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Cd Alston v. County of Sacramento

July 10, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gregory G. Hollows United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis in this action, which was referred to the undersigned by E.D. Cal. L.R. 302(c)(21), pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Presently pending before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint, which was originally filed on February 23, 2012 and subsequently noticed for hearing on April 19, 2012. (Dkt. Nos. 16, 17.) On March 19, 2012, plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion, and on April 6, 2012, defendants filed a reply brief. (Dkt. Nos. 22, 23.) Subsequently, on April 12, 2012, the motion was submitted on the record without oral argument. (Dkt. No. 24.)

After reviewing the papers in support of and in opposition to defendants' motion, the court's record in this matter, and the applicable law, the court now FINDS AS FOLLOWS:


The background facts are taken from the operative first amended complaint, unless otherwise noted. (See First Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. 8 ["FAC"].)

On September 29, 2010, plaintiff was sitting in her vehicle at the park reading a book when defendant Kossow, a Sacramento County deputy sheriff, blocked in plaintiff's vehicle with her patrol car, approached plaintiff's vehicle, and asked her for identification. (FAC ¶¶ 3, 7, 17.) Plaintiff alleges that Kossow apparently drove by approximately three times and looked at plaintiff for an extended amount of time before approaching plaintiff. (FAC ¶ 45.) After furnishing her identification, plaintiff asked whether she had done something wrong and Kossow told her that she could not hang out at the park. (FAC ¶¶ 3, 18.) Kossow further asked plaintiff about her personal life, legal status, and financial resources, and insisted that plaintiff call her home state of Pennsylvania to inform them of her whereabouts. (FAC ¶¶ 3, 19-20.) According to plaintiff, Kossow then pulled out her phone, called the state of Pennsylvania, and demanded that plaintiff tell Pennsylvania that she was in California. (FAC ¶ 21.) Kossow further asked whether plaintiff was on probation, parole, or whether she had any warrants out for her arrest. (FAC ¶ 22.) When plaintiff inquired as to what law she had supposedly violated, plaintiff was told that she was not allowed to have her feet up on the dashboard in her vehicle. (FAC ¶¶ 23-24.)

At some point, defendant Short, another Sacramento County deputy sheriff, also arrived at the scene. (FAC ¶ 3.) Kossow and Short ran a search of plaintiff's name and license plate, and when plaintiff attempted to exit her vehicle, she was instructed to stay in her car. (FAC ¶ 30.) Kossow and Short later instructed plaintiff to go home or she would be given a ticket. (FAC ¶¶ 3, 25.) Plaintiff claims that she was detained and harassed by the deputy sheriffs for about 45 minutes. (FAC ¶¶ 3, 26.)

Subsequently, Kossow and Short allegedly filed a false report stating that plaintiff was verbally uncooperative and argumentative. (FAC ¶ 27.) In turn, plaintiff filed a complaint against officers Kossow and Short with the Sacramento County Sheriff Department, and she claims that defendants Matt Morgan (a lieutenant in the Sacramento County Sheriff Department Bureau of Professional Standards tasked with investigating complaints against deputy sheriffs) and Scott Jones (the sheriff of the Sacramento County Sheriff Department) refused to investigate her citizen's complaint. (FAC ¶¶ 9, 11, 40-41.) She also alleges that Morgan stated that Kossow and Short acted according to policy and in good faith. (FAC ¶ 57.)

On August 29, 2011, plaintiff filed the instant action for damages primarily alleging liability for constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and for related state law tort claims. (Dkt. No. 1.) Subsequently, on November 14, 2011, the court dismissed plaintiff's original complaint with leave to amend pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. (Dkt. No. 7.) Thereafter, on December 6, 2011, plaintiff filed a first amended complaint. (Dkt. No. 8.) The first amended complaint names Kossow, Short, Scott Jones (the Sacramento County Sheriff), Morgan, the Sacramento County Sheriff Department Bureau of Professional Standards, the Sacramento County Sheriff Department, and the County of Sacramento as defendants.*fn1 On December 13, 2011, the court ordered service with the first amended complaint on all named defendants, except the Sacramento County Sheriff Department Bureau of Professional Standards, which the court held was simply a sub-department within the Sacramento County Sheriff Department. (Dkt. No. 9.)

The instant motion to dismiss followed.


In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court must accept as true the allegations of the complaint in question, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and construe the pleading in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). However, to avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim, a complaint must contain more than "naked assertions," "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007). In other words, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Furthermore, a claim upon which the court can grant relief must have facial plausibility. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "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." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949.

Before turning to an analysis of each individual substantive claim raised by plaintiff, the court first addresses defendants' argument that certain individual and entity defendants should be dismissed from the case.

Defendant Sacramento County Sheriff Department

Defendants correctly argue that defendant Sacramento County Sheriff Department is an improper party to the action, because it is merely a department or subdivision of the local government entity properly named as a party, in this case the County of Sacramento. See Pellum v. Fresno Police Dep't, 2011 WL 350155, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 2, 2011); Vance v. County of Santa Clara, 928 F. Supp. 993, 996 (N.D. Cal. 1996) (noting that the term "persons" for purposes of section 1983 does not encompass municipal departments); Stump v. Gates, 777 F. Supp. 808, 816 (D. Colo. 1991) ("naming a municipal department as a defendant is not an appropriate means of pleading a § 1983 action against a municipality.") To the extent that plaintiff asserts state law claims against the Sacramento County Sheriff Department, it remains true that it is a superfluous party to the litigation, because as a municipal department, it cannot be held liable for damages separate from the County of Sacramento. Therefore, defendant Sacramento County Sheriff Department should be dismissed with prejudice as an improper party.

Defendants Scott Jones and Matt Morgan

Defendant Scott Jones is the sheriff of the Sacramento County Sheriff Department. (FAC ¶ 9.) Defendant Matt Morgan is a lieutenant in the Sacramento County Sheriff Department Bureau of Professional Standards tasked with investigating complaints against deputy sheriffs. (FAC ¶ 11.)

Plaintiff asserts claims for constitutional violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims against these defendants. With respect to the constitutional claims, the Civil Rights Act provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of [state law] . . . 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 . . . 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. The statute requires that there be an actual connection or link between the actions of the defendants and the deprivation alleged to have been suffered by plaintiff. See Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692 (1978); Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976). "A person 'subjects' another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of § 1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in another's affirmative acts or omits to perform an act which he is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made." Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740, 743 (9th Cir. 1978).

Liberally construed, plaintiff's first amended complaint essentially seeks to hold defendants Jones and Morgan liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on theories of supervisory liability for the actions of Kossow and Short, failure to investigate plaintiff's complaint, and conspiracy. However, for the reasons discussed below, the first amended complaint does not cure the deficiencies of the original complaint with respect to these claims as previously outlined in the court's screening order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.

Supervisory Liability

With respect to supervisory liability, the court previously notified plaintiff that supervisory personnel are generally not liable under section 1983 for the actions of their employees under a theory of respondeat superior. Therefore, when a named defendant holds a supervisorial position, the causal link between him and the claimed constitutional violation must be specifically alleged. See Fayle v. Stapley, 607 F.2d 858, 862 (9th Cir. 1979); Mosher v. Saalfeld, 589 F.2d 438, 441 (9th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 941 (1979). Vague and conclusory allegations concerning the involvement of official personnel in civil rights violations are not sufficient. See Ivey v. Board of Regents, 673 F.2d 266, 268 (9th Cir. 1982).

Importantly, supervisors cannot be held liable in their individual capacities unless a causal connection is established between the acts alleged to have breached a constitutional duty and the harm allegedly suffered by plaintiff.

A defendant may be held liable as a supervisor under § 1983 "if there exists either

(1) his or her personal involvement in the constitutional deprivation, or (2) a sufficient causal connection between the supervisor's wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation." Hansen v. Black, 885 F.2d 642, 646 (9th Cir.1989). "[A] plaintiff must show the supervisor breached a duty to plaintiff which was the proximate cause of the injury. The law clearly allows actions against supervisors under section 1983 as long as a sufficient causal connection is present and the plaintiff was deprived under color of law of a federally secured supervisorial." Redman, 942 F.2d at 1447 (internal quotation marks omitted). "The requisite causal connection can be established ... by setting in motion a series of acts by others," id. (alteration in original; internal quotation marks omitted), or by "knowingly refus[ing] to terminate a series of acts by others, which [the supervisor] knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to inflict a constitutional injury," Dubner v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 266 F.3d 959, 968 (9th Cir.2001). "A supervisor can be liable in his individual capacity for his own culpable action or inaction in the training, supervision, or control of his subordinates; for his acquiescence in the constitutional deprivation; or for conduct that showed a reckless or callous indifference to the rights of others." Watkins v. City of Oakland, 145 F.3d 1087, 1093 (9th Cir.1998) (internal alteration and quotation marks omitted).

Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1207-1208 (9th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added); see also Jones v. Williams, 297 F.3d 930, 937 (9th Cir. 2002). In addition, the Ninth Circuit has again emphasized that the pleading of supervisorial liability is subject to the Iqbal standards. Chavez v. United States, No. 10-17659 (9th Cir. June 20, 2012). Thus, there must be facial plausibility in a plaintiff's allegations that some action/inaction on the part of a supervisor caused her alleged constitutional injury.

As an initial matter, there is no indication that Morgan had any supervisory responsibility (beyond the authority to perform an internal investigation, discussed below) for Kossow and Short. Moreover, even assuming for the moment that Kossow and Short violated plaintiff's constitutional rights during the detention, the first amended complaint makes clear that Jones and Morgan were not at the scene and thus did not personally participate in the detention. Indeed, plaintiff alleges that Jones and Morgan only became aware of the incident when she filed a citizen's complaint. Thus, there are no facts suggesting that these defendants ordered the detention, or knew about it but failed to prevent it.

Plaintiff claims that Morgan later stated that Kossow and Short acted according to policy and in good faith. (FAC ¶ 57.) However, plaintiff does not articulate how these general expressions of confidence in the officers' compliance with the law, made after the fact, caused the alleged unreasonable detention. Furthermore, Jones appears to have been named as a defendant solely due to his position as Sacramento County Sheriff. Plaintiff's vague allegations that Jones disseminated unconstitutional policies, endorsed illegal police methods or customs, and "harbors policies that are unconstitutional and destructive to the community" (FAC ¶¶ 9, 54, 60) are entirely conclusory and patently insufficient to state a claim against Jones.

Thus, plaintiff fails to specifically allege any causal link between defendants Jones and Morgan to the alleged constitutional violations by Kossow and Short sufficient to hold these defendants liable under a theory of supervisory liability. Plaintiff was previously advised of the legal requirements to state a claim under a theory of supervisory liability and failed to cure the identified deficiencies upon being granted leave to amend. Moreover, given the lack of connection between these defendants and plaintiff's detention, it seems implausible that the claim could be cured by further ...

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