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Mazzetti v. Bellino

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 21, 2014

MICHELLE A. MAZZETTI, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRIS BELLINO, et al., Defendants.

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS AND MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ANTHONY W. ISHII, Senior District Judge.

This is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Bivens action brought by Plaintiff Michelle Mazzetti ("Mazzetti") against three park rangers employed at Yosemite National Park.[1] The operative complaint is the First Amended Complaint ("FAC"). Mazzetti alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment (for unlawful search and seizure and excessive force), the Fifth Amendment (for violation of equal protection and the Brady rule[2]), and the First Amendment (for retaliation). Defendants have filed a combined motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion for summary judgment will be denied, and the motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND[3]

From the FAC, on July 26, 2011, Mazzetti was in a Yosemite National Park campground with friends. Yosemite National Park rangers approached Mazzetti's campground to address complaints that someone had been driving a vehicle too quickly through the campground and acting disrespectfully. The rangers had information that those who had been driving too quickly and acting disrespectfully were all males. Mazzetti is a female. When the rangers approached the campsite, there was no indication of criminal behavior or disorderly conduct, and Mazzetti and her friends were calm.

Ranger Defendants Christopher Bellino ("Bellino") and David Sanchez ("Sanchez") rounded up Mazzetti and her friends around a picnic table, questioned the group about the conduct being investigated, told the group that they were not free to leave and threatened to use handcuffs. Within minutes, a male member of the group admitted to being the driver of the vehicle. Mazzetti advised the rangers that she had just walked up from the river, she had not been in the vehicle, and that she did not wish to participate in the investigation. The rangers ordered her to sit down. Bellino then asked for identification, but when Mazzetti got up to go get her identification, she was grabbed by Bellino and Sanchez.[4] Bellino threatened to handcuff Mazzetti, pulled a Taser, and threatened to use the Taser against her.

Other park rangers began to arrive on the scene, including Ranger Smith and Defendant Ranger Brendan Bonner ("Bonner"). The rangers spread out around the campsite to keep Mazzetti and her friends from leaving. The rangers physically and verbally threatened Mazzetti to keep her from leaving the picnic area. The rangers had no reasonable suspicion that Mazzetti had engaged in any criminal conduct, and the behavior that the rangers were investigating had ceased and was no longer a threat to anyone.

An audio-video recording of the incident made by a Park Ranger shows that Bellino conferenced with Bonner sometime after Bellino had threatened Mazzetti with a Taser. It can be heard that Bellino described Mazzetti as "uncooperative, " and when asked if he was going to arrest her, Bellino responded that he was going to do something but that he did not yet know what. Bonner asked if Mazzetti had since been cooperative, and Bellino said that she had been "cooperative since." Bellino and Bonner then agreed to arrest Mazzetti and take her to jail.

The rangers reapproached Mazzetti and her friends, segregated Mazzetti, and walked her over near a ranger's vehicle. Bellino, Bonner, and Ranger Hastings physically restrained and handcuffed Mazzetti. Mazzetti verbally protested being handcuffed and asked "why are you arresting me?", but she did not physically resist. Mazzetti was wearing shorts, a bathing suit top, and a loose fitting t-shirt that had its sleeves cut off. Hastings was sent back to watch the other members of Mazzetti's group at the campsite. Bellino then asked Bonner if there was a female ranger on duty, and Bonner responded that one would be on duty shortly. Bellino and Bonner then moved Mazzetti again. According to the video, these rangers moved Mazzetti in order to "do a search behind the vehicle."

Mazzetti was walked to the other side of the ranger's vehicle so that she was out of view from her friends. Bellino and Bonner then began to taunt and touch Mazzetti. They began poking in her hair with a pen-like object, and running their hands through her hair. Bellino then told Mazzetti, "I have to search your breasts." Mazzetti told them not to search her breasts and complained that the rangers were hurting her. Mazzetti was placed in a stress-hold, and Bellino and Bonner then groped Mazzetti's breasts. Mazzetti screamed for assistance and to make the rangers stop, and also kept screaming "stop hurting me." Bellino told Mazzetti that he was going to search her groin area. Mazzetti was then taken to the ground. The video shows Bellino and Bonner grabbing Mazzetti's bare knees and prying her legs apart so that they could touch her groin. Mazzetti screamed in protest and pain. Bellino and Bonner removed Mazzetti's shoes, and then locked Mazzetti in the back of the ranger vehicle. Mazzetti screamed to be released. Bellino and Bonner had singled out Mazzetti, "attacked and humiliated her, groped on her breasts, groped on her groin, and sexually assaulted and battered [Mazzetti]... because of her gender." FAC ¶ 56.

While Mazzetti was screaming for help, Sanchez, Hastings, and Smith kept Mazzetti's friends away from her. Mazzetti's friends pleaded with the three rangers to help Mazzetti. The three rangers witnessed what was happening to Mazzetti, but did nothing reasonable to prevent the violation of Mazzetti's rights. The rangers also sent away potential witnesses.

Mazzetti was taken to jail, where she was forced to stay the night. Mazzetti was released the next day.

Bellino, Bonner, and Sanchez drafted false and misleading reports, failed to provide exculpatory information, and failed to identify witnesses who could support Mazzetti's version of events, even though the rangers had such information. Bellino recommended charging Mazzetti with violations of 36 C.F.R. 2.32(a)(1) (interference), 36 CFR 2.32(a)(2) (failing to obey a lawful order), 36 CFR 2.34(a)(2) (disorderly conduct), and 36 CFR 2.34(a)(3) (unreasonable noise). Based upon the rangers' reports, Mazzetti was charged with and prosecuted for violations of the above Class B misdemeanors.

A bench trial was conducted before Magistrate Judge Seng. Magistrate Judge Seng ruled that the rangers had no reasonable suspicion to stop Mazzetti and that Mazzetti was unlawfully arrested, that Mazzetti's Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, that there was no grounds for threatening Mazzetti with force, and that Mazzetti had engaged in constitutionally protected speech. Magistrate Judge Seng acquitted Mazzetti of all charges except for a violation of 36 CFR 2.34(a)(3), based on Mazzetti's continued screaming after she had been placed in the rangers' vehicle. However, on appeal, the U.S. Attorney dismissed the 2.34(a)(3) charge against Mazzetti.

I. DENDANTS' SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION

A significant portion of Defendants' summary judgment motion is moot because defendants Michael Hastings and Aaron Smith have been dismissed from this case with prejudice. For the portions of the summary judgment motion that are not moot, Mazzetti asks that the Court deny the motion under Rule 56(d) because no discovery has occurred. In reply, Defendants state that they do not oppose granting Mazzetti's Rule 56(d) request as to the Fourth Amendment claims, but argue that summary judgment should be granted on other claims.

In pertinent part, Rule 56(d) provides that if a "nonmovant shows by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may: (1) defer considering the motion [for summary judgment] or deny it...." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(d). This Rule provides a mechanism "for litigants to avoid summary judgment when they have not had sufficient time to develop affirmative evidence." Burlington Northern & Santa Fe R.R. Co. v. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana , 323 F.3d 767, 773-774 (9th Cir. 2003). Generally, in order to obtain relief under Rule 56(f), a party must show: "(1) that they have set forth in affidavit form the specific facts that they hope to elicit from further discovery, (2) that the facts sought exist, and (3) that these sought-after facts are èssential' to resist the summary judgment motion." State of California v. Campbell , 138 F.3d 772, 779 (9th Cir. 1998). However, when a summary judgment motion is filed "so early in the litigation, before a party has had any realistic opportunity to pursue discovery relating to its theory of the case, district courts should grant any [Rule 56(d)] motion fairly freely." Burlington Northern , 323 F.3d at 773-74.

Here, this case is in its infancy. There is no scheduling order, no discovery has occurred, no answers have been filed, no Rule 26 disclosures have been made, and no depositions of any party have occurred. There is no opposition to granting Mazzetti's Rule 56(d) request as to the Fourth Amendment claims. Given the partial agreement by Defendants and the early procedural posture of this case, the Court finds that summary judgment motion is premature. Accordingly, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is denied without prejudice. See Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(d); Burlington No. , 323 F.3d at 773-74. Once a scheduling order is entered, and adequate discovery has occurred, Defendants may file a new summary judgment motion at that time.

However, Defendants have made arguments that rely in part on the FAC's factual allegations being inadequate, and in part on facts submitted in support of the summary judgment motion. Mazzetti has responded to some of these arguments. After considering the parties' positions, to the extent that Defendants' motion identifies shortcomings in the FAC, the Court will address Mazzetti's Brady claim and her First Amendment claims as part of the resolution of Defendants' motion to dismiss.

II. RULE 12(b)(6) MOTION TO DISMISS

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. Conservation Force v. Salazar , 646 F.3d 1240, 1242 (9th Cir. 2011); Johnson v. Riverside Healthcare Sys. , 534 F.3d 1116, 1121 (9th Cir. 2008). 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. Faulkner v. ADT Sec. Servs. , 706 F.3d 1017, 1019 (9th Cir. 2013); Johnson , 534 F.3d at 1121. However, complaints that offer no more than "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of action will not do." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Dichter-Mad Family Partners. LLP v. United States , 709 F.3d 749, 761 (9th Cir. 2013). The Court is not required "to accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences." Wilson v. Hewlett-Packard Co. , 668 F.3d 1136, 1145 n. 4 (9th Cir. 2012); 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." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678; 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 , 556 U.S. at 678; Dichter-Mad, 709 F.3d at 761. "Plausibility" means "more than a sheer possibility, " but less than a probability, and facts that are "merely consistent" with liability fall short of "plausibility." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678; Li v. Kerry , 710 F.3d 995, 999 (9th Cir. 2013). The Ninth Circuit has distilled the following principles from Iqbal and Twombly: (1) 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; (2) 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. ...


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