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Cummings v. Harris

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 28, 2015




In this action, pro se plaintiff Lonnie Pahl Cummings challenges the constitutionality of a state law requiring the posting of bail in order to challenge a traffic ticket via a special procedure known as a "trial by declaration." Before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss filed by defendant Kamala D. Harris, the Attorney General for the State of California ("Defendant, " or "Attorney General"). Def.'s Mot., ECF 38. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the Eleventh Amendment bars Plaintiff's claim against Defendant and GRANTS Defendant's motion to dismiss without leave to amend.


The present motion concerns Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint ("FAC"), which names Attorney General Kamala D. Harris as the sole defendant in the case. See FAC, ECF 29. Plaintiff's original complaint, filed June 3, 2014, appeared to name two defendants: Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara ("the Superior Court"). On October 27, 2014, after a hearing with Plaintiff in attendance, the Court granted the Superior Court's motion to dismiss and afforded Plaintiff an opportunity to amend. Order Granting Mot. to Dismiss, ECF 27. Plaintiff filed the FAC on November 21, 2014, and the Court subsequently dismissed the Superior Court from the case because it appeared that Plaintiff was no longer pursuing his claims against that defendant. See ECF 34.

Aside from the change in defendants, the substance of Plaintiff's allegations remains largely unchanged. Plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of California Vehicle Code § 40902, which provides that a defendant cited for a traffic infraction "may elect to have a trial by written declaration" upon submission of bail in the amount of the traffic penalty. Cal. Veh. Code § 40902.[1] Plaintiff asserts that he requested a trial by declaration but was unable to post bail due to financial inability. FAC ¶¶ 5(b)-(c). As such, he was required to appear before a judge in order to contest his traffic ticket. Id. ¶ 5(d). Although not alleged, Plaintiff informed the Court at a hearing on October 16, 2014 that the underlying traffic citation was dismissed in September 2014 because the charging officer did not appear in court.

Plaintiff asserts that the bail requirement for a trial by declaration is unconstitutional, referencing a number of provisions from both the United States Constitution and the California Constitution. He seeks declaratory relief and asks the Court to answer a number of questions posed in the FAC, such as: "Has Plaintiff's rights to access Superior Court by way of Trial by Declaration been violated?"; "If Infractions are not arrest able [sic] crimes then how is the bail' not a fee?"; and "Is the bail requirement unconstitutional?" Id. ¶ 5(k). Plaintiff seeks "an order against the bail/fee access requirement to the Court by way of Trial by Declaration." Id. at p. 9.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a plaintiff set forth in his complaint a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's statement of his claims. To survive such a motion, a complaint must plead sufficient factual matter that, when accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, "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 (2009); see also Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 557 (2007).

"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). As such, a federal court has an independent obligation to insure that it has subject matter jurisdiction over a matter. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3); Snell v. Cleveland, Inc., 316 F.3d 822, 826 (9th Cir. 2002). On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), which challenges a court's subject matter jurisdiction over a claim, the burden is on the plaintiff, as the party asserting jurisdiction, to establish that subject matter jurisdiction exists. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377. A facial jurisdictional challenge, as advanced here, asserts that even if assumed true, "the allegations contained in a complaint are insufficient on their face to invoke federal jurisdiction." Safe Air for Everyone v. Meyer, 373 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2004).

"[A] document filed pro se is to be liberally construed, ' and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). "Unless it is absolutely clear that no amendment can cure the defect... a pro se litigant is entitled to notice of the complaint's deficiencies and an opportunity to amend prior to dismissal of the action." Lucas v. Dep't of Corr., 66 F.3d 245, 248 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoted with approval in Merritt v. Countrywide Fin. Corp., 759 F.3d 1023, 1041 (9th Cir. 2014)). Conversely, leave to amend may be denied if amendment would be futile, and a district court's discretion to deny leave to amend is "particularly broad" where a plaintiff has previously amended unsuccessfully. Salameh v. Tarsadia Hotel, 726 F.3d 1124, 1133 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe v. United States, 90 F.3d 351, 355 (9th Cir. 1996)).


Defendant advances three arguments in support of her motion to dismiss: (1) that Plaintiff lacks standing to bring his claim; (2) that Defendant is immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment; and (3) that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim. Def.'s Mot. 5-11. The Court finds Defendant's claim of sovereign immunity dispositive and addresses only that issue here.

The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." U.S. Const. amend. XI. "The Eleventh Amendment erects a general bar against federal lawsuits brought against a state." Porter v. Jones, 319 F.3d 483, 491 (9th Cir. 2003). "It does not, however, bar actions for prospective declaratory or injunctive relief against state officers in their official capacities for their alleged violations of federal law." Coal. to Defend Affirmative Action v. Brown, 674 F.3d 1128, 1133-34 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 155-56 (1908) and Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 747 (1999)). Sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment circumscribes a federal court's jurisdiction and must generally be resolved before reaching the merits of a case. Id. at 1133 (citing In re Jackson, 184 F.3d 1046, 1048 (9th Cir. 1999)).

Here, Defendant contends (and the Court agrees) that Plaintiff's suit is in reality a claim against the State because he has not alleged a claim against Defendant, in her capacity as the Attorney General of California, that can properly proceed under the limited exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity enunciated in Ex parte Young. Def.'s Mot. 6-8. Indeed, there are no allegations concerning Defendant's conduct in connection with Plaintiff's ...

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