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Sabrina Smith, et al v. County of San Diego

February 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge


Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint ("FAC"). (MTD, ECF No. 18) Also before the Court are Plaintiffs' opposition (Opp'n, ECF No. 20) and Defendants' reply to that response (Reply, ECF No. 21). For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES Defendants' motion.


Plaintiffs Verna Clark and Sabrina Smith are the mother, as heir, and the sister, as administrator ad litem, of Decedent Tommy Christopher Tucker. Decedent was incarcerated in the San Diego County Central Jail on January 13, 2009. Decedent was obese, had a history of psychiatric problems including "psychotic disorder, schizophrenia[,] and paranoia," as well as chronic asthma and a seizure disorder. Decedent was legally blind and hard of hearing. Decedent was seen by San Diego County Sheriff's Department Medical Services on at least three occasions, with no indication of his condition improving. Following the most recent examination on February 13, 2009, Decedent was scheduled to be transferred to an inpatient facility. This transfer was cancelled on February 19, 2009. Decedent also had an unknown number of seizures during his incarceration, and following one episode where he struck his head falling from the top bunk, he was taken to the University of California, San Diego Medical Center ("UCSD hospital") for treatment.

On February 22, 2009, a "lock down" was ordered in Decedent's cell block. When Decedent disobeyed instructions and got a cup of water from the water fountain, he was again ordered to his cell. Decedent then threw the cup of water at a deputy, whereupon he was met by multiple deputies, sprayed with Oleoresin Capsicum ("OC") spray, forcibly held face down on the ground, rear cuffed, had a spit sock put over his head, and was subjected to "an illegal carotid artery restraint and choke by one or more deputies that asphyxiated Decedent and killed him." Decedent pled with Defendant deputies that he couldn't breathe. Once Decedent had been restrained, he was rolled over onto his back whereupon Defendant deputies noted Decedent to be unresponsive and cyanotic.

Emergency medical technicians ("EMTs") were called, and noted a bright red froth coming from Decedent's mouth. The EMTs asked the Defendant deputies whether the Decedent had suffered any trauma, and were advised that he had not. The EMTs could not place an endotracheal tube in Decedent's throat because it had been crushed. Decedent "also suffered numerous broken ribs and lacerations about his body." Decedent was taken to UCSD hospital by ambulance, but the Jail had not alerted the hospital that Decedent was on his way. The senior resident at UCSD hospital also noted a red froth coming from Decedent's mouth and inquired numerous times of Defendant deputies whether Decedent had suffered any trauma. "[A]ll deputies denied multiple times that the Decedent received any trauma."

Decedent did not recover from these injuries and was pronounced brain dead on February 25, 2009 after an MRI confirmed massive brain injury from anoxia. The Medical Examiner's report based on the autopsy of Decedent concluded that the cause of death was "homicide. . . due to police restraint efforts including pepper spray and carotid restraint."

Plaintiffs now bring this suit alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' "failure to provide Decedent with mental health care beyond giving him pills and/or the failure to transfer him to a facility designed for persons such as Decedent . . . posed a great threat for serious harm to Decedent, rising to the level of deliberate indifference for Decedent's safety." (Id. at 9) Plaintiffs also allege Defendants caused Decedent's death, violating his First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Id. at 14)


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a party to raise by motion the defense that the complaint "fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted," generally referred to as a motion to dismiss. The Court evaluates whether a complaint states a cognizable legal theory and sufficient facts in light of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a), which requires a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Although Rule 8 "does not require 'detailed factual allegations,' . . . it [does] demand[] more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 US 662 , 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In other words, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). "Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

"To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pled "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). That is not to say that the claim must be probable, but there must be "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. Facts "'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability" fall short of a plausible entitlement to relief. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Further, the Court need not accept as true "legal conclusions" contained in the complaint. Id. This review requires context-specific analysis involving the Court's "judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 1950 (citation omitted). "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not 'show[n]'-'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. Moreover, "for a complaint to be dismissed because the allegations give rise to an affirmative defense[,] the defense clearly must appear on the face of the pleading." McCalden v. Ca. Library Ass'n, 955 F.2d 1214, 1219 (9th Cir. 1990).


Defendants challenge Plaintiff Sabrina Smith's standing to sue as Decedent's legal heir, Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claims as personal to Decedent, and Plaintiffs' allegations of inadequate medical care under the Eighth Amendment for failure to state a cognizable claim. (MTD 3--4) ...

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