United States District Court, E.D. California
July 2, 2014
DETLEF KREHER, Plaintiff,
YUBA COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT; COUNTY OF YUBA; THIRD DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA; ALANA ADAMS and DOES 1 to 100, Defendants.
LAWRENCE K. KARLTON, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Detlef Kreher is proceeding through counsel with this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff claims defendants Yuba County Superior Court Clerk Alana Adams, Yuba County Superior Court, County of Yuba (County), and Third District Court of Appeal of the State of California (Third District Court of Appeal) violated his federal constitutional rights to due process and access to the courts. Plaintiff also raises a state law claim.
On May 28, 2014, defendants Yuba County Superior Court, Third District Court of Appeal, and Alana Adams (hereafter "court defendants") filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 5). On June 9, 2014, defendant County filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 6). On June 19, 2014, plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion filed by the court defendants (ECF No. 10). Plaintiff has not filed an opposition to the motion filed by the County. On June 26, 2014, the court defendants filed a reply (ECF No. 12).
The motions are noticed for hearing on July 7, 2014 before the undersigned. Good cause appearing, the motions are taken under submission on the papers and resolved without oral argument. See Local Rule 230(g) (E.D.Cal.)
I. ALLEGATIONS OF THE COMPLAINT
Plaintiff's complaint, filed April 18, 2014 (ECF No. 1), contains the following allegations. On or about January 30, 2009, plaintiff filed a lawsuit in the Yuba County Superior Court seeking money damages arising out of a vehicle collision. Complaint (ECF No. 1) at 3. On January 19, 2011, the Yuba County Superior Court granted a motion for summary judgment against plaintiff and entered judgment. Id . On January 28, 2011, plaintiff timely filed a notice of appeal. Id.
On September 15, 2011, following an unsuccessful appellate mediation, plaintiff timely filed a designation of record in the Yuba County Superior Court. Id . Plaintiff stipulated with the respondent in the state court action "to use the original superior court file under California Rules of Court Rule 8.128." Id. at 3-4. On September 16, 2011, plaintiff's counsel spoke with defendant Alana Adams, "who assured Plaintiff's counsel that the original superior court file would be sent to the Third District Court of Appeal." Id. at 4. Plaintiff paid the fees and costs, but defendant Adams did not include the original superior court file when she sent the record to the Third District Court of Appeal. Id.
On February 7, 2013, after filing the opening brief plaintiff's counsel discovered that defendant Adams had not sent the superior court file to the court of appeal. Id . On February 11, 2013, plaintiff's counsel moved to strike the clerk's transcript and for an order requiring defendant Adams to provide the Third District Court of Appeal with the original superior court file. Id . On February 13, 2013, the respondent in the state court action moved to dismiss the appeal based on an inadequate record and insufficient citations in the opening brief. Id . On February 27, 2013, plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion, noting the February 11, 2013 motion. Id.
On March 7, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal denied plaintiff's February 11, 2013 motion and dismissed the appeal. Id . On March 25, 2013, plaintiff filed a petition for rehearing in the Third District Court of Appeal. Id . Therein, plaintiff argued that the inadequate record was due to defendant Adams' failure to perform her duty to transmit the original file to the court of appeal and that the time to file the opening brief had not commenced under court rules because the record had never actually been filed in the court of appeal. Id. at 5. On March 29, 2013, the Third District Court of Appeal denied the petition for rehearing. Id . Neither defendant Adams nor defendant Yuba County Superior Court ever provided notice to plaintiff or plaintiff's counsel that the record had not been properly sent to the court of appeal. Id.
Defendant Adams failed to transmit the record as specified by plaintiff and required under California Rules of Court 8.128, and she, the Yuba County Superior Court, and the County of Yuba are liable for this failure. Id . They also are liable for defendant Adams' violation of California Rules of Court Rule 8.140(a), which requires the clerk to notify by mail any party who "fails to timely do an act required to procure the record" that it must do the necessary act within fifteen days. Id. at 6. The Third District Court of Appeal violated California Rule of Court 8.140(b) by dismissing the appeal. Id. at 7.
Plaintiff claims the foregoing violated his right to due process and his First Amendment right to access the courts. Plaintiff claims that he "has suffered injury, loss, and damage in that his valid appeal was dismissed" resulting "in the loss of his valid claim for money damages" in the underlying state court action. Id. at 8. Plaintiff also raises a claim against defendant Yuba County Superior Court for negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention. Id. at 9.
Plaintiff seeks general damages, special damages, attorneys' fees, prejudgment interest, and costs. Plaintiff has also demanded a jury trial.
II. STANDARDS FOR A RULE 12(B)(6) MOTION TO DISMISS
A dismissal motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) challenges a complaint's compliance with the federal pleading requirements. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The complaint must give the defendant "fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atlantic v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)).
To meet this requirement, the complaint must be supported by factual allegations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Moreover, this court "must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." Erickson v. Pardus , 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).
"While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, " neither legal conclusions nor conclusory statements are themselves sufficient, and such statements are not entitled to a presumption of truth. Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679. Iqbal and Twombly therefore prescribe a two-step process for evaluation of motions to dismiss. The court first identifies the non-conclusory factual allegations, and then determines whether these allegations, taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679.
"Plausibility, " as it is used in Twombly and Iqbal, does not refer to the likelihood that a pleader will succeed in proving the allegations. Instead, it refers to whether the non-conclusory factual allegations, when assumed to be true, "allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 557). A complaint may fail to show a right to relief either by lacking a cognizable legal theory or by lacking sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't , 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).
As noted above, on June 9, 2014, the County of Yuba filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Plaintiff has not opposed the County's motion. Accordingly, the motion will be granted.
In addition, in his opposition to the court defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff concedes that the Eleventh Amendment bars his claims against the Yuba County Superior Court and the Third District Court of Appeal and agrees to dismissal of those claims. Pls.' Opp. to Defs.' Mot. to Dism. (ECF No. 10) at 1. That will be the order.
Remaining for resolution by the court is the motion to dismiss the two constitutional claims against Alana Adams. Plaintiff sues defendant Adams in her official capacity. See Complaint (ECF No. 1) at 2. Defendants have not asserted Eleventh Amendment immunity as a defense to the claims against defendant Adams and plaintiff asserts that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar those claims. However, "[t]he eleventh amendment is a limitation on federal subject-matter jurisdiction. Even when neither party has raised an objection to a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction, the court has an obligation to consider the issue sua sponte, and to consider it fully." Demery v. Kupperman , 735 F.2d 1139, 1149 n.8 (9th Cir. 1984) (citing Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railway Co. v. Willard , 220 U.S. 413, 418-22, 31 S.Ct. 460, 461-63, 55 L.Ed. 521 (1981)).
Plaintiff alleges that "[a]t all times herein relevant, defendant Alana Adams was the Clerk of the Yuba County Superior Court, and was acting in that capacity and under color of state law. In her position as Court Clerk, Alana Adams. [Sic] Defendant Alana Adams is sued herein in her official capacity." The Eleventh Amendment bars claims for money damages against state officers sued in their official capacity. See Jackson v. Hayakawa , 682 F.2d 1344, 1350 (9th Cir. 1982)(citations omitted)("Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to actions against state officers sued in their official capacities because such actions are, in essence, actions against the government entity of which the officer is an agent"); see also Pena v. Gardner , 976 F.2d 469, 473 (9th Cir. 1992)(citation omitted)("An official sued in his official capacity has the same immunity as the state, and is entitled to eleventh amendment immunity.") Consequently, plaintiff's claims against defendant Adams in her official capacity are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and will be dismissed for that reason.
Plaintiff's decision to sue defendant Alana Adams in her official capacity and the Eleventh Amendment bar to such suit may be dispositive of the motion at bar. Cf. Eaglesmith v. Ward , 73 F.3d 857, 859-860 (9th Cir. 1995) (suit against Superintendent of Schools found to be official capacity suit where parties had stipulated that Superintendent, in his official capacity, would be only defendant remaining after dismissal of other defendants and stipulation was expressly conditioned on inclusion of the phrase "in his official capacity"; suit barred by Eleventh Amendment, and amendment to change capacity denied as untimely). In an abundance of caution, the court considers whether plaintiff has also pled a personal capacity claim against defendant Adams.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that allegations that an individual state employee, acting under color of state law, violated a plaintiff's constitutional rights is sufficient to state a claim against the state employee in his or her personal capacity. See Romano v. Bible , 169 F.3d 1182, 1185-86 (9th Cir. 1999). The Eleventh Amendment does not provide immunity for such claims. Id. at 1185. Plaintiff's complaint alleges that defendant Adams, acting under color of state law, violated plaintiff's rights to due process and court access. To the extent these allegations are sufficient to give rise to personal capacity claims, they are not barred by the Eleventh Amendment. They are, however, barred by the doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity.
"Court clerks have absolute quasi-judicial immunity from damages for civil rights violations when they perform tasks that are an integral part of the judicial process." Mullis v. U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Dist. of Nevada , 828 F.2d 1385, 1390 (9th Cir. 1987). "[A] mistake or an act in excess of jurisdiction does not abrogate judicial immunity, even if it results in grave procedural errors.'" Id . (quoting Stump v. Sparkman , 435 U.S. 349, 359 (1978)). Transmitting records to an appellate court is an integral part of the judicial process. Plaintiff's claims are based on allegations that defendant Adams committed errors in performing this integral task, and he seeks only money damages. Even assuming arguendo that plaintiff's allegations were sufficient to state one or more claims for violation of his constitutional rights against defendant Adams in her personal capacity, a finding this court does not make, defendant Adams is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity from liability on such claims.
For all of the foregoing reasons, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
1. The hearing set for July 7, 2014 is vacated;
2. The May 28, 2014 request for judicial notice by defendants Yuba County Superior Court, Third District Court of Appeals for the State of California, and Alana Adams (ECF No. 5-2) is denied;
3. The May 28, 2014 motion to dismiss by defendants Yuba County Superior Court, Third District Court of Appeals of the State of California, and Alana Adams (ECF No. 5) is granted;
4. The June 9, 2014 motion to dismiss by defendant County of Yuba (ECF No. 6) is granted; and
5. This action is dismissed.