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Moorgat v. County of San Joaquin

September 8, 2010



This matter comes before the Court on Defendants County of San Joaquin ("the County"), Ralph Guerrero ("Guerrero"), Renee Smith ("Smith") and Holly Mettler-Molen‟s ("Mettler-Molen") (collectively "County Defendants‟") Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 24) the first through fifth claims for relief in Plaintiffs Stephen Moortgat ("Stephen") and Alma Moortgat‟s ("Alma") ("collectively Plaintiffs‟) First Amended Complaint ("FAC") (Doc. 22). County Defendants move for the FAC to be dismissed both for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and on grounds of qualified immunity. Plaintiffs oppose the motion.*fn1


Defendants Guerrero and Smith are county social workers, and Defendant Mettler-Molen is alleged to be a social worker in training. Plaintiffs are parents of minors JM and AM. Plaintiffs‟ FAC alleges six claims for relief against Defendants for civil rights violations, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This motion seeks dismissal of the five claims against County Defendants. The other defendants in this case, County employee Robin Heringer ("Heringer"), the City of Stockton ("City"), and police officers Ronald Ealunardo ("Ealunardo") and Michael Dixon ("Dixon"), are not parties to the present Motion. The City, Ealunardo and Dixon have answered the FAC.

JM was 15 years old at the time this suit was filed. According to the allegations of the FAC, Plaintiffs allege that on May 19, 2008, a friend of JM notified a school counselor that JM‟s father, Stephen, had sexually abused JM. JM‟s school contacted the County Child Protective Services ("CPS"), and Guerrero and Mettler-Molen interviewed JM at her school. JM reported that sexual abuse had occurred on unspecified dates approximately one year prior, while the family was on vacation.

Later Guerrero, accompanied by police officers Ealunardo and Dixon, went to Plaintiffs‟ home. After interviewing both Stephen and Alma, Plaintiffs allege the officers escorted Stephen from the home and ordered that he not have contact with JM or Alma. JM was taken to a safe house for one night, and was then returned to her mother Alma‟s care. Alma, JM and AM stayed at the home of Janet Moortgat, Stephen‟s mother, while Stephen stayed at a hotel, and went to the home only to use his home office. Plaintiffs allege that Guerrero required Alma to sign a "Family Safety Plan" which limited contact between Stephen and JM and AM. For a period of approximately one month, Stephen was ordered to remain separated from his family. JM later recanted her story, and no charges were ever filed against Stephen.

On June 23, 2008, Plaintiffs allege Stephen was permitted to move back into the family home with Alma, JM and AM after JM completed mandatory therapy sessions. Guerrero allegedly required Plaintiffs to enter into a "Voluntary Family Maintenance" plan ("VFM"), and warned that if they refused to sign onto or participate in the plan the County would go to court to remove the children from the home. Plaintiffs were released from the VFM and CPS supervision in January 2009, and now seek general, special, compensatory and punitive damages for Defendants‟ alleged civil rights violations.


A. Legal Standard

A party may move to dismiss an action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In considering a motion to dismiss, the court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Scheur v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Davis v. Schere, 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972). Assertions that are mere "legal conclusions," however, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949-50 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff needs to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007). Dismissal is appropriate where the plaintiff fails to state a claim supportable by a cognizable legal theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep‟t, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

Upon granting a motion to dismiss, a court has discretion to allow leave to amend the complaint. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 15(a). "Absent prejudice, or a strong showing of any [other relevant] factor[], there exists a presumption under Rule 15(a) in favor of granting leave to amend." Eminence Capital, L.L.C. v. Aspeon, Inc., 316 F.3d 1048, 1052 (9th Cir. 2003) (emphasis in original). "Dismissal with prejudice and without leave to amend is not appropriate unless... it is clear that the complaint could not be saved by amendment." Id.

B. Section 1983

Plaintiffs‟ five claims against County Defendants are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To prevail in a §1983 civil action against state actors for the deprivation of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, a plaintiff must show that (1) acts by the defendants (2) under color of state law (3) deprived him of federal rights, privileges or immunities and (4) caused him damage. Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred. Accordingly, the conduct complained of must have deprived the plaintiff of some right, privilege or immunity protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States." Thornton v. City of St. Helens, 425 F.3d 1158, 1163-64 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal citations omitted).

C. Claims for Relief

1. Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights, First ...

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