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Micah Godfrey v. Tony Ross

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


November 30, 2011

MICAH GODFREY,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
TONY ROSS, CITY OF TULELAKE, DAN SILVA, SISKIYOU COUNTY, TRAVIS HALL, TERRY HARRIS, LAURA BELLASALMA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ERIN MARTIN AND ROSS MARKET, DEFENDANTS.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTIONS TO DISMISS AND STRIKE COMPLAINT

Plaintiff Micah Godfrey brought this action against defendants Tony Ross, City of Tulelake (the "City"), Dan Silva, Siskiyou County (the "County"), Travis Hall, Terry Harris, Laura Bellasalma, United States of America, Erin Martin, and Ross Market arising out of defendants' allegedly wrongful violation of plaintiff's Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Presently before the court are the County's motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b), (Docket No. 7), and Ross and the City's joint motion to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b), to strike portions of the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(f), and for a more definitive statement pursuant to Rule 12(e), (Docket No. 17).

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On January 21, 2010, plaintiff alleges that he was shopping at Jock's Market when Martin pulled a gun on him. Plaintiff alleges that Martin was angry at him for not shopping at the grocery store owned by Ross, Martin's step-father, and because plaintiff is bisexual, part Native-American, and bipolar. (Compl. ¶¶ 29, 30.)

On March 11, 2010, plaintiff was arrested at the Lava Beds National Park on gun charges. (Id. ¶ 37.) Plaintiff was subsequently taken to the Tulelake City jail. (Id.)

Plaintiff alleges that while he was held in jail, defendants committed rape, sodomy, sexual assault, assault, and battery against plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 38, 45, 104.) Plaintiff further alleges that Silva zapped him with a Taser at least 15 times, (id. ¶ 41), and repeatedly punched, kicked, and hit him with a baton (Id. ¶ 50). Plaintiff alleges that Ross was motivated to harm him because of plaintiff's prior encounter with Martin, Ross's step-daughter, and because he is bisexual, part Native American, a user of medical marijuana, bipolar, and watches television shows that are adverse to authority figures, and that the other defendants knew of this motivation and "joined in." (Id. ¶ 51.) Plaintiff claims that these actions were in violation of his Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

(Id. ¶¶ 25, 26, 57, 58, 64, 66, 76.)

In December 2010, plaintiff submitted two petitions pursuant to California Government Code section 911.4 to the County of Siskiyou and City of Tulelake, asking to file an untimely Notice of Claims. (Id. ¶ 15; County's Mot. to Dismiss at 6:25-27.) The petitions were denied. (Compl. ¶ 15.) During 2011, pursuant to California Government Code section 946.6, plaintiff filed a petition with the Siskiyou County Superior Court for relief from the government claims notice requirements as to the County and City. (Id. ¶ 17.) The petition was denied. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this case on August 30, 2011, alleging seven claims for relief. The County, City, and Ross are named in the third and fourth claims: a state law tort claim of sexual assault, rape, sodomy, and battery; and a state law tort claim of assault with a deadly weapon and hands and feet. (Id. ¶¶ 86, 92.) Ross is also named in the first claim for violations of the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. ¶ 24.)

III. Discussion

A. Motions to Dismiss

On 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. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972). To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead "only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). This "plausibility standard," however, "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, ------, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009), and "[w]here a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

If a person wishes to bring a cause of action for damages against a public entity or its employee under California law, he or she must first file a claim with that public entity pursuant to the California Tort Claims Act ("CTCA"), Cal. Gov't Code §§ 810-978.8. California courts have reasoned that the purpose of the claim presentment requirements "is not to establish a needless formality, but to permit the public entity to avoid litigation by enabling it to conduct an early investigation and consider the benefits of settling a claim." Alliance Fin. v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 64 Cal. App. 4th 635, 647 (1st Dist. 1998). The timely filing of a claim is an essential element of the cause of action against a public entity. State v. Superior Court, 32 Cal. 4th 1234, 1240-41 (2004); see also Willis v. Reddin, 418 F.2d 702, 704 (9th Cir. 1969). The failure to do so bars the plaintiff from bringing a suit against the public entity, Cal. Gov't Code § 945.4; State, 32 Cal. 4th at 1239, or its employee, Cal. Gov't Code § 950.2.

Under California Government Code section 911.2, a plaintiff must file a claim for money or damages with the relevant public entity within six months of the accrual of the cause of action. Cal. Gov't Code § 911.2. Parties wishing to file a claim after the six month deadline are permitted to petition the public entity for leave to present a late claim under section 911.4. Id. § 911.4. Where a party's application for leave to present a late claim is denied or deemed denied pursuant to section 911.6, the party may petition the court under section 946.6 for relief from the requirements of section 945.4 to present a written claim to the public entity. Id. § 946.6. The petition must be made to a court that would be a competent trial court on the cause of action to which the claim relates. Id. Compliance with section 946.6 is mandatory unless excused on the basis of equitable estoppel. McLaughlin v. Superior Court, 29 Cal. App. 3d 35, 38 (1st Dist. 1972) (holding that defendants were estopped from asserting plaintiff's non-compliance with section 946.6 because defendants misled plaintiff as to the procedural and time requirements of the claims statute).

It is undisputed that plaintiff's causes of action against defendants accrued on March 11, 2010. Under section 911.2, plaintiff was required to file claims with the County and City within six months of March 11, 2010. By filing petitions under section 911.4 in December 2010, (Compl. ¶ 15), plaintiff implicitly admits that he failed to comply with the CTCA's timely filing requirement. Judicial relief pursuant to section 946.6 was plaintiff's only available method of compliance. See Hernandez v. McClanahan, 996 F. Supp. 975, 979 (N.D. Cal. 1998). The state court denied plaintiff's petition to provide him with such relief, and plaintiff failed to appeal the decision. Therefore, plaintiff has failed to adequately plead his state tort claims against the County, the City, and Ross, who as an employee of the City is also covered by the CTCA, see Cal. Gov't Code § 950.2.

Plaintiff argues that the doctrine of equitable tolling should be applied to excuse his untimely filed claims. Under the doctrine of res judicata, the court declines to address such arguments as it would require the court to overrule the state court's determination that the claim was not timely filed. This court must recognize and give effect to valid judgments rendered by other courts in the United States, including state courts. See U.S. Const. Art. IV, § 1; 28 U.S.C. § 1738. Were this court to permit plaintiff's state law tort claims to stand, it would be in direct conflict with the Siskiyou County Superior Court's denial of plaintiff's petition to present untimely claims and would render meaningless the CTCA provisions requiring plaintiffs to petition for leave to file untimely claims against state entities. Plaintiff has provided no justification or case law for why this court should not treat the state court's decision as final under res judicata for his state law claims.*fn1

Plaintiff further argues that he should be allowed to pursue his claims against the County because he substantially complied with the CTCA as the County and City had notice of his claims. (Opp'n to County's Mot. to Dismiss at 6:7-10; Opp'n to Ross & City's Mot. to Dismiss at 8:12-13, 9:1-2.) The courts have stated that the CTCA should not be applied to snare the unwary, and have employed the test of substantial compliance rather than strict compliance in deciding whether a plaintiff has met the requirements of the CTCA. See McMartin v. Cnty. of Los Angeles, 202 Cal. App. 3d 848, 858 (2d Dist. 1988). However, the court is aware of no cases, nor has plaintiff cited cases, that apply the substantial compliance test in the context of a plaintiff's rejected petition for relief from the requirements of section 945.4 pursuant to section 946.6. Rather, the cases that have applied the substantial compliance test appear to deal with whether a flawed or misaddressed claim was sufficient to apprise the public entity of the claim and provide the entity an opportunity to investigate and settle it. See, e.g., Elias v. San Bernadino Cnty. Flood Control Dist., 68 Cal. App. 3d 70, 75 (4th Dist. 1977). Accordingly, the court will grant both the County's and Ross and the City's motions to dismiss the state tort claims.*fn2

B. Motions to Strike

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) enables the court to "strike from a pleading . . . any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f). A motion to strike "should not be granted unless it is clear that the matter to be striken could have no possible bearing on the subject matter of the litigation." Lilley v. Charren, 936 F. Supp. 708, 713 (N.D. Cal. 1996).

1. Punitive Damages

Plaintiff concedes that punitive damages are not allowed against the City because it is a public entity. (Opp'n to Ross & City's Mot. to Dismiss at 14:11-13 (Docket No. 23).) Accordingly, the court will grant the City's motion to strike the request for punitive damages against the City.

2. Section 1983 Liability Predicated on Violations of Criminal Statutes

Ross argues that the court should strike quotations from criminal statutes in the pleadings because they fail to provide a basis for plaintiff's claims under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges that defendants violated his federally protected rights by violating the following federal criminal statutes: 18 U.S.C. § 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law); 18 U.S.C. § 241 (conspiracy against rights); and 18 U.S.C. § 249 (the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act). (Compl. ¶ 59.) Plaintiff appears to be alleging that violations of the federal criminal statutes constitute a cause of action under the Federal Civil Rights Act.

In relevant part, § 1983 provides: Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . , subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1983. While § 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, it provides a cause of action against any person who, under color of state law, deprives an individual of federal constitutional rights or limited federal statutory rights. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393--94 (1989).

The Supreme Court has held that in order to provide a basis for private enforcement under § 1983, a statute must "unambiguously confer" an individually enforceable right. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 283 (2002). ("We now reject the notion that our cases permit anything short of an unambiguously conferred right to support a cause of action brought under § 1983."). "[W]here the text and structure of a statute provide no indication that Congress intends to create new individual rights, there is no basis for a private suit, whether under § 1983 or under an implied right of action." Id. at 286.

Plaintiff cites American Manufacturers Insurance Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40 (1999), and Rosales v. City of Los Angeles, 82 Cal. App. 4th 419 (2d Dist. 2000), to support his contention that claims under § 1983 may be predicated upon violations of federal statutes. (Opp'n to Ross & City's Mot. to Dismiss at 13:3-5.) Neither of those cases, however, addresses whether the three criminal statues that plaintiff relies upon specifically support causes of action under § 1983.

If violations of criminal statutes were permitted as a matter of courst to serve as causes of action under § 1983, plaintiffs would essentially be prosecuting criminal charges within the confines of civil trials. This would present a number of procedural problems for the court, such as the determination of the appropriate standard of proof, whether the defendant would be entitled to representation to contest the criminal charges, and the appropriate number of jurors required to hear a civil case that includes criminal charges.

The Ninth Circuit has held that federal criminal statutes such as § 241 and § 242 do not give rise to a civil cause of action. See Aldabe v. Aldabe, 616 F.2d 1089, 1092 (9th Cir. 1980). Although the absence of a private cause of action was held by the Supreme Court to not be dispositive of whether violation of a federal statute establishes a § 1983 claim, Middlesex Cnty. Sewerage Auth. v. Nat'l Sea Clammers Ass'n, 453 U.S. 1, 13 (1981), the Supreme Court has since clarified that "[a] court's role in discerning whether personal rights exist in the § 1983 context should therefore not differ from its role in discerning whether personal rights exist in the implied right of action context." Gonzaga Univ., 536 U.S. at 287. Thus, plaintiff's claims under § 241 and § 242 are insufficient to establish his § 1983 claim.

Plaintiff has also failed to cite, and the court is unable to locate, any authority supporting his claim that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act confers a cause of action under § 1983. The only penalty for a violation of the statute is a criminal penalty and no reference is made to prosecution by private parties. See 18 U.S.C. § 249. Thus, a reading of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act indicates that the statute's language fails to "unambiguously confer," Gonzaga Univ., 536 U.S. at 283, a private right of action upon individuals to prosecute violations in civil trials.

The Ninth Circuit has not specificallyaddressed whether the Hate Crimes Prevention Act provides a private right of action; however, other courts have held that the Act, as a criminal statute, does not give rise to a private right of action. See, e.g., Benitez v. Rumage, No. C-11-208, 2011 WL 3236199, at *1 (S.D. Tex. July 27, 2011); Wolfe v. Beard, Civil Action No. 10-2566, 2011 WL 601632, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 15, 2011); Lorenz v. Managing Dir., St. Luke's Hosp., No. 09 Civ 8898, 2010 WL 4922267, at *8 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 5, 2010); Lee v. Lewis, No. 2:10-CV-55-F, 2010 WL 5125327, at *2 (E.D.N.C. Oct. 28, 2010). As the language of the statute and supporting caselaw indicate that there is no private right of action, an alleged violation of the Hate Crimes Act cannot constitute a cause of action under § 1983. See Gonzaga Univ., 536 U.S. at 286. Accordingly, the court will grant Ross's motion to strike all references to federal criminal statutes in the pleadings.*fn3

3. Eighth Amendment

The Complaint states that defendants violated plaintiff's Eighth Amendment rights. (Compl. ¶ 75(a).) As plaintiff was not a prisoner, but rather a pre-trial detainee, plaintiff concedes that references to the Eighth Amendment and his status as a "prisoner" are inappropriate and mistaken. (Opp'n to City and Ross's Mot. to Dismiss at 11:25-26.) Accordingly, the court will grant Ross's motion to strike all references to the Eighth Amendment and to plaintiff being a "prisoner."

C. Ross and the City's Motion for a More Definitive Statement*fn4 Under Rule 12(e), "[i]f a pleading . . . is so vague or ambiguous that a party cannot reasonably be required to frame a responsive pleading, the party may move for a more definite statement." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(e). Motions for a more definite statement are generally disfavored, and are rarely granted given the liberal pleading standards of Rule 8(a). Sagan v. Apple Computer, Inc., 874 F. Supp. 1072, 1077 (C.D. Cal. 1994). "Parties are expected to use discovery, not the pleadings, to learn the specifics of the claims being asserted." Id. Therefore, a motion for a more definite statement should not be granted "unless the defendant literally cannot frame a responsive pleading." Bureerong v. Uvawas, 922 F. Supp. 1450, 1461 (C.D. Cal. 1996).

1. Injunctive Relief

Ross argues that plaintiff's request for injunctive does not specify what type of equitable relief plaintiff requests. Plaintiff alleges that "TONY ROSS still hates MICAH GODFREY" and that "Plaintiff will suffer irreparable injury unless injunctive relief is granted." (Compl. ¶ 78.) No further specification of the type of injunctive relief requested is provided in the Complaint.*fn5 This allegation fails to provide defendants with an adequate basis from which to craft a response to plaintiff's request for injunctive relief as the requested injunctive relief could include a variety of different demands. Accordingly, the court will grant Ross's motion for a more definitive statement regarding plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief.

2. Declaratory Relief

Ross argues that plaintiff's request for declaratory relief is vague and fails to alert Ross as to the basis for the claims. Plaintiff requests declaratory relief in the form of a judgment stating that the defendants' conduct constitutes a violation of the Federal Civil Rights Act, 18 U.S.C. § 242, 18 U.S.C. § 243,*fn6 the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the Eighth Amendment. As references to the federal criminal statutes and the Eighth Amendment have already been struck from the Complaint, the only remaining request is that the court declare that defendants violated the Federal Civil Rights Act. This request is sufficiently clear as to provide defendants with an adequate basis from which to craft a response. Accordingly, the court will deny Ross's motion for a more definitive statement regarding plaintiff's request for declaratory relief.

3. Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment Claims Ross contends that plaintiff does not meaningfully differentiate between his Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims. (Ross & City's Mot. to Dismiss at 10:10-25.) The Complaint is not so unintelligible as to demand a more definite statement. Defendants have not demonstrated that they do not understand plaintiff's claims or that they cannot frame a responsive pleading. The Complaint provides adequate basis for defendants to craft a response, and additional details can be obtained through discovery. Accordingly, the court will deny Ross's motion for a more definite statement regarding plaintiff's Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that:

(1) the motions of defendants City of Tulelake, Siskiyou County, and Ross Market to dismiss the state law tort claims (claims three and four) be, and the same hereby are, GRANTED;

(2) the motion of Siskiyou County to strike the state law tort claims (claims three and four) be, and the same hereby is, DENIED as moot;

(3) the motion of the City of Tulelake and Ross Market to strike the request for punitive damages against the City and references to federal criminal statutes and the Eighth Amendment be, and the same hereby is, GRANTED; and

(4) the motion of the City of Tulelake and Ross Market for a more definitive statement be, and the same hereby is, GRANTED as to plaintiff's request for injunctive relief, and DENIED as to plaintiff's request for declaratory relief and plaintiff's Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

Plaintiff has twenty days from the date of this Order to file an amended complaint, if he can do so consistent with this Order.


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