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Saraswati v. County of San Diego

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


November 4, 2010

RANGANATH SARASWATI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO, AND DOES 1-20, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hayes, Judge

ORDER

The matter before the Court is the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and to Abstain and Further Stay or Dismiss Action (ECF No. 37) filed by Defendant County of San Diego.

BACKGROUND

On August 3, 2007, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a Complaint (ECF No. 1). On April 23, 2008, this Court issued an Order denying a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. (ECF No. 5). The Court concluded that the Complaint adequately alleged that a municipal policy or custom caused Plaintiff constitutional injury and that the County of San Diego was not immune from liability. Id. at 4-7. The Court declined to abstain from exercising jurisdiction under the doctrine of Colorado River. Id.

On March 11, 2009, Plaintiff filed the First Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 24). On June 9, 2009, Defendant filed the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and to Abstain and Stay or Dismiss Action. (ECF No. 29). On August 13, 2009, the Court granted Defendant's motion and stayed the action pursuant to the Younger [v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)] abstention doctrine pending resolution of state mandamus proceedings in the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego. (ECF No. 32 at 7).

On May 12, 2010, Defendant filed a status report and informed the Court that Plaintiff's writ of mandamus in the state court proceeding had been denied. (ECF No. 35). On July 28, 2010, this Court lifted the stay. (ECF No. 36).

On August 4, 2010, Defendant filed a second Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and to Abstain and Further Stay or Dismiss Action pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 37) On August 24, 2010, Plaintiff filed an Opposition to the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and to Abstain and Further Stay or Dismiss Action. (ECF No. 38). On August 30, 2010, Defendant filed a Reply (ECF No. 39).

DISCUSSION

Defendant contends that "[t]he Superior Court found against plaintiff in the mandamus proceeding on all causes of action and found no damages."*fn1 (ECF No. 37 at 4). Defendant seeks dismissal because "plaintiff has now litigated the liability issues[]" and the Superior Court found that the County was not liable. Id. at 7. Therefore, the issue of damages is moot because "issue preclusion applies and plaintiff is collaterally estopped from litigating the same issues again." Id.

In the alternative, Defendant seeks an extension of the stay that was previously placed on this case pursuant to the Younger abstention doctrine pending completion of the state appeal. Id. at 7-8. Defendant states that "[t]he state proceeding is now pending in the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District...." Id. at 4.

Plaintiff contends that the Court's prior application of the Younger abstention doctrine was improper, and any further application of Younger would also be improper because the federal constitutional questions raised in this federal Complaint were not a part of the state action. (ECF No. 38 at 6). Plaintiff contends that the Court should allow the parties to proceed with discovery in this case so this Court may address the "uniquely federal (constitutional) questions which must be answered by this Court whether or not the administrative review conducted by the state court judge resolves in Plaintiff's favor." Id. at 8.

As an alternative to dismissal, Plaintiff requests a stay because "his appeal of [the state mandamus proceedings] is currently pending in the State Court of Appeal," therefore, there is an "on-going state proceeding which is by no means final." Id. at 7 (quotation omitted). Plaintiff also contends that "issue preclusion and collateral estoppel cannot apply at this stage[,]" to the issue of damages because a judgment is not final if on appeal. Id. at 8.

"Younger and its progeny 'espouse a strong federal policy against federal-court interference with pending state judicial proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances.'" Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 978, 973 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Middlesex Cnty Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 431 (1982)). Younger is a jurisdictional doctrine, which involves "comity, federalism, economy, and the presumption that state courts are competent to decide issues of federal constitutional law...." Commc'ns Telesystems Int'l v. Cal. Pub. Util. Comm'n, 196 F.3d 1011, 1015 (9th Cir. 1999). In determining whether to abstain under Younger,a federal court should ask: "first, do the type of state hearings at issue constitute an ongoing state judicial proceeding; second, do the proceedings implicate important state interests; and third, is there an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges." Gilbertson, 381 F.3d at 973 (citing Middlesex Cnty Ethics Comm., 457 U.S. at 432) (emphasis in original).

A party may move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure after moving to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(g). Younger abstention is properly raised in a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). See San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Comm. v. City of San Jose, 546 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 2008). However, "an abstention-based stay order, rather than a dismissal, is appropriate when damages are at issue." Gilbertson, 381 F.3d at 973.

Plaintiff has appealed the decision of the San Diego County Superior Court regarding the mandamus proceedings to the California Court of Appeal and the appeal is pending. (ECF No. 37-1 at 4; 38 at 7). The Court finds that the first requirement for abstention under Younger is satisfied because there are ongoing state proceedings. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 3-4, 10 (1987) (finding that the court should have abstained under Younger while the state proceeding was pending on appeal); see also Lebbos v. Judges of Super. Ct., Santa Clara Cnty, 883 F.2d 810, 814 (9th Cir. 1989).

This action challenges the County of San Diego's determination that complaints of child abuse against Plaintiff are inconclusive, and challenges the placement of Plaintiff's name on the Child Abuse Index. California has an important interest in protecting children, and the purpose of the Child Abuse Index "is to protect children from abuse and neglect." Cal. Penal Code § 11164; see (ECF No. 32). The Court finds that the second requirement for abstention under Younger is satisfied because these proceedings implicate important state interests.

The Court finds that the third requirement for abstention under Younger is satisfied because the State proceedings are governed by California's writ of mandate procedure, which provides Plaintiff with sufficient opportunity to litigate his federal constitutional claims. See Kenneally v. Lungren, 967 F.2d 329, 332-33 (9th Cir. 1992) (finding that California's writ of mandate procedure satisfies the third requirement for Younger abstention because it "provides a meaningful opportunity for [a federal plaintiff] to present his constitutional claims for independent judicial review.").

The Court concludes that continued abstention under Younger is proper. The Court further concludes that dismissal of the federal proceedings is not proper because Plaintiff seeks damages and injunctive relief in both the state and federal proceedings; and, as discussed above, the State proceedings are ongoing. Gilbertson, 381 F.3d at 973; see also Offshore Sportswear, Inc. v. Vuarnet Intern., B.V.,114 F.3d 848, 851 (9th Cir. 1997).

CONCLUSION

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is DENIED and the Motion to Abstain and Further Stay or Dismiss Action filed by Defendant County of San Diego is GRANTED. (ECF No. 37). The Court stays this action pending resolution the appeal in the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District. Defendant County of San Diego shall file a status report with respect to the proceedings in the state appellate court ninety (90) days from the date of this Order, and every ninety (90) days thereafter.

WILLIAM Q. HAYES United States District Judge


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