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Ariel Balthrope v. Sacramento County of Health and Human Services

December 7, 2011



On November 10, 2011, the court held a hearing on defendant Peter Helfer's motion to dismiss and defendants Lisa Thor*fn1 , Rebekah Sass, Robert Wilson and Sacramento Child Advocates' ("SCA") (collectively, "the SCA defendants") motion to dismiss. Plaintiff appeared in pro per. William Krabbenhoft appeared for Peter Helfer. James Kirby appeared for the SCA defendants. Upon consideration of the motions on file in this action, discussion with plaintiff and counsel, and good cause appearing therefor, THE COURT FINDS AS FOLLOWS:


Plaintiff brings suit for violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986, as well as various state laws. Plaintiff alleges that on July 15, 2008, when she was seventeen years old, she was arrested in Sacramento County for violating curfew. Upon arrest, she was held captive by the Department of Health and Human Services ("DHHS"), after which false charges were filed against her father for sexual abuse of a child. During the juvenile dependency proceeding related to the charges filed against her father, plaintiff's court-appointed counsel was allegedly incompetent. Plaintiff was thereafter placed in foster care, her social security money was withheld by DHHS and she was repeatedly prohibited from contacting her father. Plaintiff sues numerous individuals and agencies, including the arresting officers and various social workers. Plaintiff also sues Peter Helfer, the Juvenile Dependency Court Referee, as well as the SCA defendants, her court-appointed counsel during the state juvenile dependency proceedings. Plaintiff seeks a multi-million dollar judgment in sum, including $6,000,000.00 against Helfer and $9,000,000.00 against the SCA defendants.

This action commenced November 8, 2010 and is proceeding on a first amended complaint filed January 18, 2011. On July 14, 2011, Peter Helfer filed a motion to dismiss. On July 18, 2011, the SCA defendants filed a motion to dismiss.*fn2 On October 13, 2011, plaintiff filed oppositions to both motions.


Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures provides for motions to dismiss for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true the allegations of the complaint in question, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 127 S.Ct. 2197 (2007), and construe the pleading in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). In order to survive dismissal for failure to state a claim a complaint must contain more than "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action;" it must contain factual allegations sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554 (2007). However, "[s]pecific facts are not necessary; the statement [of facts] need only 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson, 551 U.S. 89, 127 S.Ct. at 2200 (quoting Bell Atlantic at 554, in turn quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)).


A. Helfer's Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiff alleges Juvenile Dependency Court Referee Peter Helfer abused his judicial discretion, maliciously prosecuted plaintiff's father and made plaintiff a ward of the State without cause. Plaintiff seeks $6,000,000.00 in damages for violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and mental anguish.

Helfer moves to dismiss with prejudice on the following grounds: (1) he is not a 'person' within the meaning of the Civil Rights Act because suit is brought against him in his official capacity; (2) suit against state officials is barred by the Eleventh Amendment; and (3) he has absolute judicial immunity for actions taking during the course of his judicial duties.

It is well settled that judges and those performing judge-like functions are absolutely immune from 42 U.S.C. § 1983 damage liability for acts performed in their judicial capacities,"even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356 (1978). An act is judicial when it is a function normally performed by a judge [and the parties] dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity." Id. A judge is subject to liability only when he or she acts in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. Id.

California Government Code section 71622 authorizes trial courts to appoint subordinate judicial officers, including juvenile court referees. California Welfare and Institutions Code Sections 247.5 through 254 define juvenile court referees' powers and duties: "A referee shall hear such cases as are assigned to him or her by the presiding judge of the juvenile court, with the same powers as a judge of the juvenile court, except that a referee shall not conduct any hearing to which the state or federal constitutional prohibitions against double jeopardy apply unless all of the parties thereto stipulate in writing that the referee may act in the capacity of a temporary judge." Cal. Wel. & Inst. Code § 248. Except for orders removing minors from their homes, which require the express approval of a juvenile court judge (Id. § 249), all orders issued by referees become immediately effective and continue in full force and effect until vacated or modified upon rehearing by order of a juvenile court judge. Id. § 250. Although a party may petition for rehearing of any referee's order by a juvenile court judge, the judge may deny rehearing if the proceedings before the referee were officially transcribed. Id. § 252. This statutory scheme authorizes a juvenile court referee in dependency proceedings to make almost any order (subject to rehearing by a juvenile court judge) which a judge could make. The undersigned therefore finds that a juvenile dependency court referee is a judicial officer or, at the very least, one performing judge-like functions.

In light thereof, Helfer is entitled to absolute immunity because the acts plaintiff complains of were judicial in nature and he was not acting in the absence of all jurisdiction. See Stump, 435 U.S. at 356; see also Guerra v. County of Alameda, 163 F.3d 606, *1 (9th Cir. 1998) (holding that referee in a juvenile dependency proceeding is entitled to absolute immunity). Having determined that ...

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