelworkers of America v. Phelps Dodge Corp., 865 F.2d 1539, 1540-41 (9th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 809 (1989) (citations and internal quotations omitted). See also Franklin, 312 F.3d at 441; Mendocino Environmental Center v. Mendocino County, 192 F.3d 1283, 1301-02 (9th Cir. 1999); Gilbrook v. City of Westminster, 177 F.3d 839, 856-57 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1061 (1999); Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1048 (9th Cir. 1989). Conclusory allegations are insufficient to state a claim of conspiracy. See Simmons v. Sacramento County Superior Court, 318 F.3d 1156, 1161 (9th Cir. 2003); Radcliffe v. Rainbow Construction Co., 254 F.3d 772, 783-84 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 1020 (2001); Price, 939 F.2d at 708-09.

Plaintiff's fanciful and conclusory allegations do not allege a cognizable claim that Community Regional Medical Center or any of its employees conspired to violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Accordingly, this Court recommends all § 1983 claims against Community Regional Medical Center or its employees be dismissed. Nonetheless, these findings and recommendations will address Community Regional Medical Center's potential liability in each claim set forth against it the first amended complaint.

C. Defendants Nelson and Baldwin

Defendants Nelson and Baldwin are included within the caption and identified in the preliminary paragraphs of the first amended complaint, but no substantive allegations against them are set forth any where else in the first amended complaint. Accordingly, this Court recommends that ...

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