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C.B., A Minor v. Sonora School District; Karen Sinclair; City of Sonora; Chief of Police Mace Mcintosh

September 30, 2011

C.B., A MINOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SONORA SCHOOL DISTRICT; KAREN SINCLAIR; CITY OF SONORA; CHIEF OF POLICE MACE MCINTOSH; OFFICER HAL PROCK; DOES 1-10,
DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oliver W. Wanger United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION RE DEFENDANTS‟ MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW AND MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL AND REMITTITUR (DOCS. 177, 178).

I.INTRODUCTION

Before the court are Defendants City of Sonora, Chief Mace McIntosh and Officer Hal Prock‟s (collectively, "Defendants"),

(1) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (Defs. Mot. JMOL, ECF No. 177) and (2) Motion for New Trial and Remittitur (Defs. Mot. NT, ECF No. 178). Plaintiff C.B., a minor, ("Plaintiff") opposes both motions. (Pl. Opp‟n JMOL, ECF No. 186; Pl. Opp‟n NT, ECF No. 188.)

II.FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This civil rights action arises from Officers McIntosh and Prock‟s (together, "Defendant Officers") September 29, 2008 arrest of Plaintiff, then an eleven year old student, at Sonora Elementary School. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Compl., ECF No. 2) and an Amended Complaint (Am. Compl., ECF No. 54) alleging:

(1) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act; (2) false imprisonment; (3) battery; (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (5) violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; (6) violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and (7) civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 pursuant to the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff settled his claims against Defendants Sonora School District ("School District") and Karen Sinclair on November 6, 2009. (Pet. Approval of Compr., ECF No. 48.)

The case was tried before a jury beginning on August 23, 2011. On August 31, 2011, the jury reached a verdict, which the court determined was inconsistent. An error in instructions on answering a question on the jury verdict form was discovered and corrected. The court answered the jury‟s questions and gave supplemental instructions and explanations.

On September 1, 2011, the jury reached the following verdicts: (1) Defendants violated Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment right not to have excessive force used against him, and this violation caused harm or damage to Plaintiff; (2) Defendants violated Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment rights by taking him into temporary custody and removing him from school, and this violation caused harm or damage to Plaintiff; (3) the City of Sonora has a long standing practice or custom that caused its police officers to use excessive force against juveniles; (4) Defendant Officers intentionally caused Plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress, and this caused harm or damage to Plaintiff; (5) Defendant Officers did not have a legal right to take Plaintiff into temporary custody and to use reasonable force to effectuate and continue that custody; (6) Defendant Officers wrongfully took Plaintiff into temporary custody and/or wrongfully retained him in custody, and this caused harm or damage to Plaintiff; (7) Defendant Officers did not have probable cause to take Plaintiff into temporary custody and/or continue to hold him in temporary custody; and (8) Defendant Officers acted with malice, oppression, or reckless disregard of Plaintiffs‟ rights. (Verdict, ECF No. 174.) The jury awarded Plaintiff the following damages against Defendants:

CLAIM OFFICER MCINTOCH OFFICER PROCK CITY OF SONORA

4th Amend. Excessive Force $15,000 $5,000 $50,000 4th Amend. Seizure $15,000 $5,000 $50,000 Intentional Infliction Emotional Distress $75,000 $50,000 -- False Arrest $15,000 $5,000 -- Punitive Damages $0 $0 -- TOTAL $120,000 $65,000 $100,000

(Verdict 12-13, 16, ECF No. 174.)

III.MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

Defendants move for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 on all of Plaintiff‟s causes of actions and Defendants‟ affirmative defenses. Plaintiff contends that Defendants‟ motion fails because the "overwhelming weight of the evidence supports the jury verdicts against Defendants . . .." (Pl. Opp‟n JMOL 6, ECF No. 186.)

A.Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 governs motions for judgment as a matter of law in jury trials, and "allows the trial court to remove cases or issues from the jury's consideration "when the facts are sufficiently clear that the law requires a particular result.‟" Weisgram v. Marley Co., 528 U.S. 440, 447-48 (2000) (quoting 9A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 2521 (2d ed. 1995)). Rule 50(a) provides in pertinent part:

If during a trial by jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue, the court may (A) resolve the issue against the party; and (B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1).

"A district court may set aside a jury verdict and grant judgment as a matter of law "only if, under the governing law, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict.‟" Settlegoode v. Portland Pub. Schs. , 362 F.3d 1118, 1122 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Winarto v. Toshiba Am. Elecs. Components, Inc. , 274 F.3d 1276, 1283 (9th Cir. 2001)). "[T]he court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods. Inc. , 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S. Ct. 2097, 147 L. Ed. 2d 105 (2000). "A judgment as a matter of law may be granted only if the evidence, viewed from the perspective most favorable to the non-movant, is so one-sided that the movant is plainly entitled to judgment, for reasonable minds could not differ as to the outcome." Gibson v. City of Cranston , 37 F.3d 731, 735 (1st Cir. 1994).

B.Discussion

1.Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment Claims

a)Unlawful Seizure

Defendants move for judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff‟s unlawful seizure claim on the grounds of qualified immunity. Defendants contend that a reasonable officer in Defendant Officers‟ shoes during the incident would know that they were authorized to take Plaintiff into custody under Welfare and Institutions Code §§ 625 and 601 because Plaintiff was "beyond the control" of his guardian.

Qualified immunity shields government officials "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727 (1982). The qualified immunity inquiry has two prongs: (1) "whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged ... or shown ... make out a violation of a constitutional right," and (2) "whether the right at issue was "clearly established‟ at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct." Wilkinson v. Torres, 610 F.3d 546, 550 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815-816, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009)).

(1)Constitutional Violation

Defendants contend that the "special needs" standard applies to Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful seizure. Traditional Fourth Amendment protections are lowered "when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable cause requirement impracticable." Greene , v. Camreta , 588 F.3d 1011, 1026, 1030 (9th Cir. 2009), vacated in part on other grounds by Camreta v. Greene , 131 S. Ct. 2020, 179 L. Ed. 2d 1118 (2011) (quoting Griffin v. Wisconsin , 483 U.S. 868, 873, 107 S. Ct. 3164, 97 L. Ed. 2d 709 (1987)). Defendants, however, do not specify what "special needs" are present in this case beyond the normal need for law enforcement to respond to a call for services from the school. Drawing all inferences in favor of Plaintiff, as required under this motion for judgment as a matter of law, there is insufficient evidence to satisfy Defendant‟s burden on the threshold question of the applicability of the "special needs" standard.

The Fourth Amendment protects students from unreasonable seizures at school. See, e.g., New Jersey v. T.L.O. , 469 U.S. 325, 333, 105 S. Ct. 733 (1985). A police officer‟s seizure of a student at a school is generally subject to traditional Fourth Amendment analysis when done for traditional law enforcement purposes. See Greene , 588 F.3d at 1026 (holding that the New Jersey v. T.L.O. , 469 U.S. 325, 105 S. Ct. 733 (1985), standard does not apply to seizure of student at school where child was not seized for a "special need" beyond the normal need for law enforcement). To comply with the Fourth Amendment, a warrantless arrest must be supported by probable cause. Krainski v. Nev. ex rel. Bd. of Regents of Nev. Sys. of Higher Educ. , 616 F.3d 963, 969 (9th Cir. 2010). "Probable cause to arrest exists when officers have knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to lead a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person being arrested." United States v. Lopez , 482 F.3d 1067, 1072 (9th Cir. 2007). Probable cause is an objective standard. Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 153-55, 125 S. Ct. 588 (2004). The arresting officer‟s subjective intention is immaterial in judging whether their actions were reasonable for Fourth Amendment purposes. Id .

Jury Instructions No. 14 and 15 properly instructed the jury on the elements of Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment Claim for wrongful seizure. (Jury Instructions 16-17, ECF No. 172.) The jury concluded that Defendants violated Plaintiff‟s Fourth Amendment rights by taking him into temporary custody and removing him from school in handcuffs, and this violation caused harm or damage to Plaintiff. (Verdict 4-5, ECF No. 174.) The evidence presented at trial, viewed in Plaintiff‟s favor, does not warrant setting aside the jury‟s verdict and granting Defendants judgment as a matter of law.

Defendant Officers received a dispatch regarding a call from the elementary school about an out of control juvenile. (Prock Test. 59:13-16, August 23, 2011.) Officer Prock testified that he could not determine based on that dispatch whether he would be justified to handcuff or arrest the juvenile involved. (Prock Test. 60:3-10.) Officer Prock testified that in his experience as a law enforcement officer, dispatches are not always accurate, and the initial step in responding to any dispatch is to arrive at the scene and investigate. (Prock Test. 60:11-17.) Officer Prock first learned that the school had not made any attempt to contact the juvenile‟s parents or guardians. (Prock Test. 61:23-25, 62:1-10.)

When they arrived, Defendant Officers observed that Plaintiff was seated quietly on a bench in the school‟s playground and was not out of control. (Prock Test. 63:17-25, 65:16-18; McIntosh Test. 42:10-18, 47:2-16, August 24, 2011.) Officer Prock testified that the only information he obtained from Coach Sinclair was that Plaintiff was a "runner," but he did not ask her what that meant. (Prock Test. 64:3-7.) Officer Prock did not learn any information about what Plaintiff had been doing prior to his arrival. (Prock Test. 65:12-15.) Chief McIntosh testified that Coach Sinclair told him that Plaintiff was a runner, was out of control, had not taken his medications, and was yelling and cussing. (McIntosh Test. 41:22-42:2, 43:20-44:8.)

Defendant Officers testified that they did not believe Plaintiff was in possession of any weapons, nor was he under the influence of any illegal drugs, nor had he committed any crime that day. (Prock Test. 69:18-23; McIntosh Test. 49:1-15.) Plaintiff did not say a word the entire time Chief McIntosh was with him. (McIntosh Test. 47:2-7.) Prior to handcuffing Plaintiff, Officer Prock did not ask the school staff if they could call a relative to pick up Plaintiff or handle the matter themselves. (Prock Test. 71:20-72:1.) The school had a protocol and plan for responding to disruptive behavior by Plaintiff. It was not followed.

Defendants did not provide sufficient evidence to establish, as a matter of law, that Defendant Officers‟ seizure of Plaintiff was reasonable under traditional Fourth Amendment standards. Defendant Officers did not have a warrant, had no probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, observed no threat to anyone‟s safety, and were not faced with exigent circumstances. Defendant Officers also do not establish the lawfulness of their conduct under the lesser reasonableness standard applicable to "special needs" cases, as discussed below.

(2)Qualified Immunity

Government officials are generally shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Bryan v. MacPherson , 630 F.3d 805, 832 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Even if an officer is mistaken that probable cause to arrest existed, they are nonetheless immune from liability if their mistake is reasonable. Krainski , 616 F.3d at 969.

Defendant Officers contend that they are entitled to qualified immunity because California Welfare and Institutions Code ยงยง625 and 601 authorizes officers to take a juvenile into temporary custody if the juvenile is beyond the control of the guardian, and Defendant Officers acted in reasonable compliance with the law. Defendant Officers also ...


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