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Stevens v. Nkwo-Okere

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

August 27, 2013

FRANCINE STEVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANTHONY NKWO-OKERE; MARLA JOHANNING; JOANNE HUE; ARLEEN ROZUL; RACHEL FIGHTMASTER, Defendants.

ORDER (1) GRANTING COUNTY DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS AND (2) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO STAY [Re: Docket No. 8, 24]

HOWARD R. LLOYD, Magistrate Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Francine Stevens filed this civil rights action arising from ongoing state court child-dependency proceedings involving her children. Although plaintiff's complaint lists a litany of statutes, [1] the only ostensible basis for her claims as to the named defendants is 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendant Anthony Nkwo-Okere is a social worker for the County of Santa Clara (County). Defendant Marla Johanning is Nkwo-Okere's supervisor. Defendants Arleen Rozul and Joanne Hue are Deputy County Counsel.

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), these defendants move to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that this lawsuit is barred by the Younger[2] abstention doctrine. Alternatively, they contend that plaintiff's claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman[3] doctrine. Over a week after the August 5 filing deadline, Stevens filed an opposition and motion for an "order of stay." Although Stevens is representing herself, that does not excuse her from making timely filings, and she is warned against future non-compliance with rules that all litigants are obliged to follow. The court nevertheless has considered all of the papers, including plaintiff's tardy submission, and the arguments presented at oral argument. For the reasons discussed below, defendants' motion to dismiss is granted.[4]

LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the claims in the complaint. Navarro v. Block , 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). Dismissal is appropriate where there is no cognizable legal theory or an absence of sufficient facts alleged to support a cognizable legal theory. Id . (citing Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't , 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990)). In such a motion, all material allegations in the complaint must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the claimant. Id . However, "[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). Moreover, "the court is not required to accept legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations if those conclusions cannot reasonably be drawn from the facts alleged." Clegg v. Cult Awareness Network , 18 F.3d 752, 754-55 (9th Cir. 1994).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." This means that the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (citations omitted) However, only plausible claims for relief will survive a motion to dismiss. Iqbal , 129 S.Ct. at 1950. A claim is plausible if its factual content permits the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Id . A plaintiff does not have to provide detailed facts, but the pleading must include "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id. at 1949.

Documents appended to the complaint or which properly are the subject of judicial notice may be considered along with the complaint when deciding a Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) motion. See Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc. , 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir. 1990); MGIC Indem. Corp. v. Weisman , 803 F.2d 500, 504 (9th Cir. 1986).

DISCUSSION

In her opposition papers, Stevens requests that this action be stayed. She apparently bases that request upon the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which governs civil actions against the United States for tortious conduct by a federal employee. As noted above, there is absolutely no basis for application of the FTCA in this action. Plaintiff's request for a stay is denied.

The complaint is not the model of clarity. It makes no allegations as to Johanning, Rozul, or Hue. As for Nkwo-Okere, plaintiff claims that he made false allegations against her that interfered with, and created delays in, the process of reunification with her children. The County defendants contend that the instant lawsuit is barred by the Younger abstention doctrine. This court agrees.[5]

"The Supreme Court in Younger espouse[d] a strong federal policy against federal-court interference with pending state judicial proceedings.'" H.C. ex rel Gordon v. Koppel , 203 F.3d 610, 613 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting Middlesex Cnty Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n , 457 U.S. 423, 431, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982)). "Absent extraordinary circumstances, Younger abstention is required if the state proceedings are (1) ongoing,

(2) implicate important state interests, and (3) provide the plaintiff an adequate opportunity to litigate federal claims.'" Id . (quoting San Remo Hotel v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco , 145 F.3d 1095, 1103 (9th Cir. 1998)). "When the case is one in which the Younger doctrine applies, the case must be dismissed." Id . (citing Delta Dental Plan of Cal., Inc. v. Mendoza , 139 F.3d 1289, 1294 (9th Cir. 1998)).

All three requirements are satisfied here. The state proceedings are ongoing. This court is told that although the juvenile court proceedings have ended, plaintiff's appeal is pending in the state courts.

Additionally, important state interests are implicated. "Family relations are a traditional area of state concern.'" H.C. ex rel Gordon , 203 F.3d at 613 (quoting Moore v. Sims , 442 U.S. 415, 435, 99 S.Ct. 2371, 60 L.Ed.2d 994 (1979)). "In addition, a state has a vital interest in protecting the authority of the judicial system, so that its orders and judgments are not rendered nugatory.'" Id . (quoting Juidice v. Vail , 430 U.S. 327, 336 n. 12, 97 S.Ct. 1211, 51 L.Ed.2d 376 (1977)). "This is a particularly appropriate admonition in the field of domestic relations, over which federal courts have no general jurisdiction and in which the state courts have a special expertise and experience." Id . ( Ankenbrandt v. Richards , 504 U.S. 689, 697-701, 112 S.Ct. 2206, 119 L.Ed.2d 468 (1992) and Hisquierdo v. Hisquierdo , 439 U.S. 572, 581, 99 S.Ct. 802, 59 L.Ed.2d 1 (1979)).

Moreover, plaintiff has an adequate state forum in which to pursue her due process concerns. Defendants point out that Stevens had the ability to present issues about the alleged false statements with the state courts and to move to set aside the juvenile court's orders (Cal. Welfare & Inst. Code § 388). And, they point out that she may appeal through the state courts after final judgment (Cal. Welfare & Inst. Code § 395). The complaint itself indicates that plaintiff has already pursued at least one state court action to correct the alleged inequities caused by Nkwo-Okere's purported misrepresentations. And, as discussed above, plaintiff says that she is pursuing an appeal of the juvenile court's decisions.

Accordingly, the court concludes that Younger abstention is appropriate here. The County defendants' motion to dismiss is granted.

SO ORDERED.


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