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Sylvester v. State

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 14, 2015

STATE OF CALIFORNIA, et al., Defendants.


RICHARD SEEBORG, District Judge.


Plaintiff Tokuko Sylvester, proceeding pro se, alleges that she has suffered constitutional injuries flowing from the cap on medical malpractice damages established by the California Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 ("MICRA") and the California court system's inadequate services for unrepresented, limited English proficiency ("LEP") civil litigants. Sylvester's grievance, as described in the lucid statement of facts found in her complaint, stems from her misadventures as a pro se malpractice plaintiff in California state court. Unable to find a lawyer willing to take her case on a contingent basis, Sylvester represented herself in a suit against her former podiatrist, alleging complications arising out of surgeries the doctor had performed on her foot. According to Sylvester's present complaint, she was hamstrung in superior court by her lack of familiarity with civil procedure and limited proficiency in the English language. Still, the case proceeded to trial. After Sylvester presented her case in chief, however, the superior court granted the defendant's motion for nonsuit and dismissed the action.[1] Sylvester unsuccessfully challenged that outcome in the court of appeal, and then filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court, which was also denied.

Sylvester now asserts ten claims against the State of California, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., the California Medical Board, the California courts, and the California State Bar. She seeks $121 million in damages and sweeping injunctive relief. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the motion is suitable for disposition without oral argument. Because Sylvester has failed to state any claim upon which relief may be granted, her complaint will be dismissed, with leave to amend.


A complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). While "detailed factual allegations are not required, " a complaint must have sufficient factual allegations to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 652, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible "when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. This standard asks for "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant acted unlawfully." Id.

A motion to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of the claims alleged in the complaint. See Parks Sch. of Bus., Inc. v. Symington, 51 F.3d 1480, 1484 (9th Cir. 1995). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on either the "lack of a cognizable legal theory" or on "the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory." Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

Pro se pleadings must be construed liberally. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). A pro se litigant in a civil rights suit must have an opportunity to amend a complaint to overcome deficiencies unless it is clear that they cannot be overcome by amendment. Eldrige v. Block, 832 F.2d 1132, 1135-36 (9th Cir. 1987).


A. Challenges to MICRA

Sylvester first argues that MICRA's $250, 000 cap on noneconomic malpractice damages[2] violated her constitutional right to be represented by an attorney. The damages ceiling, she contends, prevents her and other plaintiffs from obtaining legal counsel because California lawyers lack sufficient financial incentives to take on malpractice cases. Without minimizing the difficulties Sylvester seems to have experienced in her unsuccessful attempts to find legal representation, however, there is simply "no constitutional right to counsel in a civil case" under the circumstances described in her complaint. United States v. 30.64 Acres of Land, 795 F.2d 796, 801 (9th Cir. 1986).

Sylvester also points out that there is no California law requiring healthcare providers to inform patients about MICRA's damages cap. According to Sylvester, the California Patients' Bill of Rights mandates that each healthcare consumer "know the truth about MICRA." However, even if an individual healthcare provider could indeed be held liable for failing to inform a patient about MICRA's damages cap (and it is not clear that such a claim would be viable), Sylvester identifies no support for her claim that the State of California had an affirmative duty to pass a law requiring such disclosures.[3]

B. Due Process & Equal Protection

Next, Sylvester claims the superior court violated her rights to due process and equal protection by failing to provide her with "fair access to justice." Her grievance apparently stems, in part, from the assumption that the California state court system is required to treat pro se litigants with special leniency. Yet, as the superior court informed her, Sylvester and other pro se litigants are "entitled to the same, but no greater, consideration than other litigants and attorneys." Burnete v. La Casa Dana Apartments, 148 Cal.App.4th 1262, 1267 (2007). That was an accurate statement of California law; the same generally holds true in federal court. Jacobsen v. Filler, 790 F.2d 1362, 1364 (9th Cir. 1986) (" pro se litigants in the ordinary civil case should not be treated more favorably than parties with attorneys of record"). This court does not doubt that Sylvester, like many pro se plaintiffs, found civil litigation challenging. While the difficulties presented to laypersons attempting, for example, to learn civil ...

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