United States District Court, E.D. California
TROY L. NUNLEY, District Judge.
Defendants Ed Simmerson, John McClellan, Mike McDonald, and Matthew Cate (hereinafter collectively referred to as "Defendants") seek judgment on the pleadings on the following grounds: (1) decedent's alleged speech activities were not protected by the First Amendment; (2) Plaintiffs have failed to establish that Defendants McDonald or Cate participated in conduct that violated decedent's First Amendment rights; (3) all Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and (4) neither Cate nor McDonald can be liable on Plaintiffs' state law claims because decedent's suicide was an independent intervening cause of his death. ( See Defs.' Mot. J. Pleadings, ECF No. 47.) Plaintiffs oppose Defendants' motion. ( See Pl.'s Opp., ECF No. 48.) Defendants have filed a reply to Plaintiffs' opposition. (See Defs. Reply, ECF No. 49.) The Court has carefully considered the arguments presented by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion (ECF No. 47) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.
I. Factual Background
Plaintiffs, the widow and son of Scott Jones (Jones), filed their original Complaint against Defendants on August 21, 2012. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The instant First Amended Complaint was filed on March 22, 2013. ( See First Am. Compl. ("FAC"), ECF No. 25.) The FAC contains the following allegations.
Jones and Plaintiff Janelle Jones were married. On February 15, 2001, they had a son, Plaintiff T. J. Jones. In July 2002, Jones was hired by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) as a correctional officer. He was assigned to work at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California (hereinafter "High Desert"). Jones performed his job well and had "outstanding performance evaluations and complimentary peer reviews." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 20.) One of the job duties of a CDCR corrections officer, as set forth in CDCR policies and procedures, "was to disclose information regarding the wrongful and unlawful conduct of correctional peace officers." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 21.)
In 2006, Jones was assigned to work in the Z-unit at High Desert. The Z-Unit "is a stand-alone administrative segregation unit housing the most dangerous inmates." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 22.) On or about August 13, 2006, Jones "suffered a right knee injury while horsing around on duty in the Z-unit." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 23.) He reported the injury to his supervisor, Defendant Simmerson, stating that he had injured himself while engaged in horseplay with another correctional officer who had just been promoted. Defendant Simmerson ordered Jones to report the injury as an on-the-job worker's compensation injury. Jones told Defendant Simmerson that he didn't want to falsify a worker's compensation claim and that the incident had not happened the way Defendant Simmerson wanted it reported, but Defendant Simmerson ordered him to submit the report as an on-the-job worker's compensation claim. Because Jones did not want to be insubordinate and because he felt "tremendous pressure from his superior officer, " Jones did what Defendant Simmerson ordered him to do. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 23.) Jones thereafter went on a leave of absence until February 2007, when he was released to work.
In March 2007, Jones was pepper-sprayed in the eyes at close range by another correctional officer, Sergeant Derek Fletcher. The incident was witnessed by a number of other correctional officers. When the witnesses and Jones questioned Fletcher about why he had pepper-sprayed Jones, "Sergeant Fletcher flippantly responded with words to the effect of Does that mean that you are going to rat me out now?'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 25.) Jones told his wife he thought the incident was a warning "to keep quiet about the August 2006 incident involving his knee injury and Simmerson ordering him to falsify the cause of his injury on the workers compensation forms." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 25.)
In October 2007, Jones "had knee surgery and spent the next four months in post-operative rehabilitation." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 26.) Following his return to work in January 2008, he was assigned to Fence Patrol. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 27.) He was subjected to "constant" "verbal harassment by other correctional officers." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 27.) Jones reported the harassment to his superiors at High Desert but nothing was done about it. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 27.) He was also subjected to "two random' drug tests, " which had never been required before. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 28.)
Jones was subsequently reassigned to Z-unit, where he worked with three other correctional officers, Anthony Lares (hereinafter "Lares"), Jesse Barron (hereinafter "Barron"), and Anthony Tirado (hereinafter "Tirado"). (ECF No. 25 ¶ 29.) For the rest of his employment with CDCR, Jones was often partnered with Lares. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 29.) Lares "filed several complaints regarding working conditions" at High Desert and Jones "was a witness to many of these complaints." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 30.) Lares "also filed numerous complaints of safety violations, to which [Jones] was a corroborating witness." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 30.) Management at High Desert "detested correctional officers who filed complaints regarding the working conditions" at High Desert. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 31.) While working in the Z-Unit, Jones "witnessed and complained of numerous events and actions to his supervisors, including but not limited to Defendant Simmerson, that [Jones] believed violated federal or state law" and/or rules and regulations. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 32.)
In particular, [Jones] witnessed and complained of: (1) strip-searches of inmates in the snow; (2) provocation of fighting among the inmates; (3) failure to permit inmates to shower; (4) failure to exchange inmates' laundry; and (5) failure to prohibit inmates' possession and transmission of contraband.
(ECF No. 25 ¶ 32.) All of the reports were "summarily dismissed, " and Jones decided it would be futile to report any more misconduct. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 32.)
In addition to not responding to his complaints, Jones's supervisors "falsely accused [him] of misconduct." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 33.) Defendant McClellan "constantly" accused Jones, Lares and Barron of tampering with inmates' mail and the three were threatened with discipline and termination. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 33.) The accusations were investigated and found to be "untrue" but Defendant McClellan continued the harassment. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 33.) Defendant Simmerson called Jones and Barron at home and told them to quit. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 34.) Defendants Simmerson and McClellan did not intervene when correctional officers told Jones and others "that they were fucking up' and that they were going to get fired.'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 34.) This conduct made Jones's "working conditions intolerable." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 34.)
In mid-2009, at the conclusion of a work shift Defendant Simmerson "warned [Jones] to stay away from Lares." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 35.) When Jones questioned Simmerson, Simmerson told him he would "go down as collateral damage" if he didn't stay away from Lares. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 35.) Simmerson also told Jones "we can burn people's fences.'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 35.) Jones told his wife he believed this was "in reference to an August 2001 criminal case in which a [High Desert] correction officer set captain's fence on fire." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 35.) He also told her he believe the threat was "another attempt to keep [Jones] from reporting officer misconduct in Z-unit." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 35.) Defendant McClellan also warned Jones to stay away from Lares or he would "go down with Officer Lares." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 36.)
As a result of all the harassment and abuse, Jones "sought medical treatment for anxiety and depression" and was "prescribed anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressive medications." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 37.) A few months later, Jones was threatened by Sergeant Amero, who said that he had seen Jones walking with his family and "thought about running [him] over and making [him] a hood ornament.'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 38.) The harassment and abuse "continued throughout 2009." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 39.) In August 2010, Lares sent a letter to the CDCR whistleblower hotline demanding protection for himself, Jones, Barron and Tirado. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 40.) In January 2011, Jones and Lares were transferred out of Z-unit to the A-yard to handle inmate mail. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 41.) They were warned by Sergeant Hayes "to be careful with the mail because [they] were going to be set up to be fired regarding their handling of the mail." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 41.) For the next few months, Jones "experienced heightened scrutiny as to his job duties, especially as to the delivery of inmates' mail." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 42.)
On July 4, 2011, Jones "responded to a medical incident on A yard" and grabbed the arm of an inmate who was falling, in order to break the inmate's fall. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 43.) Later in the shift a correctional lieutenant told Jones he had heard Jones and other officers were "taking inmates down... and beating the shit out of them.'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 43.) Subsequently a "meritless investigation into alleged use of excessive force" by Jones was conducted. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 43.) The investigation was "obviously a ruse to intimidate [Jones], as the officers closest to the scene were not even interviewed." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 43.) The next day Jones was "repeatedly confronted" by a correctional counselor. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 44.) Later that day he spoke with his wife. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 44.) He was "extremely distraught" and told her he didn't think he could continue to work at High Desert. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 44.)
On July 6, 2011, Jones called High Desert to quit. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 45.) The sergeant he spoke with told him "to take a short leave to consider his decision to quit." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 45.) On July 7, 2011, he received a call from another sergeant, with whom he "spoke for about an hour." (ECF No. 25 ¶ 46.) He told the sergeant about Simmerson ordering him to falsify the worker's compensation and the ensuing harassment and abuse. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 46.) The sergeant told Jones to give the information to management at High Desert. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 46.) On July 8, 2011, Jones told his wife he was going to High Desert to talk with Defendants McDonald and Simmerson. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 47.) After she couldn't find Jones that afternoon, Plaintiff Janelle Jones and her father spent the rest of the day trying to find him. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 48.) Plaintiff Janelle Jones's father called Defendants McDonald and Simmerson and was told Jones hadn't "met with, or spoken to" either of them. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 48.)
On July 9, 2011, Defendant Simmerson spoke with Plaintiff Janelle Jones's father and asked if Jones had been found yet. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 49.) He also told Plaintiff Janelle Jones's father he needed to know what Jones had been telling his wife about the prison. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 49.) On the afternoon of July 9, 2011, Jones was found dead on a dirt road outside Susanville. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 50.) His truck was about two hundred yards from his body and several notes were inside the car, including one that said "The job made me do it.'" (ECF No. 25 ¶ 50.) Plaintiffs are informed and believe that "no less than five correctional officers" from High Desert have committed suicide in the past three years. (ECF No. 25 ¶ 51.)
Plaintiffs' FAC contains five claims. The first claim is raised against Defendants McClellan and Simmerson for violation of Jones' rights under the First Amendment to be free from harassment and retaliation. (ECF No. 25 at 16-18.) Plaintiffs' second claim is also against Defendants McClellan and Simmerson for violation of Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment rights to the "companionship and support" of Jones. (ECF No. 25 at 18-19.) The third claim is against Defendants Cate and McDonald for failure to properly train and supervise correctional officers, including Defendants McClellan and Simmerson. (ECF No. 25 at 19-22.) The fourth claim is a state law claim for wrongful death raised against all Defendants. (ECF No. 25 at 22-24.) Finally, the fifth claim is a state law claim for negligence against Defendants McDonald, McClellan, and Simmerson. (ECF No. 25 at 25.)
II. Standard of Law
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides "[a]fter the pleadings are closed- but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." The issue presented by a Rule 12(c) motion is the same as that posed in a 12(b) motion-whether the allegations of the complaint, together with all reasonable inferences, state a plausible claim for relief. See Cafasso v. Gen. Dynamics C4 Sys., 637 F.3d 1047, 1054-1055 (9th Cir. 2011). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)).
Nevertheless, a court "need not assume the truth of legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." United States ex rel. Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638, 643 n. 2 (9th Cir. 1986). While Rule 8(a) does not require detailed factual allegations, "it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A pleading is insufficient if it offers mere "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 ("Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice."). Moreover, it is inappropriate to assume that the plaintiff "can prove facts which it has not alleged or that the defendants have violated the... laws in ways that have not been alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal., Inc. v. Cal. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526, 103 S.Ct. 897, 74 L.Ed.2d 723 (1983).
Ultimately, a court may not dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff has alleged "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 697 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Only where a plaintiff has failed to "nudge [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, " is the complaint properly dismissed. Id. at 680. While the plausibility requirement is not akin to a probability requirement, it demands more than "a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. at 678. This plausibility inquiry is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.
If a complaint fails to state a plausible claim, "[c]ourts have discretion to grant leave to amend in conjunction with 12(c) motions, and may dismiss causes of action rather than grant judgment." Carmen v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 982 F.Supp. 1396, 1401 (N.D. Cal. 1997) aff'd, 237 F.3d 1026 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotes omitted); see also Dutciuc v. Meritage Homes of Arizona, Inc., 462 F.Appx. 658, 660 (9th Cir. 2011) (Although leave to amend is often freely given when justice so requires, a district court may deny leave to amend where a plaintiff has repeatedly failed to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed."); Longberg v. City of Riverside, 300 F.Supp.2d 942, 945 (C.D. Cal. 2004) ("although Rule ...