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Crook v. San Bernardino County Dep't of Child Support Servs.

United States District Court, C.D. California

December 11, 2014

JASPER CROOK, Plaintiff,
v.
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SUPPORT SERVICES, et al, Defendants

Jasper Crook, Plaintiff, Pro se, Norco, CA.

For State of California San Bernardino County Department of Child Support Services for San Bernardino, Connie Brunn, Randall Dancer, Gabriel Mendez, Angela Calderon, Armando Perez, Defendants: Douglas C Smith, LEAD ATTORNEY, Smith Law Offices APC, Riverside, CA.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION TO DISMISS PURSUANT TO Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a) AND 41(b)

MARGARET A. NAGLE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

On September 24, 2014, Jasper Crook (" plaintiff"), proceeding pro se, filed a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (" Complaint"). Plaintiff named the following defendants: San Bernardino County Department of Child Support Services (sued as " State of California San Bernardino County Department of Child Support Services for San Bernardino"); Dana Nicole Thibedeaux; Connie Brunn; Randall Dancer; Gabriel Mendez; Angela Calderon; Ingrid Peach; Armando Perez; and Does 1 through 10.

On October 16, 2014, the County of Bernardino (" County"), Connie Brunn, Randall Dancer, Gabriel Mendez, Angela Calderon, and Armando Perez (collectively " County Defendants") filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 8(a) and 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (" Motion"). On October 17, 2014, the Court vacated the hearing date on the Motion and set a briefing schedule. On October 28, 2014, plaintiff filed an Opposition to the Motion. On November 10, 2014, the County Defendants filed a Reply.

The Motion is submitted and ready for decision.

THE ALLEGATIONS OF THE COMPLAINT

Plaintiff and defendant Dana Thibedeaux are the parents of a child. (Complaint at 3-6.) The other individual defendants all have some connection with the San Bernardino County Department of Child Support Services (" DCSS"), although plaintiff does not describe their titles or responsibilities. (Id. at 3.) This action stems from DCSS's enforcement of plaintiff's child support obligations. The underlying facts, however, are murky.

Plaintiff complains that, in 1996, his driver's license was suspended for nonpayment of child support despite lack of evidence of paternity. (Complaint at 3-4.) He does not allege whether the suspension is ongoing. He further alleges that unnamed DCSS agents, working together with Thibedeaux, forced him to sign a contact under duress. The DCSS agents misrepresented the nature of the contract and failed to disclose critical provisions regarding visitation and means of payment. For instance, plaintiff never agreed to bank levies or credit liens as means of collecting child support payments. (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff does not allege when the contract was signed, but complains that Thibedeaux breached it in some unspecified manner a week later, and DCSS refused to enforce it against her. (Id. at 4-5.) He also contends that DCSS fraudulently billed him for " months and years" when Thibedeaux did not have physical custody of the child. (Id. at 5.)

Plaintiff alleges that he notified defendants Perez and Peach that Thibedeaux was fraudulently collecting welfare payments under multiple identities, but they refused to act against her. (Complaint at 6.) DCSS also violated plaintiff's equal protection rights when Doe 2 appeared in court on behalf of Thibedeaux, but refused to represent plaintiff due to his gender. (Id.)

Plaintiff contends that the County Defendants have violated due process by searching his financial records and taking his property without a prior hearing. (Complaint at 6.) They have repeatedly seized funds from various sources to collect on what plaintiff contends is a fraudulent, unverified debt. (Id. at 6-7.) Plaintiff alleges that DCSS has collected approximately $20, 000 from him to date. (Id. at 7.)

Plaintiff also complains that DCSS exposed his child to undue influences outside of his religious beliefs. (Complaint at 7.)

Plaintiff contends that defendants' invasion of his private effects and seizure of his money, as well as their " interference of [ sic ] religious practices with [ sic ] his child, " have caused him various injuries, including emotional distress, financial damage, loss of employment opportunities, defamation to his financial reputation, and collateral injuries to his family. (Complaint at 7-8.) He asserts claims against defendants for: (1) violations of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, including deprivation of due process and equal protection; (2) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 1985(3) & 1986, 5 U.S.C. § § 702 & 706, 31 U.S.C. § 3729(b)& (c), 28 U.S.C. § 1361, 15 U.S.C. § 1673, and 42 U.S.C. § 602; (3) discrimination (gender bias), coercion to enter a contract, undue influence (contract), misrepresentation of contract, breach of contract, failure to disclose vital parts of a contract, failure/refusal to perform obligated duties due to gender, fraud, negligence, violation of Fair Credit Reporting Act, deprivation of the right of rescission of a contract, extortion of payments, and fraudulent representation of jurisdiction/authority. (Complaint at 2.)

Plaintiff seeks: (1) an order under 28 U.S.C. § 1361 to compel " financial enforcement" on Thibedeaux; (2) removal of all negative credit reports that were based on reports received from DCSS; and (3) damages. (Complaint at 8-9.)

DISCUSSION

I. THE COMPLAINT FAILS TO COMPLY WITH RULE 8(a) OF THE FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE.

Defendants contend that the Complaint violates Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They argue that the Complaint is unintelligible and does not apprise them of the nature of plaintiff's claims against them. (Motion at 5-7.)

Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure mandates that a complaint must provide " a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Under Rule 8(a), the plaintiff must plead each claim with sufficient specificity to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). " [T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require detailed factual allegations, but it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). A complaint violates Rule 8(a) when it fails to provide the defendants with fair notice of the wrongs they have allegedly committed. See McHenry v. Renne, 84 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 1996) (affirming dismissal of complaint under Rule 8(a) when court could not " determine from the complaint who is being sued, for what relief, and on what theory, with enough detail to guide discovery"); contrast Hearns v. San Bernardino Police Dep't., 530 F.3d 1124, 1129 (9th Cir. 2008) (complaint did not violate Rule 8(a) when it was intelligible and clearly delineated plaintiff's claims and the defendants against whom the claims were made). Although pleadings filed by pro se plaintiff are liberally construed, they must still " meet some minimum threshold in providing a defendant with notice of what it is that it allegedly did wrong." Brazil v. United States Dep't of Navy, 66 F.3d 193, 199 (9th Cir. 1995).

Moreover, the propriety of a dismissal for failure to comply with Rule 8 does not depend on whether the complaint is wholly without merit. McHenry, 84 F.3d at 1179 (Rule 8 " applies to good claims as well as bad, and is a basis for dismissal independent of Rule 12(b)(6)"). When the factual elements of a cause of action are present in the complaint, but they are factually scattered throughout the complaint and not organized into a " short and plain statement of the claim, " the complaint may be dismissed for failure to satisfy Rule 8(a). Sparling v. Hoffman Constr. Co., 864 F.2d 635, 640 (9th Cir. 1988).

Even liberally construed, plaintiff's Complaint falls short of the Rule 8(a) standards. First, plaintiff does not sufficiently identify the federal claims he is asserting. Although he cites several constitutional provisions and numerous federal statutes, he does not link his factual allegations to the constitutional provisions and federal statutes purportedly violated by defendants. The Court gleans from the Complaint that plaintiff is unhappy about the amount of child support collected from him, and he believes DCSS should not be garnishing his income to satisfy what he believes are unfair child support obligations. The Complaint, however, fails to set forth how defendants' enforcement of plaintiff's child support obligations violated the constitutional amendments and statutes he cites. Although Rule 8(a) does not require " an exposition of [plaintiff]'s legal argument, " Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 1296, 179 L.Ed.2d 233 (2011), the allegations must be sufficient to give defendants notice of what the claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. See Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964. Here, the Complaint does not even apprise defendants of how many claims plaintiff is asserting, much less of the nature of each claim.

For instance, it is unclear whether plaintiff is asserting any federal or state claim based on the 1996 suspension of his driver's license, and if so, what that claim is. (Complaint at 3-4.) Plaintiff also does not allege the age and custody status of the child on whose behalf DCSS collected child support or, indeed, whether the child is still a minor. Moreover, while a number of plaintiff's state law claims relate to a contract that he signed, he does not set forth whether he is asserting any federal claims based on the contract, and if so, how defendants' acts with respect to the contract violated the Constitution or federal law. Plaintiff also does not describe the nature of the contract, when it was entered into, who the parties to the contract were, and the relationship of the contract to his child support payments. (Id. at 4-5.)

Since plaintiff's child support obligations presumably arise from court proceedings, some of his claims may be barred by the Rooker-Feldman [1] doctrine, which provides that a federal court may not exercise jurisdiction over a suit that constitutes a de facto appeal from a state court judgment. Bell v. City of Boise, 709 F.3d 890, 897 (9th Cir. 2013); see Bobo v. Tulare County, 2014 WL 4243785, at *1-*2 (D. Or., Aug. 26, 2014) (Rooker-Feldman barred claims for damages related to garnishment of wages and unemployment and disability benefits for child support); Marcussen v. Sebelius, 2013 WL 526491, at *2 (D. Ariz., Feb. 12, 2013) ( Rooker-Feldman barred claims challenging constitutionality of child support order under federally mandated child support program). Plaintiff's failure to specify the nature of his claims with sufficient clarity precludes a determination of the extent to which this Court may exercise jurisdiction over this action. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(1).

Plaintiff's First Amendment claim appears to arise under the free exercise of religion clause. Plaintiff contends that his child -- presumably the child on whose behalf DCSS is collecting child support -- was exposed to religious influences outside his religious beliefs. (Complaint at 7.) Plaintiff, however, has not alleged the facts underlying his First Amendment claim. He has not alleged: what these religious influences were; by whom and in what manner the child was exposed to them; when the child was exposed to them; and whether it was done with the consent of the child's mother. Plaintiff must also specify against which defendants he is asserting his First Amendment claim.

The factual allegations underlying plaintiff's equal protection claim are similarly deficient. Plaintiff complains that DCSS agent Doe 2 represented Thibedeaux during court proceedings, but refused to represent plaintiff on account of his gender. (Complaint at 6.) The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment" is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike." City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 3254, 87 L.Ed.2d 313 (1985). Plaintiff does not explain the nature of the proceedings or how he was similarly situated to Thibedeaux, who presumably had physical custody of the child. It is also unclear against whom plaintiff is asserting his equal protection claim.

Furthermore, the Complaint is largely devoid of individualized allegations regarding defendants other than Thibedeaux.[2] To give each defendant the notice required by Rule 8(a), plaintiff must " make clear connections between specific allegations and individual defendants." McHenry, 84 F.3d at 1175. Plaintiff must set forth, as to each defendant, " 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. Plaintiff protests in his Opposition that each of the County Defendants had a direct involvement in his child support proceedings. (Opposition at 3.) If that is so, plaintiff must describe each defendant's " direct involvement" in his First Amended Complaint. He must clearly set forth which claims he is asserting against which defendant, and he must allege a factual basis for each claim against each defendant. See Gottschalk v. City and County of San Francisco, 964 F.Supp.2d 1147, 1156 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (complaint did not satisfy Rule 8(a) when it did not clarify which claims were brought against which defendant and did not articulate specific facts connecting each defendant with the facts underlying the applicable claims); Gauvin v. Trombatore, 682 F.Supp. 1067, 1071 (N.D. Cal. 1988) (lumping together multiple defendants in a single broad allegation did not satisfy Rule 8(a)).

The Court also notes that many of plaintiff's allegations are made simply against DCSS. The County has appeared on behalf of DCSS, which is a County agency and thus is not a " person" subject to suit under Section 1983. See Vance v. County of Santa Clara, 928 F.Supp. 993, 995-96 (N.D. Cal. 1996) (naming a municipal department instead of municipality as defendant in Section 1983 suit is not appropriate). To allege a Section 1983 claim against the County, plaintiff must allege not only a constitutional violation by DCSS employees or agents but also a policy, custom, or practice of the County that was the " moving force" of the constitutional deprivation. Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2037-38, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978); Villegas v. Gilroy Garlic Festival Ass'n., 541 F.3d 950, 957-58 (9th Cir. 2008). In other words, to allege a Section 1983 claim against the County, plaintiff must allege facts showing that: (1) DCSS employees or agents violated his constitutional rights; and (2) they acted pursuant to a policy, custom, or practice of the County when they did so. The Complaint contains no such allegations.

The Court also notes that plaintiff cannot bring a mandamus action under 28 U.S.C. § 1361 to compel DCSS to take action against Thibedeaux for fraudulent collection of benefits, as he purports to do. (Complaint at 3, 8.) That provision applies only to actions to compel " an officer or employee of the United States or any agency thereof to perform a duty owed to plaintiff." 28 U.S.C. § 1361. DCSS is not a federal agency, and none of the defendants federal officials. Moreover, even if Thibedeaux is committing welfare fraud, plaintiff has no judicially enforceable interest in having DCSS or any other agency institute proceedings against her. See Linda R.S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 93 S.Ct. 1146, 1149, 35 L.Ed.2d 536 (1973) (" a private citizen lacks a judicially cognizable interest in the prosecution or nonprosecution of another.); Thomas v. Chicago Housing Authority, 919 F.Supp. 1159, 1164 (N.D.Ill. 1996) (" Linda R.S . applies to administrative action as well.")

Accordingly, for all of these reasons, the Court finds that the Complaint fails to comply with Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and must be dismissed.

II. THE COMPLAINT IS DISMISSED WITH LEAVE TO AMEND.

Defendants have brought this motion to dismiss under Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as well as under Rule 8(a). Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b) provides that: " If the plaintiff fails to prosecute or to comply with these rules or a court order, a defendant may move to dismiss the action or any claim against it." " Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) authorizes a district court to dismiss a complaint with prejudice for failure to comply with Rule 8(a)." Hearns v. San Bernardino Police Dep't, 530 F.3d 1124, 1129 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Nevijel v. North Coast Life Ins. Co., 651 F.2d 671, 674 (9th Cir. 1981)).

Defendants do not expressly request that the Court dismiss this action with prejudice, but presumably they have brought their motion under Rule 41(b), as well as under Rule 8(a), because they seek dismissal of this action. When an action is dismissed with prejudice under Rule 41(b) for failure to comply with Rule 8(a), the plaintiff generally has received prior opportunities to comply with Rule 8(a). See Nevijel, 651 F.2d at 674; Seto v. Thielen, 519 Fed.Appx. 966, 969 (9th Cir. 2013) (affirming dismissal pursuant to Rule 41(b) for failure to comply with Rule 8 and a court order, after plaintiffs " repeatedly failed to comply with the district court's orders directing them to remedy the drastic shortcomings of their pleadings, " and plaintiffs " were warned several times that failure to comply with the district court's orders would result in automatic dismissal"). This is plaintiff's first complaint. Although the Complaint undoubtedly violates Rule 8(a), a dismissal with prejudice under Rule 41(b) at this stage would be excessively harsh. See Nevijel, 651 F.2d at 674 (in reviewing dismissals under Rule 41(b) for failure to comply with Rule 8(a), the Ninth Circuit looks to see whether the district court might have first adopted less drastic alternatives, such as further leave to amend). The Court will give plaintiff an opportunity to file a First Amended Complaint rectifying the deficiencies of this pleading.

ORDER

For the foregoing reasons, defendants' motion to dismiss the Complaint is GRANTED, and the Complaint is DISMISSED WITH LEAVE TO AMEND.

If plaintiff wishes to pursue this action, he is granted 30 days from the date of this Memorandum and Order within which to file a First Amended Complaint that attempts to cure the defects in the Complaint described herein. The First Amended Complaint, if any, shall be complete in itself. It shall not refer in any manner to the original Complaint.

Plaintiff is explicitly cautioned that failure to timely file a First Amended Complaint, or failure to correct the deficiencies described herein, may result in a recommendation that this action be dismissed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b).


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