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Motley v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 20, 2016

PAMELA MOTLEY; ESTATE OF CINDY RAYGOZA, through its legal representative and administrator, YVETTE CALDERA; YVETTE CALDERA; VALERIE CALDERA; DANNY RICE, Plaintiffs,


         On June 14, 2015, Pamela Motley ("Pamela") and the Estate of Cindy Raygoza ("Cindy") (collectively, "plaintiffs"), by and through its legal representative and administrator, filed a complaint against the City of Fresno ("Fresno") and Fresno Police Department ("FPD") officers Joseph Smith, Brian Little, Derrick Johnson, Michael Couto, Bernard Finley, Byron Urton, and an unnamed officer (collectively, the "defendant officers"). (Doc. No. 1.) Cindy's adult children- Yvette Caldera, Valeria Caldera, and Danny Rice-have filed their own claims in this action as well, seeking relief for deprivation of rights to familial association under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and wrongful death under California Code of Civil Procedure §§ 377.60 et seq. Pamela and Cindy filed a first amended complaint ("FAC") on June 17, 2015. (Doc. No. 7.) Defendant Fresno filed a motion to dismiss on July 10, 2015. (Doc. No. 11.) The defendant officers joined in the motion to dismiss on July 27, 2015. (Doc. No. 19.) Plaintiffs filed an opposition on August 15, 2015. (Doc. No. 20.) On August 20, 2015, defendants filed a reply. (Doc. No. 24.) The motion to dismiss was first taken under submission on August 20, 2015 by District Judge Troy L. Nunley. However, the case was subsequently transferred to District Judge Dale A. Drozd on February 29, 2016. (Doc. No. 37.) Thereafter oral argument was heard with respect to the pending motion on May 3, 2016. (Doc. No. 43.) Attorney Kevin Little appeared on behalf of the plaintiffs and attorney Tony Sang appeared on behalf of the defendants.

         I. Introduction

         In their FAC, plaintiffs together allege multiple federal and state law causes of action against both the defendant officers and Fresno. However, though combined in a single complaint and alleging shared causes of action, the only common nexus uniting plaintiffs' claims is that both plaintiffs dealt with the FPD after suffering domestic violence. There is no overlap-at least as currently pled-between the defendant officers who interacted with each plaintiff. Thus, the facts of each plaintiff's claims must be laid out separately.

         a. Pamela Motley

         Pamela is a victim of domestic violence. In January 2014, Pamela discovered her husband, Paul Motley ("Paul"), was having an affair with another woman and arranged for a meeting between herself, her husband, and the other woman in a public space. The meeting ended with Paul striking the other woman and being arrested. Upon his release, Paul was involuntarily held pursuant to California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5150. Pamela subsequently moved out of the house she shared with Paul and moved in with her parents in Fresno.

         Pamela and Paul attempted to reconcile their relationship, but by March 2014, Pamela announced she wanted to divorce Paul. In response, Paul attacked and injured Pamela on March 12, 2014. Pamela called the police on March 13, 2014, but the police did not respond until March 14, 2014. On that day, Officers Smith and Little met with Pamela. According to Pamela, the officers did not inform her of citizen's arrest rights, or give her any of the informational materials with which domestic violence victims must be provided under California law. Officers Smith and Little also interviewed Paul and served him with an emergency protective order issued by a judge of the Fresno County Superior Court. According to Pamela, Officers Smith and Little failed to arrest Paul in spite of his admission he had physically grabbed Pamela and even though Paul failed to surrender his firearm, as required by California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5150. An arrest did not take place despite Paul's admission because the officers determined the March 12, 2014 incident involved mutual combat. Four days after meeting with Officers Smith and Little, Pamela obtained a domestic violence restraining order against Paul.

         Nonetheless, Paul continued to threaten, stalk, and harass Pamela. Paul went to Pamela's place of work on March 24, 2014, prompting Pamela to call the FPD. Officers Johnson and Couto responded to the call. Even though Paul was present upon their arrival, the officers could not arrest Paul because he had not yet been served with the restraining order procured by Pamela on March 18, 2014. The officers then served Paul with the restraining order. According to Pamela, those officers also failed to inform her of her citizen's arrest rights or provide her with the required domestic violence victim information.

         On the morning of March 25, 2014, Pamela called the FPD to report Paul had deflated her tires and was continuing to text and call her in violation of the restraining order. There was no immediate response by the FPD, and Pamela called again later that day. By the evening of March 25, 2014, Officer Finley responded to Pamela's call. Officer Finley confirmed Paul had called and texted Pamela and also confirmed the existence of the restraining order. Officer Finley then reportedly visited Paul's address to try and contact him, but was apparently unable to find him. Pamela alleges Officer Finley also failed to provide her with the required domestic violence victim information or inform her of her citizen's arrest rights.

         On March 28, 2014, Pamela called the FPD to report she had heard from a third party that Paul had threatened to kill her and her parents. Before any officer responded, Pamela left to stay with her daughter in Kerman, California. The FPD canceled the officer response. Pamela alleges there was nothing to prevent an FPD officer from coming to Kerman to take her statement.

         Pamela alleges Paul made a court appearance at Fresno County Superior Court on April 3, 2014. Pamela also alleges that if any of the above-named officers had sought or obtained an arrest warrant for Paul, he would have been taken into custody during this court appearance.

         On April 7, 2014, Pamela again called the FPD after Paul followed her while she was driving, eventually blocking her in at a cul-de-sac with his car. While Pamela was trapped in the cul-de-sac, Paul threatened to kill her on their wedding anniversary: April 14, 2014. Officer Urton responded to this call from Pamela. According to Pamela, Officer Urton was "rude and insensitive" and told her not to worry because "[t]hese guys follow through only 1 percent of the time." (Doc. No. 7, Complaint ("Compl.") at 12.) Pamela alleges the only action Officer Urton took was to try and contact Paul at his address. Pamela also alleges Officer Urton failed to provide her with the requisite domestic violence victim information or inform her of her citizen's arrest rights.

         On April 12, 2014, after lying in wait outside of Pamela's parents' house, Paul ambushed Pamela and shot her in her face as she returned home from work. Paul then killed himself. Pamela is now a paraplegic as a result of the attack. She alleges the above-named officers caused her injuries by failing to properly investigate her complaints against Paul. According to Pamela, a proper investigation would have resulted in Paul's arrest, preventing him from inflicting harm upon her.

         b. Cindy Raygoza

         Cindy Raygoza alleges she was attacked by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Reams ("Michael"), one evening in February 2014. Michael broke into Cindy's apartment and choked her. Cindy had managed to call the FPD as Michael was breaking in, but Michael was able to escape before the FPD responded. The responding FPD officer-whose name is currently unknown to plaintiffs-performed a background check on Michael and learned he had been previously arrested for domestic violence. Cindy explained to the unnamed officer she was a domestic violence survivor, having been abused by her previous husband. According to Cindy, the unnamed officer proceeded to berate Cindy about her choice in men.[1] The unnamed officer also told Cindy if she continued to associate with Michael the FPD would not respond to her calls and would consider her to be "crying wolf." (Id. at 15.) Cindy also alleges this officer promised that he (or she) would arrest Michael.

         The complaint alleges Michael was never arrested, and the FPD made no concerted effort to adhere to the officer's promise. Instead, Michael broke into Cindy's apartment again on July 14, 2014 and stabbed Cindy to death. According to the complaint, Cindy's death would have been avoided had the FPD arrested Michael following his first attack on Cindy. The complaint also alleges that the unnamed FPD officer failed to provide Cindy with the requisite domestic violence victim information and inform her of her citizen's arrest rights.

         c. Non-party Victims[2]

         Plaintiffs also include multiple allegations concerning non-party victims. These allegations describe instances in which FPD officers failed to follow proper procedures when responding to domestic violence calls, such as interviewing the victim and aggressor in presence of one another; discounting the testimony of female victims in favor of male aggressors; and making insensitive remarks to female victims, including telling one female who was raped by her boyfriend that she was not "acting like a rape victim." Plaintiffs also allege female domestic violence victims were misinformed about the legal protections to which they were entitled. Lastly, plaintiffs allege Jerry Dyer, the chief of the FPD, admitted at a press conference there were officers in his department "who just do not get it" when it comes to domestic violence.

         II. Legal Standard

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. N. Star Int'l v. Ariz. Corp. Comm'n, 720 F.2d 578, 581 (9th Cir. 1983). "Dismissal can be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or 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). A plaintiff is required to allege "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). "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 (2009).

         In determining whether a complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted, the court accepts as true the allegations in the complaint and construes the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984); Love v. United States, 915 F.2d 1242, 1245 (9th Cir. 1989). 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 (1983).

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court is permitted to consider material which is properly submitted as part of the complaint, documents that are not physically attached to the complaint if their authenticity is not contested and the plaintiff's complaint necessarily relies on them, and matters of public record. Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001).

         III. Analysis

         a. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims

         Section 1983 provides, in pertinent part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

         The statute does not serve as an independent source of substantive rights; rather it provides "a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred." Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979). Thus, "[t]o state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         Plaintiffs contend the defendant officers deprived them of their substantive due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs also allege a municipal liability claim brought pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The court will first examine whether plaintiffs have adequately pled a § 1983 claim against the defendant officers before turning to an examination of the sufficiency of their Monell claim. i. Due-Process Violation "[A] State's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause." DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 197 (1989). This is because the purpose of the Due Process Clause is "to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protect[s] them from each other." Id. at 196. Therefore, an individual cannot sue a state actor solely on the grounds that his life, liberty, or property interests were harmed as a result of the state actor's failure to protect him from the conduct of a third party. Johnson v. City of Seattle, 474 F.3d 634, 639 (9th Cir. 2007) ("Because the City of Seattle had no constitutional duty to protect the Pioneer Square Plaintiffs against violence from members of the riotous crowd, ‘its failure to do so-though calamitous in hindsight-simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.'") (quoting DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 202).

         However, two exceptions to this general rule exist. The first exception-"danger creation"-provides that a government official may be liable under § 1983 if "state action affirmatively . . . creates or exposes an individual to a danger which he or she would not have otherwise faced." Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Under this exception, the plaintiff must also allege and ultimately show "that the [government] official . . . acted with deliberate indifference to [a] known or obvious danger." L.W. v. Grubbs, 92 F.3d 894, 900 (9th Cir. 1996). "‘Deliberate indifference' is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his actions." Kennedy v. City of Ridgefield, 439 F.3d 1055, 1064 (9th Cir. 2006). The second exception-"special relationship"- creates liability "when a custodial relationship exists between the plaintiff and the State such that the State assumes some responsibility for the plaintiff's safety and well-being." Henry A. v. Willden, 678 F.3d 991, 1002 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Plaintiffs argue the special relationship exception applies in Pamela's case because an officer defendant-Officer Urton-knew Paul had threatened to kill Pamela on April 14, 2014, creating a situation in which the state was aware of a specific risk of harm to her. (Doc. No. 20, Plaintiffs' Opposition ("Opp.") at 8.) Second, plaintiffs argue the "danger creation" exception applies to Cindy's case because an unnamed officer, by making revicitimizing statements to Cindy, discouraged her from calling 9-1-1 for help. (Id.) In response, defendants argue these exceptions are applicable only to situations in which officers affirmatively create a danger that did not previously exist, whereas in the current action, Pamela and Cindy were harmed by a preexisting danger from a private actor. (Doc. No. 24, Defendants' Reply ("Reply") at 7-11.) The application of each exception will be analyzed below in turn.

         1. Does the "special relationship" exception apply to Pamela?

         "[The] ‘special relationship exception' [applies] when ‘the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will.'" Campbell v. State of Washington Dep't of Soc. & Health Servs., 671 F.3d 837, 842 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 199-200). By so limiting an individual's freedom, "the state has a duty to ‘assume some responsibility for [the person's] safety and general well-being' because it has ‘render[ed] him unable to care for himself.'" Id. at 843 (quoting DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 200). A state's "knowledge of [a plaintiff's] plight and its expressions of intent to help"-absent some type of state imposed limitation on that plaintiff's freedom-is not enough to give rise to the exception. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 700 (9th Cir. 1990).

         Here, plaintiffs have not adequately pled the existence of a "special relationship" between Pamela and the defendant officers. The decision in Balistreri is instructive. In that case, Jena Balistreri-a domestic violence victim-filed a § 1983 complaint against a police department and its chief after she was severely abused by her husband over an extended period of time. Id. at 698. Balistreri argued the police violated her constitutional rights because, even after multiple calls for assistance and the issuance of a restraining order, they refused to arrest her husband despite overwhelming evidence of his ongoing abuse and harassment of her. Id. The district court dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim, and Balistreri appealed, arguing she could sustain a § 1983 action because the police "knew of her plight and affirmatively committed to protect her [as a result of the restraining order], " thus giving rise to a special relationship. Id. at 700. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, noting her allegations regarding the police department's knowledge were, even if proven, not enough to establish the existence of a special relationship as recognized by the law. Rather, Balistreri needed to allege and ultimately show she was subjected to some form of state control that limited her freedom to act for herself. Id. (citing DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 199-200).

         Just as in Balistreri, Pamela here attempts to use the defendant officers' knowledge-in particular Officer Urton's knowledge-of her plight as grounds for establishing a special relationship. But noticeably absent from plaintiffs' FAC are any allegations that Pamela was taken into any sort of custody by the defendant officers or the FPD that rendered her unable to care for herself. Thus, the allegations of plaintiffs' complaint are insufficient with respect to the existence of the required special relationship.

         2. Does the "danger creation" exception apply to Cindy?

         The "danger creation" exception applies to situations in which "state action . . . creates or exposes an individual to a danger which he or she would not have otherwise faced." Kennedy, 439 F.3d at 1062. A state actor cannot be held liable for failing to mitigate an already existing dangerous situation not instigated by state action. See Johnson, 474 F.3d at 641 (police not liable for failing to protect revelers because the police conduct did not enhance danger inherent to those participating in Mardi Gras celebration). The individual must allege and ultimately show "officers left [him or her] in a ...

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