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Guevara v. County of Los Angeles

United States District Court, Central District of California

January 15, 2015

FRANCIS GUEVARA, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, ELIZABETH GROVER, TONY-PAYAM KADE, CITY OF LOS ANGELES, IVAN McMILLAN, IGNACIO ARGUELLES, Defendants.

ORDER DENYING COUNTY DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS [DKT. NO. 24]

DEAN D. PREGERS, United States District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendant County of Los Angeles’ Motion to Dismiss as to Plaintiff’s Fourth Cause of Action, based on a “Monell” theory of liability. (Dkt. No. 24.) Having heard oral arguments and considered the parties’ submissions, the Court adopts the following order denying the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

On October 22, 2012, two LAPD police officers investigated allegations of child abuse. (First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), ¶ 31.) The allegations involved one of Plaintiff’s two daughters. (Id.) She had disclosed to a school official that her father’s friend had “inappropriately touched her.” (Id.) After interviewing the child at her school, the officers decided to take the child and her sister to the police station. (Id. at ¶¶ 32-35.) Plaintiff was out of town at the time. (Id. at ¶ 30.)

After interviews with the children’s grandmother, the girls, Plaintiff, and the suspect, case workers for the County decided to take the children into protective custody. (Id. at ¶ 50.) They were held by the County for three days, until a juvenile court released them back into Plaintiff’s custody. (Id. at ¶ 55.)

Plaintiff filed a Complaint (and later the FAC) alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including a Monell claim[1]of liability on the part of the County for a policy or practice of removing children from their family homes without exigent circumstances. The County moves to dismiss the Monell claim – Plaintiff’s Fourth Cause of Action – for failure to state a claim.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

In order to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a complaint need only include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 55 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). A complaint must include "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must "accept as true all allegations of material fact and must construe those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Resnick v. Hayes, 213 F.3d 443, 447 (9th Cir. 2000).

III. DISCUSSION

A plaintiff alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 may not state a claim against a government entity for the actions of the entity’s employees; only the actions of the entity itself give rise to liability. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978) (“[W]e conclude that a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor—or, in other words, a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory.”). However, a government entity can be held liable for “constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental ‘custom’ even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decisionmaking channels.” Id. at 690-91.

Plaintiff alleges just such an informal government custom in its Fourth Cause of Action, captioned “Monell Liability – Removal [Plaintiff v. County].” (FAC at 27.) The cause of action stated is that “Defendant COUNTY . . . established and/or followed policies, procedures, customs, and/or practices . . . which policies were the cause of violation of Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” (Id. at ¶ 75.) More specifically, the FAC alleges that the County has a policy of “detaining and/or removing children from their parents without exigent circumstances (imminent danger of serious bodily injury), warrant, court order and/or consent of their parents.” (Id.) It further alleges that “COUNTY has developed a long standing practice of removing children without a warrant . . . when the risk of harm to a child is not so imminent as to have insufficient time within which to obtain a warrant.” (Id. at ¶ 12.) It further alleges that the County did not provide adequate training for its employees in parents’ constitutional rights, the use of protective custody warrants, or federal case law regarding “warrantless removals, exigency, least intrusive means, and . . . proper investigation.” (Id. at ¶ 78.)

These allegations are enough to state a claim. They are not merely “a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007). They allege specific policies on the part of the County. It may be that there is no proof of the existence of such policies, but that is a question for the merits phase of the litigation; as allegations, they do state a claim for relief.

Defendants would like the Court to follow the example of another recent Central District decision in Alberici v. Cnty. of Los Angeles, No. CV12-10511-JFW-VBK (April 15, 2013) (order granting in part defendant’s motion to dismiss). There the court dismissed a Monell claim against the County because:

[A]fter numerous amendments to their Complaint, Plaintiffs have still failed to identify any specific, formal policy, practice, or custom of either the County of Orange or the County of Los Angeles that may have resulted in a violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights . . . . Instead, Plaintiffs simply list various, non-specific, generic, and conclusory “policies” purportedly followed by the County of Orange and the County of Los Angeles, such as “the policy of detaining and/or removing children from their family and homes without exigent circumstances” . . . that allegedly led to ...

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