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Kitchen v. Lodi Unified School District

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 27, 2015

JEANNE KITCHEN, Plaintiff,
v.
LODI UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT; CATHERINE NICHOLS-WASHER, in her official capacity as Superintendent of the Lodi Unified School District; NEIL YOUNG, in his official capacity as Director of Personnel of the Lodi Unified School District, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: MOTION TO DISMISS FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT

WILLIAM B. SHUBB, District Judge.

This matter is again before the court after plaintiff Jeanne Kitchen filed her First Amended Complaint ("FAC"). (Docket No. 19.) Defendants Lodi Unified School District ("LUSD"), Catherine Nichols-Washer, and Neil Young have moved to dismiss plaintiff's FAC pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 41, as well as to strike portions of it pursuant to Rule 12(f). (Docket No. 28). The factual and procedural history is set forth in this court's November 5, 2014 Memorandum and Order, (Docket No. 17), dismissing plaintiff's original Complaint with leave to amend.

Plaintiff's FAC adds Nichols-Washer and Young as defendants acting in their official capacity. (FAC ¶¶ 9-10.) The FAC asserts five claims against all defendants: (1) disability-based discrimination in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112, et seq.; (2) disability-based discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794, et seq.; (3) retaliation in violation of Title V of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12203; (4) interference in violation of Title V of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12203; and (5) retaliation in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 704, et seq. (FAC ¶¶ 29-48.)

II. Discussion

Defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's first, third, and fourth claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity and all of plaintiff's claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Defendants also move to strike Nichchols-Washer and Young from plaintiff's second and fifth claims pursuant to Rule 12(f).

A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff normally bears the burden of establishing a jurisdictional basis for her action. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). However, the Ninth Circuit has held that "Eleventh Amendment immunity does not implicate a federal court's subject matter jurisdiction in an ordinary sense, " and thus, should be treated as an affirmative defense for which "the public entity... bear[s] the burden of proving the facts that establish its immunity under the Eleventh Amendment." ITSI T.V. Prods., Inc. v. Agric. Ass'ns, 3 F.3d 1289, 1291-92 (9th Cir. 1993) ("Eleventh Amendment immunity, whatever its jurisdictional attributes, should be treated as an affirmative defense."); see also Hill v. Blind Indus. and Serv. of Md., 179 F.3d 754, 760 (9th Cir. 1999) (concluding that Eleventh Amendment immunity is not a true jurisdictional bar because it can be waived or forfeited by the state).

1. Plaintiff's ADA Claims against LUSD

As a preliminary matter, plaintiff's FAC reasserts claims against LUSD under Title I and Title V of the ADA. (FAC ¶¶ 29-32, 37-44.) Defendants move to dismiss these claims pursuant to Rule 41(b) for failure to comply with the court's previous Order, which concluded that the Eleventh Amendment bars these claims as against LUSD. (Nov. 5, 2014 Order at 4-5); Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b) ("If the plaintiff fails to... comply with these rules or a court order, a defendant may move to dismiss the action or any claim against it."). Plaintiff does not dispute this decision and states that she agrees to dismiss LUSD from her first, third, and fourth claims for relief. (Pl.'s Opp'n at 4 n.1 (Docket No. 31).) Accordingly, the court will grant defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's first, third, and fourth claims as against LUSD.

2. Plaintiff's ADA Claims against Nichols-Washer and Young

"State governments can invoke the Eleventh Amendment's guarantee of sovereign immunity against Title I suits seeking money damages, " but this immunity "does not bar Title I suits against state officials for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief." Walsh v. Nev. Dep't of Human Res., 471 F.3d 1033, 1036 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Bd. Of Trustees of the Univ. of Alabama v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 360, 374 n.9 (2001), and Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)). "In what has become known as part of the Ex parte Young doctrine, ... a suit for prospective injunctive relief provides a narrow, but well-established, exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity." Doe v. Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab., 131 F.3d 836, 839 (9th Cir. 1997).

Although the Eleventh Amendment precludes an award of monetary damages based on prior misconduct, the court may "enjoin state officials to conform their conduct to requirements of federal law, notwithstanding a direct and substantial impact on the state treasury." Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267, 289 (1977). Thus, "[i]n determining whether the doctrine of Ex parte Young avoids an Eleventh Amendment bar to suit, a court need only conduct a straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.'" Verizon Maryland, Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Maryland, 535 U.S. 635, 645 (2002).

Plaintiff does not dispute that an award of retroactive benefits or reimbursement of past premium payments is outside the exception of Ex parte Young.[1] Plaintiff argues that her ADA claims allege a current and ongoing violation of federal law based on defendants "excluding Plaintiff from participation in the Early Retirement Health Benefits program." (See FAC ¶¶ 3, 31, 47.) Her prayer for relief seeks "all injunctive relief necessary to bring Defendants into compliance with the ADA... including an order requiring the Defendants to pay future premiums." (Id. at 8.)

Defendants characterize plaintiff's claim for relief as solely retrospective because the bureaucratic decision to exclude her from the Early Retirement Health Benefits program was made in the past. (Defs.' Reply at 4-5 (Docket No. 32).) An order requiring defendants to pay future premiums is equivalent, they argue, to an award of future damages.

In Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974), the Supreme Court recognized that "[t]he difference between the type of relief barred by the Eleventh Amendment and that permitted under Ex parte Young will not in many instances be that between night and day." Id. at 667. In subsequent cases, the Court has drawn a distinction between claims seeking "the award of an accrued monetary liability...' which represented retroactive payments, '" and those sseeking "payment of state funds... as a necessary consequence of compliance in the future with a substantive federal-question determination.'" Milliken, 433 U.S. at 289 (quoting Edelman, 415 U.S. at 663-664, 668) (describing Edelman's holding).[2]

Mindful of this distinction, the court is unable to conclude that the Eleventh Amendment bars all relief plaintiff seeks here. To the extent plaintiff seeks an order allowing her to prospectively "participat[e] in the Early Retirement Health Benefits program, " (see FAC ¶¶ 24, 31, 47), her claims seek the kind of relief authorized by Ex parte Young. Such relief would arguably not involve a monetary award and would not attempt to compensate plaintiff for past misconduct. As a consequence of plaintiff's participation in the Early Retirement Health Benefits program, defendants may be required to, among other things, pay plaintiff's future premiums in accordance with the administration of that program. However, the payment of future premiums "as a necessary consequence of compliance in the future" with the ADA does not necessarily place plaintiff's claims outside Ex parte Young. See Milliken, 433 U.S. at 289. Accordingly, because plaintiff's requested relief is distinguishable from retroactive monetary damages and may only serve to prospectively place her in defendants' Early Retirement Health Benefits program, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar plaintiff's first, third, and fourth claims against Nichols-Washer and Young.

B. Sufficiency of the FAC under Rule 12(b)(6)

On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972). To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead "only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

The plausibility standard "does not require detailed factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Nor does it "impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage." Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1213 (9th Cir. 2011). This standard "simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence' to support the allegations." Id. at 1217 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Ultimately, "[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

1. Plaintiff's ADA Claims against Nichols-Washer and Young

Defendants first argue that plaintiff's first, third, and fourth claims under the ADA are time barred. (Defs.' Mem. at 9-11.) Defendants base their argument on the fact that plaintiff filed her FAC-but not her original Complaint-more than ninety days after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notified her of her right to sue. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(f)(1), 12117(a); Edwards v. Occidental Chem. Corp., 892 F.2d 1442, 1445 (9th Cir. 1990). Defendants assert that the court must consider the FAC's filing date because plaintiff's FAC cannot "relate back" to her original complaint under Rule 15(c)(1). (Defs.' Mem. at 9-11.)

Rule 15(c)(1) allows an amended pleading that adds a new party to relate back to the date of the original pleading when (1) "the amendment asserts a claim... that arose out of the conduct.. in the original pleading, " (2) within the period allowed by Rule 4(m), the new party "received such notice of the action that it will not be prejudiced in defending on the merits, " and (3) the new party "knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against it, but for a mistake concerning the proper party's identity." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1).

All three of Rule 15(c)(1)'s requirements are met here. First, the parties do not contest that the new claims arise out of the same conduct asserted in plaintiff's original Complaint. (See Defs.' Mem. at 9.) Second, a sufficient "community of interest" exists between LUSD and the new defendants to impute knowledge of the action from the former to the later. See G.F. Co. v. Pan Ocean Shipping Co., 23 F.3d 1498, 1503 (9th Cir. 1994) (citing Korn v. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Inc., 724 F.2d 1397, 1401 (9th Cir. 1984)). Nichols-Washer and Young are agents of the original defendant, LUSD. As Superintendent and Director of Personnel for LUSD, Nichols-Washer and Young can reasonably be expected to know of a pending lawsuit against their employer arising from conduct they took on LUSD's behalf. Moreover, all defendants are represented by the same counsel, and plaintiff notified defendants' counsel as early as September 22, 2014, that she intended to amend her Complaint to add Nichols-Washer and Young as defendants. (See Mot. to Amend at 2 (Docket No. 11)); Edwards, 892 F.2d at 1447 (considering the fact that the same counsel represented both new and original parties). The court is thus satisfied that the new defendants received sufficient notice of the action and will not suffer prejudice in defending on the merits. Third, defendants knew or should have known that the action would have been brought against them but for an error in pleading. As stated previously, plaintiff acknowledged her error in naming only LUSD as a defendant in September 2014 and informed defendants' counsel that Nichols-Washer and Young would be added as defendants. (See Mot. to Amend at 2.) Accordingly, because all of the Rule 15(c)(1) elements are met, these claims relate back to the date of plaintiff's original Complaint and are not time barred.

Next, defendants argue that plaintiff's third claim fails to allege a required element of retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a), specifically a causal link between plaintiff's alleged request for time off as a reasonable accommodation and defendants' denial of early retirement health benefits. (Defs.' Mem. at 12); see Pardi v. Kaiser Found. Hospitals, 389 F.3d 840, 849 (9th Cir. 2004) ("To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, an employee must show that: (1) he or she engaged in a protected activity; (2) suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal link between the two."). Plaintiff alleges that "[o]n the basis of the time that Plaintiff requested and took off from work as a reasonable accommodation... Defendants denied Plaintiff's access to LUSD's Early Retirement Health Benefits program, " (FAC ¶ 3), and "Plaintiff has evidence which shows that Defendants took affirmative and intentional steps because of Plaintiff's known disabilities and requests for reasonable accommodation to ensure that Plaintiff Kitchen would be excluded from the program, " (id. ¶ 21 (emphasis added)). Accordingly, the court finds that plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a causal link and stated a claim for retaliation.

Finally, defendants argue that plaintiff's fourth claim does not state a claim for interference under 42 U.S.C. § 12203(b). (Defs.' Mem. at 13-14.) Section 12203(b) provides:

It shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his or her having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his or her having aided or encouraged any other individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by this chapter.

42 U.S.C. § 12203(b). Plaintiff alleges that "[i]n excluding Plaintiff from participation in the Early Retirement Health Benefits program due to the time off she requested and required as a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities, Defendant interfered with her on account of her having enjoyed rights protected under the ADA, in violation of Title V of the ADA." (FAC ¶ 43.) From this, the court understands the time plaintiff took off as a reasonable accommodation to be the alleged "right granted or protected" and the denial of retirement benefits for having "exercised or enjoyed" that right to be the alleged interference. Accordingly, the court finds that plaintiff has stated a claim for interference. The court will thus deny defendants' motion to dismiss claims one, three, and four as against Nichols-Washer and Young.

2. Plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act Claims

Regarding plaintiff's second and fifth claims under the Rehabilitation Act, defendants first raise the statute of limitations. (Defs.' Mem. at 11.) Rehabilitation Act claims under 29 U.S.C. §§ 794, et seq., have no independent statute of limitations, so courts apply the forum state's personal injury statute of limitations. See Douglas v. Cal. Dep't of Youth Auth., 271 F.3d 812, 823 (9th Cir. 2001); J.W. ex rel. J.E.W. v. Fresno Unified Sch. Dist., 570 F.Supp.2d 1212, 1222 (E.D. Cal. 2008) (O'Neill, J.). California's personal injury statute of limitations is two years. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 335.1.

Plaintiff alleges that Nichols-Washer informed her that she did not qualify for early retirement health benefits on November 1, 2012. (FAC ¶ 19.) Plaintiff filed her original Complaint on June 16, 2014. (Docket No. 1.) Her claims against LUSD were thus timely filed. With regard to new defendants Nichols-Washer and Young, the court has already concluded that plaintiff's claims relate back to the date she filed her original Complaint. See Part II.B.1. Accordingly, the statute of limitations does not bar plaintiff's second and fifth claims against any of the defendants.

Next, defendants argue that plaintiff's fifth claim for retaliation fails to allege the element of a causal link. (Defs.' Mem. at 14); see Coons v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Treasury, 383 F.3d 879, 887 (9th Cir. 2004) ("A prima facie case of retaliation requires a plaintiff to show: "(1) involvement in a protected activity, (2) an adverse employment action and (3) a causal link between the two."). Just as above, plaintiff adequately addresses causation by alleging that "[o]n the basis of the time that Plaintiff requested and took off from work as a reasonable accommodation... Defendants denied Plaintiff's access to LUSD's Early Retirement Health Benefits program, " (FAC ¶ 3), and "Defendants took affirmative and intentional steps because of Plaintiff's known disabilities and requests for reasonable accommodation to ensure that Plaintiff Kitchen would be excluded from the program, " (id. ¶ 21 (emphasis added)). The court thus finds that plaintiff has sufficiently stated a claim of retaliation under the Rehabilitation Act. Accordingly, the court will deny defendants' motion to dismiss claims two and five.

C. Defendants' Motion to Strike

Rule 12(f) authorizes a court to "strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). "The function of a 12(f) motion to strike is to avoid the expenditure of time and money that must arise from litigating spurious issues by dispensing with those issues prior to trial...." Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty, 984 F.2d 1524, 1527 (9th Cir. 1993) (quotation marks, citation, and first alteration omitted), rev'd on other grounds by Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517 (1994).

Because motions to strike are "often used as delaying tactics, " they are "generally disfavored" and are rarely granted in the absence of prejudice to the moving party. Rosales v. Citibank, FSB, 133 F.Supp.2d 1177, 1180 (N.D. Cal. 2001); see also N.Y.C. Emps.' Ret. Sys. v. Berry, 667 F.Supp.2d 1121, 1128 (N.D. Cal. 2009) ("Where the moving party cannot adequately demonstrate... prejudice, courts frequently deny motions to strike even though the offending matter was literally within one or more of the categories set forth in Rule 12(f)." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). Moreover, the Ninth Circuit has held that Rule 12(f) should not be used as "an attempt to have certain portions of [a] complaint dismissed or to obtain summary judgment against [a plaintiff] as to those portions of the suit-actions better suited for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion or a Rule 56 motion, not a Rule 12(f) motion." Whittlestone, Inc. v. Handi-Craft Co., 618 F.3d 970, 974 (9th Cir. 2010).

Defendants move to strike Nichchols-Washer and Young from plaintiff's second and fifth claims because their inclusion in those claims is "redundant and immaterial." (Defs.' Mem. at 4.) Defendants argue that any judgment against Nichchols-Washer and Young in their official capacity is in essence a judgment against LUSD. (Id. at 3-4); see Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985) ("[A] judgment against a public servant in his official capacity' imposes liability on the entity that he represents.'" (quoting Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471 (1985))). There is thus no need to include both LUSD and its officers in claims two and five.

Several decisions from this district have granted similar motions to strike claims against individuals in their official capacity when a claim also named that individual's employer. See, e.g., Contreras, ex rel. Contreras v. Cnty. of Glenn, 725 F.Supp.2d 1157, 1160 (E.D. Cal. 2010) (Mendez, J.); Haddox v. City of Fresno, 2008 WL 53244, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 2, 2008) (Wanger, J.). However, unlike the present case, those actions named government officials in both their individual and official capacities. See Contreras, 725 F.Supp.2d at 1160. Striking them in their official capacities thus did not operate to fully dismiss the claims against them. See id. ("[T]his ruling in no way affects the suit against these officers in their individual capacity."). The court is wary of the fact that granting such a motion to strike here will fully dismiss claims as against Nichchols-Washer and Young, contrary to the Ninth Circuit's guidance on the role of Rule 12(f). See Whittlestone, 618 F.3d at 974.

Defendants have also failed to show any prejudice from the inclusion of claims against both LUSD and Nichchols-Washer and Young in their official capacity. If these claims are truly duplicative and immaterial, their inclusion should have little impact on defendants. Accordingly, because such motions are disfavored in the absence of prejudice, see Rosales, 133 F.Supp.2d at 1180, the court will deny defendants' motion to strike.

IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that:

(1) defendants' motion to dismiss be, and the same hereby is, GRANTED with respect to claims one, three, and four as against defendant Lodi Unified School District only, and DENIED in all other respects;
(2) defendants' motion to strike be, and the same hereby is, DENIED.

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