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Preston Hill v. the City of Clovis

March 8, 2012

PRESTON HILL,
PLAINTIFF ,
v.
THE CITY OF CLOVIS, MARK BRADFORD (BADGE #5465) INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN OFFICER OF THE
CLOVIS POLICE DEPARTMENT, THE COUNT OF FRESNO, ELIZABETH EGAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY, AND ELANA ARON SMITH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY,
DEFENDANTS.



ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS (Doc. Nos. 32, 34)

This case stems from the investigation and prosecution of Preston Hill ("Hill") by Clovis Police Officer Mark Bradford ("Bradford"), Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan ("Egan"), and Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Elana Smith ("Smith"). Hill brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under California law for malicious prosecution. The operative complaint is the First Amended Complaint ("FAC"), which was filed following this Court's ruling on a Rule12(b)(6) motion. Bradford and the City of Clovis (collectively "City Defendants") and Egan, Smith, and the County of Fresno (collectively "County Defendants") have filed separate Rule 12(b)(6) motions. For the reasons that follow, the motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND *fn1

From the FAC, in July 2010, Hill was a minor, a student, and a member of the wrestling team at Buchanan High School. See FAC ¶ 13. At some point in 2010, Hill wrestled fellow Buchanan High School student and wrestling teammate Ross Rice at a scrimmage. See id. On July 15, 2010, Bradford extensively questioned Hill about an allegation made by Rice that Hill had assaulted Rice. See id. Specifically, Rice alleged that Hill had penetrated Rice's anus with two fingers while they wrestled at the scrimmage. See id. Hill was completely cooperative with Bradford and maintained his absolute innocence. See id.

Shortly after Bradford's interview of Hill, the "individual Defendants" (Bradford, Smith, and Egan), learned that Buchanan High School was considering expelling Hill because of the Rice incident. See id. at ¶ 15. The individual Defendants were aware that there was no probable cause to charge/convict Hill, so they decided to use the expulsion proceedings as a "second best" punishment. See id. at ¶¶ 14, 16. In order to try and get Hill expelled, the Defendants intentionally prejudiced the expulsion proceedings against Hill, despite Hill's Fourteenth Amendment right to an impartial adjudicator. See id. at ¶¶ 17-20.

In order to prejudice the expulsion proceedings, the "individual Defendants" delivered Bradford's police report to Buchanan Administrators. See id. at ¶ 26. Bradford's report ignored and omitted significant exculpatory information, contained knowingly false and misleading predeterminations, and was not written in good faith. See id. at ¶¶ 21-26.

Despite knowing that Bradford's report was based on malicious predeterminations and the omission and misrepresentation of key information and facts, Egan and Smith relied on the report to justify an unsupported prosecution of Hill. See id. at ¶¶ 28, 29. On August 25, 2010, Hill (while still a minor) was charged with the crime of sexual battery by restraint in a Juvenile Wardship Petition in the Fresno County Superior Court (hereinafter "the Juvenile Action"). See id. at ¶ 33. At Bradford's request, the juvenile petition was signed by Smith and also listed Egan as a party to the petition. See id. The Juvenile Action was instituted by the individual Defendants, and was filed in order to prejudice the expulsion proceedings and without probable cause. See id. at ¶¶ 28, 32-34. The juvenile petition also omitted exculpatory information. See id. at ¶ 31. The individual Defendants informed Buchanan Administrators of the pendency of the Juvenile Action in order to prejudice the expulsion proceedings. See id. at ¶ 34.

On January 6, 2011, Smith issued a subpoena that requested Buchanan High School records of complaints against Hill between January and July 2010, and records regarding wrestling team hazing activities in which Hill or his brother (Spencer Hill) were involved. See id. at ¶ 37. Smith had no probable cause to issue the subpoena. See id. at ¶ 38. Further, Egan and Smith sought out and investigated witnesses beyond those interviewed by Bradford, including Rice's father. See id. at ¶ 39. The interviews and subpoena were done in order to prejudice the expulsion proceeding by creating a false light of Hill's guilt and convincing Buchanan Administrators that they should expel Hill. See id. at ¶ 40.

The individual Defendants omitted exculpatory information and regularly communicated false and misleading information to Buchanan Administrators, including Athletic Director Chris Hansen, Principal Ricci Ulrich, and administrators Denver Stairs and David Cohen. See id. at ¶¶ 30, 41, 43, 47.

On January 13, 2011, Buchanan Administrators held the expulsion hearing. See Doc. No. 32-3 Ex. A. *fn2 The hearing lasted 11 hours, and Hill was represented by counsel, who was able to examine witnesses and present evidence. See id. After 45 minutes of deliberation, the expulsion panel found that Hill had violated Penal Code § 243.4 (sexual battery by restraint) and various sections of the Education Code. See id. The expulsion tribunal expelled Hill for the remainder of the year. See id. Since Hill was a senior, there was no opportunity for reinstatement. See id.

On January 27, 2011, see Doc. No. 36-1 at 17 n.2, the Juvenile Action terminated. Because no probable cause supported the criminal charges, the Juvenile Action against Hill was subsequently withdrawn and terminated entirely in Hill's favor. See FAC at ¶ 44.

Hill alleges that the Defendants' conduct violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process. See id. at ¶¶ 19, 20, 47.

RULE 12(b)(6) FRAMEWORK

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) , a claim may be dismissed because of the plaintiff's "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) . A dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or on the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory. Johnson v. Riverside Healthcare Sys., 534 F.3d 1116, 1121 (9th Cir. 2008); Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). In reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Marceau v. Blackfeet Hous. Auth., 540 F.3d 916, 919 (9th Cir. 2008); Vignolo v. Miller, 120 F.3d 1075, 1077 (9th Cir. 1999). However, the Court is not required "to accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences." In re Gilead Scis. Sec. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1056-57 (9th Cir. 2008); Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001). To "avoid a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009); see Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

The Ninth Circuit has distilled the following principles from Iqbal and Twombly

First, to be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint or counterclaim may not simply recite the elements of a cause of action, but must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively. Second, the factual allegations that are taken as true must plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief, such that it is not unfair to require the opposing party to be subjected to the expense of discovery and continued litigation.

Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011). In deciding whether to dismiss a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court is generally limited to reviewing only the complaint, but it may take judicial notice of public records outside the pleadings, review materials which are properly submitted as part of the complaint, and review documents that are incorporated by reference in the Complaint if no party questions their authenticity. See Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005); Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001). If a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is granted, "[the] district court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts." Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). That is, leave to amend need not be granted where amendment would be futile. Gompper v. VISX, Inc., 298 F.3d 893, 898 (9th Cir. 2002).

I. CITY DEFENDANTS' MOTION

1. 1st Cause of Action - 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Defendants' Arguments

Bradford argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity for Hill's § 1983 claims. First, the FAC does not show that Bradford violated a clearly established constitutional right. There are no cases that indicate a person has the right to attend the high school of his choice, nor are there cases that indicate a criminal matter that is subsequently voluntarily dismissed by the government violates any constitutional rights. Further, the FAC does not cite any due process right that Hill has under any source of law that was actually violated. While the FAC makes vague allegations that the juvenile petition prejudiced the expulsion proceedings, the judicially noticed documents show that Hill had ample opportunity to introduce favorable evidence and cross-examine witnesses. Second, Bradford's conduct was objectively reasonable. Bradford investigated allegations of sexual battery, decided that there was probable cause to file a criminal complaint, and forwarded his recommendations in good faith to the district attorney. Any communications that occurred between Bradford and the Buchanan Administrators was made in furtherance of the investigation and in Bradford's capacity as a Clovis police officer. Bradford's recitation of his investigative findings to either the administrators or at the expulsion hearing was not a deprivation of Hill's Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Plaintiff's Opposition

Hill argues that dismissal is not appropriate. First, the FAC identifies a protected property interest in a public education. This interest, which is provided by California law, receives Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process protection. That there may have been an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence does not matter because the panel was improperly biased through false and misleading information. Also, even though police officers have a defense of good faith and probable cause in § 1983 actions, that defense is not applicable here. Bradford wrote his report based on false predeterminations and despite a litany of exculpatory evidence, and he did so as part of a scheme to prejudice the expulsion proceeding. Bradford was aware of the falsity of his report and of the predeterminations, yet he provided the report to Buchanan Administrators. Bradford also made communications in behind the scenes discussions and at the expulsion hearing. Bradford did not have probable cause against Hill, and his conduct violated a clearly established right.

Legal Standards

1. Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity protects "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 (1982); Phillips v. Hust, 477 F.3d 1070, 1079 (9th Cir. 2007); Brittain v. Hansen, 451 F.3d 982, 987 (9th Cir. 2006). The "concern of the immunity inquiry is to acknowledge that reasonable mistakes can be made," and that it is "often difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine will apply to the factual situation that he faces." Estate of Ford v. Ramirez-Palmer, 301 F.3d 1043, 1049 (9th Cir. 2002).

A court employs a tiered analysis for determining qualified immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-02 (2001); Skoog v. County of Clackamas, 469 F.3d 1221, 1229 (9th Cir. 2006); Brittain, 451 F.3d at 987. However, lower courts need not strictly follow the tiered sequence in analyzing qualified immunity, but instead may dispose of the issue at step two without addressing step one. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 241 (2009); Moss v. United States Secret Service, 572 F.3d 962, 968 n.5 (9th Cir. 2009). Under the first step, the court determines whether, "taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?" Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; Phillips, 477 F.3d at 1079; Skoog, 469 F.3d at 1229. The first step is a question of fact. Dunn v. Castro, 621 F.3d 1196, 1199 (9t h Cir. 2010); Tortu v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep't, 556 F.3d 1075, 1085 (9th Cir. 2009). If the answer is "no," then the inquiry ends and the plaintiff cannot prevail; if the answer is "yes," the court continues the analysis. See Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 471 (9th Cir. 2007); Johnson v. County of L.A., 340 F.3d 787, 793-94 (9th Cir. 2003).

Under the second step, the court determines "whether the right was clearly established," and applies an "objective but fact-specific inquiry." Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705, 712 (9th Cir. 2007); see Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202; Brittain, 451 F.3d at 988. The second step is a question of law. See Dunn, 621 F.3d at 1199; Tortu, 556 F.3d at 1085. The critical question is whether "the contours of the right were sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates the right." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202; Phillips, 477 F.3d at 1079. Whether a right is clearly established must be "undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; Skoog, 469 F.3d at 1229-30. In making this determination, the court considers the state of the law at the time of the alleged violation, but it is unnecessary for the precise conduct in question to have been previously held unlawful. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987); Inouye, 504 F.3d at 712. Further, the court considers the "information possessed" by the officer at the time of his conduct. See Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991); Anderson, 483 U.S. at 641; Edgerly v. City & County of San Francisco, 495 F.3d 645, 654 (9th Cir. 2007). If the officer could have reasonably, but mistakenly, believed that his conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right, then the officer will receive qualified immunity. See Saucier, 533 U.S. at 205-06; Skoog, 469 F.3d at 1229; Johnson, 340 F.3d at 794; Jackson v. City of Bremerton, 268 F.3d 646, 651 (9th Cir. 2001). As a wholly objective inquiry, see Brittain, 451 F.3d at 988, the "'subjective beliefs' of the actual officer are . . .irrelevant." Inouye, 504 F.3d at 712; see Anderson, 483 U.S. at 641. Thus, qualified immunity applies "if 'a reasonable officer could have believed [the action] to be lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the . . . officer[] possessed.'" Lawrence v. United States, 340 F.3d 952, 956-57 (9th Cir. 2003); see also Hunter, 502 U.S. at 227.

2. Right To Public Education

It has been recognized that there is no federal constitutional right to a public education. See Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 221 (1982); San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 35 (1973); Smith v. Senigman Unified Sch. Dist., 664 F.Supp.2d 1070, 1074 (D. Ariz. 2009). However, it is possible for state law to provide a protected property interest in a public education and for such a property interest to receive Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process protection. See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 574 (1975); Krainski v. State ex rel. Bd. of Regents, 616 F.3d 963, 970-71 (9th Cir. 2010). In California, obtaining an education at a public high school is a property interest that receives Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process protection. See Coplin v. Conejo Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 903 F.Supp. 1377, 1381 (C.D. Cal. 1995); Swany v. San Ramon Valley Unified School Dist., 720 F.Supp. 764, 773 (N.D. Cal. 1989); Montoya v. Sanger Unified School Dist., 502 F.Supp. 209, 213 (E.D. Cal. 1980); Butt v. California, 4 Cal.4th 668, 683, 685-86 (1992); T.H. v. San Diego Unified School Dist., 122 Cal.App.4th 1267, 1286-87 (2004); Granowitz v. Redlands Unified School Dist., 105 Cal.App.4th 349, 354-56 (2003).

Among the protections afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment is that of an impartial adjudicator. See Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975); Heyne v. Metro. Nashville Pub. Schs, 655 F.3d 556, 566-69 (6th Cir. 2011); Newsome v. Batavia Local Sch. Dist., 842 F.2d 920, 926 (6th Cir. 1988); Brewer by Dreyfus v. Austin Indep. Sch. Dist., 779 F.2d 260, 264 (5th Cir. 1985); Gonzales v. McEuen, 435 F.Supp. 460, 464 (C.D. Cal. 1977). However, the impartiality required does not equate to the criminal justice system's requirement of absolute neutrality. See Jennings v. Wentzville R-IV Sch. Dist., 397 F.3d 1118, 1124-25 (8th Cir. 2005); Riggan v. Midland Indep. Sch. Dist., 86 F.Supp.2d 647, 656 (W.D. Tex. 2000). "[D]ue process is not necessarily violated when the school official who initiates, investigates, or prosecutes charges against a student plays a role in the decision to suspend the student." Heyne, 655 F.3d 568 (citing Lamb v. Panhandle Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 2, 826 F.2d 526, 529-30 (7th Cir. 1987); Brewer, 779 F.2d at 264); see also Jennings, 397 F.3d at 1124-25. The impartiality of the adjudicator is presumed, and it is the student's burden to show bias. See Withrow, 421 U.S. at 47; Jennings, 397 F.3d at 1124; Kenneally v. Lungren, 967 F.2d 329, 333 (9th Cir. 1992); Gorman v. University of Rhode Island, 837 F.2d 7, 15 (1st Cir. 1988). A violation of the due process requirement of an impartial adjudicator may be shown by evidence that the adjudicator is actually biased, has a personal animus against a student, is otherwise unable to function fairly as a trier of fact, or the nature of his involvement in the case precludes impartiality. See Heyne, 655 F.3d at 566-69; Newsome, 842 F.2d at 927 & n.5; Lamb, 826 F.2d at 530; Brewer, 779 F.2d at 264; Murray v. W. Baton Rouge Parish Sch. Bd., 472 F.2d 438, 443 (5th Cir. 1973); Riggan, 86 F.Supp.2d at 656-57; Gonzales, 435 F.Supp. at 464-65.

Discussion Hill's first cause of action is somewhat ambiguous. The action is a § 1983 claim whose caption identifies Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process and malicious prosecution. It appears to the Court that there are two theories alleged under this cause of action. First, the FAC alleges that the Defendants violated a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process right. Second, the FAC alleges the elements of a malicious prosecution claim based on the institution of the Juvenile Action. Because the FAC fairly includes two theories of § 1983 liability, the Court will discuss each theory in its analysis. Cf. Awabdy v. City of Adelanto, 368 F.3d 1062, 1070-72 (9th Cir. 2004) (holding that the district court erroneously overlooked allegations of direct constitutional violations, and also holding that a plaintiff may bring separate § 1983 claims for both malicious prosecution and a direct constitutional violation).

a. Malicious Prosecution

A claim for malicious prosecution under § 1983 consists of allegations that: (1) the defendant prosecuted or caused to be prosecuted the plaintiff; (2) no probable cause existed for the prosecution; (3) the defendant acted with malice; (3) the defendant intended to deprive the plaintiff of a constitutionally protected right; and (4) the prosecution terminated in favor of the plaintiff. See Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066-68; see also Westwood v. City of Hermiston, 787 F.Supp.2d 1174, 1205 (D. Or. 2011). Here, the FAC alleges that: the Juvenile Action was initiated out of malice and a desire to cause expulsion, Bradford intended to deprive Hill of his Fourteenth Amendment right to an impartial adjudicator, the juvenile proceeding terminated in Hill's favor, and no probable cause existed for the juvenile prosecution. See FAC ¶¶ 16, 17, 32, 34, 44, 48. These allegations are sufficient to allege a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim. See Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066-68; Westwood, 787 F.Supp.2d at 1205.

Bradford argues that the defense of probable cause applies to this case. The existence of probable cause is an absolute defense to a malicious prosecution claim. *fn3 See Lassiter v. City of Bremerton, 556 F.3d 1049, 1054-55 (9th Cir. 2009). However, the FAC expressly alleges that there was no probable cause for concluding that Hill committed sexual battery. See FAC at ¶¶ 16, 34, 44. This allegation is further supported by an explanation of some of the exculpatory information that was ignored by Bradford and omitted from his report. See id. at ¶ 23. The FAC does not disclose the presence of probable cause, and, given how the Court views allegations under a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, see Marceau, 540 F.3d at 919, there is no basis for the Court to conclude that Bradford had probable cause. Accordingly, dismissal of the malicious prosecution claim on the basis of probable cause is improper at this time.

Bradford also contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Bradford's conduct occurred between July 2010 and January 2011. However, the cause of action for § 1983 malicious prosecution was well established prior to 2010. See Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066; Freeman v. City of Santa Ana, 68 F.3d 1180, 1189 (9th Cir. 1995). It would have been apparent to a reasonable officer that obtaining an indictment in the absence of probable cause, and on the basis of a false and misleading report that omitted exculpatory information, was a violation of the law. Ovasapyan v. Frank, 405 Fed. Appx. 256, 258 (9th Cir. 2010) ("It is clear to a reasonable officer that omitting material, exculpatory information from reports submitted to a district . . . constitutes unlawful conduct."); Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066-68. Accordingly, qualified immunity on this claim is not appropriate at this time. *fn4 See Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202; Ovasapyan, 405 Fed. Appx. at 258; Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066-68; Lawrence, 340 F.3d at 956-57.

In sum, dismissal of Hill's malicious prosecution claim ...


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