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Robert Saunders v. the Law Offices of Elaine Van Beveren

December 1, 2010


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


Plaintiff, who is proceeding without counsel, filed his complaint on September 21, 2010.*fn1 Presently before the court is plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis. For the reasons stated below, the undersigned will grant plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis, but will dismiss his complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). Such dismissal will be without prejudice, and plaintiff will be granted leave to file a first amended complaint.

I. Plaintiff's Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis Plaintiff has requested leave to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. (Dkt. No. 2.) His application and declaration make the showing required by 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a)(1) and 1915(2). Accordingly, the undersigned grants his request to proceed in forma pauperis.

The determination that a plaintiff may proceed in forma pauperis does not complete the required inquiry. The court is also required to screen complaints brought by parties proceeding in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2); see also Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1129 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), the court is directed to dismiss a case filed pursuant to the in forma pauperis statute if, at any time, it determines that the allegation of poverty is untrue, the action is frivolous or malicious, the complaint fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or the action seeks monetary relief against an immune defendant.

In assessing whether a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim on which relief can be granted, the court adheres to the "notice pleading" standard. Under the notice pleading standard of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff's complaint must provide, in part, a "short and plain statement" of plaintiff's claims showing entitlement to relief. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); see also Paulsen v. CNF, Inc., 559 F.3d 1061, 1071 (9th Cir. 2009). A complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim if, taking all well-pleaded factual allegations as true, it does not contain "'enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" See Coto Settlement v. Eisenberg, 593 F.3d 1031, 1034 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)). "'A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'" Caviness v. Horizon Cmty. Learning Ctr., Inc., 590 F.3d 806, 812 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949). The court accepts all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Corrie v. Caterpillar, 503 F.3d 974, 977 (9th Cir. 2007). The court is "not, however, required to accept as true conclusory allegations that are contradicted by documents referred to in the complaint, and [the court does] not necessarily assume the truth of legal conclusions merely because they are cast in the form of factual allegations." Paulsen, 559 F.3d at 1071 (citations and quotation marks omitted). The court must construe a pro se pleading liberally to determine if it states a claim and, prior to dismissal, tell a plaintiff of deficiencies in the complaint and give the plaintiff an opportunity to cure them if it appears at all possible that the plaintiff can correct the defect. See Lopez, 203 F.3d at 1130-31.

II. Screening of Plaintiff's Complaint

Plaintiff's complaint arises from a contentious custody dispute between plaintiff and April Berger, plaintiff's "ex-partner" and mother of the two minor daughters at the center of the dispute, which has proceeded in Sacramento County Superior Court ("Superior Court").*fn2

(See Compl. ¶¶ 3-5, 30.) Plaintiff alleges that in connection with the custody proceedings, the Superior Court appointed defendant attorney Elaine Van Beveren to represent the two minor daughters. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 28-29.) Based on the allegations in the complaint, it appears that Ms. Van Beveren is the principal attorney in the Law Offices of Elaine Van Beveren, a named defendant.

Generally, plaintiff alleges that Ms. Van Beveren, as the court-appointed attorney for the minor children, engaged in conduct that gives rise to:

(1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as a result of alleged violations of plaintiff's and the minors daughters' constitutional rights secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; and

(2) violations of California state law.*fn3 (See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 22.) Some of plaintiff's claims-including plaintiff's claims of civil battery, false imprisonment-appear to arise from a September 23, 2008 meeting between plaintiff, Ms. Van Beveren, and plaintiff's two minor daughters. Plaintiff's claims also appear to arise from recommendations that Ms. Beveren made to the Superior Court regarding custody and visitation of the children, which were adopted in full by a judge of the Superior Court.

The primary pleading deficiency with plaintiff's complaint is that it is very difficult to discern what precise claims plaintiff actually wishes to raise, and which factual allegations support those claims. Some of plaintiff's claims are coherently pled, such as his state law claims for civil battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, the complaint also contains a scattershot of claims, raised simply by passing reference, and such claims are not coherently tied to the facts alleged in the complaint. For example, plaintiff alleges that his damages arise from "crimes" committed by Ms. Van Beveren. However, this is a civil lawsuit, not a criminal prosecution. As another example, plaintiff identifies several potential claims in a single paragraph and does not, in all cases, succinctly explain the facts that give rise to those myriad claims. In paragraph 2 of the complaint, plaintiff alleges that he seeks relief "for aggravated assault and battery, child abuse, attempted kidnaping, false imprisonment, personal injuries, intentional infliction of emotional distress on himself and his daughters, perjury, fraud, obstruction of justice, suppression of evidence, collusion, misprision of felony, conspiracy, deprivation of Plaintiff's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and more." (Compl. ¶ 2.) Elsewhere, plaintiff briefly alleges a claim for defamation without even identifying the allegedly defamatory statement. (Id. ¶ 14.) This lack of organization persists throughout the complaint.

It appears that plaintiff may be able to state some claims that will support an order directing that plaintiff's complaint be served on defendants. However, the undersigned will dismiss plaintiff's complaint at this time and provide plaintiff with an opportunity to file a first amended complaint that contains a "short and plain statement" of each claim showing entitlement to relief. Plaintiff is advised to review the notice pleading standards described above. The undersigned emphasizes that the central problem with plaintiff's complaint is not one of length; it is a problem of organization. To remedy the problems in his complaint, plaintiff should only allege the claims that he really wishes to pursue, and provide succinct factual allegations supporting each claim. Plaintiff should consider identifying each claim by an underscored "header," and conveying the factual allegations supporting each claim under that specific header.

Next, the undersigned will identify some more specific issues. These issues necessarily impact any first amended ...

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