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Sean Hoffarth v. County of San Diego; et al

November 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Larry Alan Burns United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Sean Hoffarth accuses the San Diego County Sheriff's Department of ignoring his pleas for medical attention over a two week period in which he repeatedly complained of a painful rash. When a doctor finally saw him, he was diagnosed with a staph infection that, he alleges, had become life threatening and took two weeks to treat.

Hoffarth brings five claims against the County of San Diego: two Monell claims and claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Now pending is the County's motion to dismiss Hoffarth's complaint for failure to properly state those claims.

II. Legal Standard

A rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). In considering such a motion, the Court accepts all allegations of material fact as true and construes them in the light most favorable to Hoffarth. Cedars-Sinai Med. Ctr. v. Nat'l League of Postmasters of U.S., 497 F.3d 972, 975 (9th Cir. 2007). To defeat a 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint's factual allegations needn't be detailed, but they must be sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . ." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). However, "some threshold of plausibility must be crossed at the outset" before a case can go forward. Id. at 558 (internal quotations omitted). 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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. -, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.

While the Court must draw all reasonable inferences in Hoffarth's favor, it need not "necessarily assume the truth of legal conclusions merely because they are cast in the form of factual allegations." Warren v. Fox Family Worldwide, Inc., 328 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotations omitted). In fact, the Court does not need to accept any legal conclusions as true. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. A complaint does not suffice "if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement" (Id. (internal quotations omitted)), nor if it contains a merely formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 555.

III. Discussion

A. The Monell Claims

It is unclear to the Court, and probably unclear to the County, precisely what Hoffarth's Monell claims are. Under the heading "Policy, Custom or Practice Causing Constitutional Violation," Hoffarth alleges in his complaint that the County "maintained a de facto unconstitutional informal and/or formal policy, custom or practice of permitting, ignoring and condoning its agents and police officers to ignore complaints of pain or need for medical attention expressed by arrestees." (Compl. ¶ 20.) Under the heading "Cruel and Unusual Punishment," he alleges essentially the same thing: the County "maintained a de facto unconstitutional informal and/or formal, policy, custom or practice of ignoring the medical risks to detainees who suffer infections" and also "maintained a de facto unconstitutional formal and/or informal policy, custom or practice of ignoring detainees' request for medical care or treatment, even when requested through the proper means." (Compl. ¶ 25.)As far as Hoffarth's complaint goes, then, his first and second causes of action really collapse into one: Hoffarth was injured by the County's policy of indifference to his medical needs, which is itself an Eighth Amendment violation. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976).

Hoffarth's opposition brief muddles this further. In the very beginning, he labels his first claim "Policy, custom, or practice causing Constitutional violations" (which is not really a claim) and his second claim "Violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment" (which is not necessarily a Monell claim). (Dkt. No. 11 at 1.) He then bifurcates the second claim into two, calling his first cause of action "Policy, Custom or Practice Causing a Violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" and his second cause of action "Cruel and Unusual Punishment in Violation of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." (Dkt. No. 11 at 5--6.) To make matters worse, he argues for liability under Monell by alleging that "the legal cause of Mr. Hoffarth's injuries was Defendant's known and constant disregard for the California Code of Regulations (CCR) minimum standards for Local Detention Facilities in regards to inmate requests for medical attention, procedures for dealing with communicable diseases, and procedure for prompt attention and access to inmates with such diseases." (Dkt. No. 11 at 7.) The problem with this, of course, is that Monell liability is simply municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and for liability under § 1983 to attach in the first place there needs to be a constitutional violation. See Dougherty v. City of Covina, 653 F.3d 892, 900 (9th Cir. 2011). The County's alleged disregard for CCR policy, in and of itself, cannot give rise to liability under Monell.

Putting aside Hoffarth's pleadings, which in their imprecision only confuse the Court as to the nature and bases of his Monell claims, Hoffarth essentially brings a single Monell claim: he was injured pursuant to a County policy of deliberate indifference to the medical needs of those in the Sheriff's custody, which is itself a violation of the Eighth Amendment.*fn1

It isn't enough for Hoffarth to allege that the County was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs; a Monell claim requires the allegation (and the proof) that it was the County's policy to be deliberately indifferent to the medical needs of those in the Sheriff's custody. "[I]t is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983." Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978).*fn2

Hoffarth's allegations to this effect, unfortunately, are wholly speculative and cannot withstand the pleading standards set forth in Iqbal. The only reasonable inference that the factual allegations of Hoffarth's complaint allow is that his medical needs were met with deliberate indifference. The allegation that his treatment was the regular, customary treatment afforded to those in County custody is precisely the kind of "naked assertion" that Iqbal holds cannot survive a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. It is no help that Hoffarth points to multiple incidents in which his jailers were allegedly deliberately indifferent to his medical needs; he is still only referencing his own treatment and leaving the Court with nothing other than the "sheer possibility" that the County's policy for treating inmates in need of medical attention violates the Eighth Amendment. Id. Nor is it any help that Hoffarth believes his factual allegations "would raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of express or implicit agreements amongst the Department as to the permitting, ignoring, or condoning this informal and/or formal custom in disregard of Detention Policy and the United States Constitution." (Dkt. No. 11 at 5, 7.) Hoffarth is not entitled to take discovery to ...

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