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Pellecer v. Gutierrez

United States District Court, C.D. California

January 8, 2015

MIGUEL GUTIERREZ, et al., Defendants.


JOSEPHINE L. STATON, District Judge.



Plaintiff Javier Pellecer, an inmate at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles proceeding pro se, filed his initial complaint in this action on July 31, 2014. In that civil rights complaint, plaintiff alleged that Los Angeles Police Department ("LAPD") officers arrested him without a warrant or probable cause on October 16, 2013.

Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint ("FAC") on October 16, 2014. The FAC expands on the allegations and defendants in the original complaint. Plaintiff names additional defendants in the FAC and alleges that he was falsely arrested without a warrant or probable cause on two occasions: November 5, 2008 and October 16, 2013. Further, in the FAC, plaintiff alleges that a criminal case charging him with committing the crime for which he was arrested on those two occasions is still pending against him in Los Angeles Superior Court. Plaintiff seeks equitable relief as well as damages.

The Court issued an Order to Show Cause ("OSC") why the complaint should not be stayed or dismissed under the Younger Abstention Doctrine. In plaintiff's response to the OSC, he does not dispute that he is asking this Court to effectively intervene in his pending state criminal case, but argues that extraordinary circumstances warrant such intervention. Plaintiff has failed to show that intervention is warranted, however, and therefore this Court must refrain from proceeding in this case while the state criminal case is still pending. Accordingly, under the Younger Abstention Doctrine, the Court will dismiss plaintiff's claims for equitable relief, and will stay the remainder of his case seeking damages until the state criminal case is no longer pending.



In the FAC, plaintiff alleges that LAPD officers first falsely arrested him without a warrant or probable cause on November 5, 2008, for the crime with which plaintiff is presently charged in Los Angeles Superior Court. Petitioner was ultimately released, but then was again arrested for the same crime, again without a warrant or probable cause, on October 16, 2013. Plaintiff also alleges he was subjected to unlawful searches to gather evidence during the arrests. Following his October 16, 2013 arrest, plaintiff was charged in Los Angeles Superior Court in case number BA417246. Plaintiff alleges that he is being maliciously prosecuted and that his due process rights have been violated. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and also seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

To confirm that plaintiff is in fact awaiting trial on the charges he challenges in the FAC, on November 18, 2014 the Court issued an OSC, requiring plaintiff to show cause why the case should not be stayed or dismissed under the Younger Abstention Doctrine. Plaintiff filed a response to the OSC on December 4, 2014.

In his response to the OSC, plaintiff concedes that he is still pending trial in the state criminal case on the charges that are at the heart of his challenge in this civil rights case. But plaintiff argues that this case qualifies for an exception from the Younger Abstention Doctrine. In making his arguments, plaintiff confirms that he is asking this Court to intervene in the pending state criminal case. See OSC Response at 12.



The Prison Litigation Reform Act obligates the Court to review complaints filed by all persons proceeding in forma pauperis, and by prisoners seeking redress from government entities. See 28 U.S.C. ยงยง 1915(e)(2), 1915A. Under these provisions, the Court may sua sponte dismiss, "at any time, " any prisoner civil rights action and all other in forma pauperis complaints that are frivolous or malicious, fail to state a claim, or seek damages from defendants who are immune. Id., see also Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1126-27 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc).

In Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971), the Supreme Court held that a federal court was prohibited from enjoining a state criminal proceeding without a valid showing of "extraordinary circumstances" that warrant federal intervention. Id. at 43-54; see Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 965, 984 (9th Cir. 2004) ( Younger Abstention applies to actions for damages). Under the Younger Abstention Doctrine, federal courts may not stay or enjoin pending state criminal court proceedings, nor grant monetary damages for constitutional violations arising from them. Mann v. Jett, 781 F.2d 1448, 1449 (9th Cir. 1986). Younger abstention is appropriate when: (1) the state court proceedings are ongoing; (2) the proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings provide an adequate opportunity to raise the constitutional claims. Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982); Baffert v. Cal. Horse Racing Bd., 332 F.3d 613, 617 (9th Cir. 2003).

Plaintiff concedes that the first two Middlesex elements for the Younger Abstention Doctrine to be invoked are present here. See OSC Response at 1. There is an ongoing state proceeding, i.e., the criminal case against plaintiff. And the criminal proceedings implicate important state interests because they involve an alleged violation of state criminal law that is being adjudicated in state court. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 13, 107 S.Ct. 1519, 95 L.Ed.2d 1 (1987) (enforcement of state court judgments and orders implicates important state interests); see also People of State of Cal. v. Mesa, 813 F.2d 960, 966 (9th Cir. 1987) ("A [state's] ability to protect its citizens from violence and other breaches of the peace through enforcement of criminal laws is the centermost pillar of sovereignty.").

Plaintiff argues that the third Middlesex element has not been met, that the that proceedings are not providing him an adequate opportunity to raise his constitutional challenges. But plaintiff's own account of the proceedings refutes his argument. Plaintiff asserts that he has raised his constitutional claims in the Superior Court by filing several motions, including one or more motions to suppress. OSC Response at 2-3. After those motions were denied, plaintiff sought a writ of mandate from the California Court of Appeal, and after that was denied, plaintiff sought relief from the California Supreme Court. Id. at 2, 4. It is thus apparent that, contrary to plaintiff's argument, the state court criminal proceedings have provided an adequate opportunity for plaintiff to litigate his constitutional claims by way of a suppression motion or other challenge to the evidence. That his motions have been denied does not alter the fact that he has had an opportunity to raise his claims. "The adequate opportunity' prong of Younger ... requires only the absence of procedural bars' to raising a federal claim in the state proceedings." Commc'ns Telesystems Int'l v. Cal. Pub. Util. Comm'n, 196 F.3d 1011, 1020 (9th Cir. 1999). Thus, the elements for the Court to invoke the Younger Abstention Doctrine are present.

Plaintiff also argues that the circumstances of this case warrant an exception to applying the Younger Abstention Doctrine. Plaintiff argues that the bad faith or harassment exception to Younger applies here. OSC Response at 5. The Supreme Court has held "that Younger principles do not apply, even where otherwise applicable, in those cases where the District Court properly finds that the state proceeding is motivated by a desire to harass or is conducted in bad faith.'" Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 338, 97 S.Ct. 1211, 51 L.Ed.2d 376 (1977) (quoting Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 611, 95 S.Ct. 1200, 43 L.Ed.2d 482 (1975)). But plaintiff has made no showing that the state criminal case against him has been brought or is being conducted in bad faith, or motivated by a desire to harass. Plaintiff alleges that he was singled out because he is hispanic, has been prosecuted based on uncorroborated hearsay, and that the police, prosecutors, and Superior Court have shown prejudice and bias against him and conspired to violate his civil rights. OSC Response at 5-12. But he has provided no support for these allegations. Instead, his assertions all amount to arguments that the Superior Court erred in denying his motions. Such arguments do not demonstrate extraordinary circumstances that warrant this Court's intervention in the state court proceedings.

Thus, it is plain that the Younger Abstention Doctrine properly applies in this case, and that no circumstances justify an exception to the doctrine here. The only question is whether the doctrine warrants this Court staying the case or dismissing it without prejudice.

In finding that Younger principles apply to actions seeking damages as well as actions seeking equitable relief, the Ninth Circuit found that "federal courts should not dismiss actions where damages are at issue; rather, damages actions should be stayed until the state proceedings are completed." Gilbertson, 381 F.3d at 968; accord Los Altos El Granada Investors v. City of Capitola, 583 F.3d 674, 689-90 (9th Cir. 2009) ("[B]ecause in damages cases there may yet be something for the federal courts to decide after completion of the state proceedings... [t]he district court - quite appropriately - did not dismiss under Younger but stayed the proceedings pending the final decision of the California courts."). That damages actions should be stayed rather than dismissed is consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling in Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 127 S.Ct. 1091, 166 L.Ed.2d 973 (2007), that where a plaintiff files a civil claim "related to rulings that will likely be made in a pending or anticipated criminal trial[], it is within the power of the district court, and in accord with common practice, to stay the civil action until the criminal case... is ended." Id. at 393-94. As the Supreme Court explained, "If the plaintiff is ultimately convicted, and if the stayed civil suit would impugn that conviction, Heck [ v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994), ] will require dismissal; otherwise, the civil action will proceed, absent some other bar to suit." Wallace, 549 U.S. at 394.

Plaintiff here seeks equitable relief as well as damages. In such cases, the proper course is for a court to dismiss the equitable claims and stay the claims for damages. See Rhoden v. Mayberg, 361 F.Appx. 895, 896 (9th Cir. 2010) ("district court properly dismissed... claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, " but "claims for money damages should have been stayed until the state court proceedings are completed"); Tomel v. Ross, 2009 WL 3824742, at *3 (D. Haw. 2009) ("Claims for injunctive or declaratory relief are normally dismissed; claims for monetary damages may be stayed."). The Court will follow that course here.



IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that: (1) plaintiff's claims for equitable relief are dismissed without prejudice; and (2) the remainder of this case is stayed until the related state criminal case is no longer pending. The clerk is directed to ADMINISTRATIVELY CLOSE this case.

If plaintiff wishes to continue with this case after disposition of the criminal charges against him, he must file a request that the stay be lifted and the case be re-opened within sixty (60) days of the final disposition of the criminal charges (including all appeals). Any such request to lift the stay must be accompanied by documentary evidence showing that the state criminal case is concluded. If the stay is lifted, the action will proceed at that time, absent any other bar to suit.

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