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Castro v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 21, 2016

ISAAC CASTRO, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS RE: DKT. NO. 16

          MARIA-ELENA JAMES United States Magistrate Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Isaac Castro (“Plaintiff”), as Personal Representative of the Estate of Sara Castromata, his daughter, brings suit against the United States of America (“Defendant”) under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680. Pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction in light of Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950), and its progeny. Dkt. No. 16. Plaintiff filed an Opposition (Dkt. No. 18), and Defendant filed a Reply (Dkt. No. 20). The Court finds this matter suitable for disposition without oral argument and VACATES the July 14, 2016 hearing. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b); Civ. L.R. 7-1(b). Having considered the parties' positions, relevant legal authority, and the record in this case, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for the following reasons.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from Plaintiff's Complaint. See Compl., Dkt. No. 1 (filed Jan. 28, 2016). Sara Castromata was on active duty for the United States Marine Corps (“USMC”) stationed at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Virginia (“MCBQ”) at the time of her death. Id. ¶ 3. On March 21, 2013, Sgt. Eusebio Lopez fatally shot Castromata while she was in her barracks room aboard MCBQ. Id. ¶¶ 4, 12, 38.

         Plaintiff alleges Lopez had documented head trauma and PTSD, following his three tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Id. ¶ 13. Lopez was initially supposed to transfer to MCBQ to attend Recruiter school, but he was reassigned to serve at the Officer Candidates School (“OCS”) aboard MCBQ after failing a mental health screening. Id. ¶ 15. When Lopez was transferred to MCBQ in March[1] 2012, MCBQ did not obtain or review his medical records, and subsequently Lopez stopped treating his mental health issues. Id. ¶ 14.

         Lopez and Castromata had a brief, intimate relationship that began in November 2012 and ended several weeks prior to March 21, 2013. Id. ¶ 28. Castromata began dating Cpl. Jacob Wooley following her relationship with Lopez. Id. ¶ 34.

         On March 21, 2013, Lopez sent Castromata a text message indicating he was going to commit suicide. Id ¶ 29. Castromata warned the Sentry about Lopez's text and mental state, but the Sentry did not notify the chain of command or document the incident. Id ¶ 30. The same day, Lopez told the Sentry he was locked out of his room and asked for the master key, which the Sentry gave him. See id ¶ 33. Lopez later returned his own room key to the Sentry, instead of the master key. Id.

         While Castromata and Wooley were on liberty and off-base on a dinner date, Lopez used the master key to access Castromata's room, Wooley's room, and the stairwells. Id. ¶ 35. Castromata and Wooley returned to the barracks between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. and watched a movie in Wooley's room before returning to Castromata's room. Id ¶ 36. Around 10:00 p.m., Lopez, under the influence of alcohol and in possession of a firearm, confronted Castromata and Wooley, and fatally shot Wooley, Castromata, and himself Id ¶ 38. Plaintiff alleges their bodies were left in place for over six hours before any action was taken to determine if the injuries were survivable. Id ¶ 39. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges “no action was taken to determine the medical condition of all personnel involved until approximately four hours after the shooting; local civilian authorities were not contacted during this time to assist.” Id

         Plaintiff brings a single claim in this lawsuit: negligence. Id ¶¶ 41-44. In addition to the events above, Plaintiff alleges that upon arrival at MCBQ, Lopez never attended a Welcome Aboard Brief, which reviews the Command's policies and procedures for personal firearms. Id. ¶ 16. Furthermore, Lopez owned a Springfield XD .45 caliber, semi-automatic pistol and Remington shotgun in addition to several large knives and ammunition, which he originally stored off-base at his personal residence. Id. ¶¶ 17, 18. Plaintiff alleges the Command knew about Lopez's firearms by the time he moved into the barracks at OCS, but they did not ensure his weapons were registered and stored at the armory. Id ¶¶ 22-25. Indeed, in August 2012, members of OCS Command received information that Lopez had weapons and suicidal aspirations, but Plaintiff indicates the Command mishandled this incident by, among other things, failing to properly log important details about the incident, including Lopez's possession of weapons. Id ¶¶ 19-22. Additionally, the Command is required to conduct Force Preservation Boards (“FPB”), where members of the command discuss individuals with mental illness or suicidal/homicidal intentions or histories, but OCS's FPB, held on September 25, 2012, never mentioned Lopez's name, suicidal ideations, weapons, or move into the barracks. Id ¶¶ 26-27.

         Plaintiff claims Defendant breached its duty to ensure the barracks was a safe environment and to uphold and enforce its regulations by, among other things: (1) failing to consciously and deliberately transfer Lopez's medical records; (2) failing to ensure Lopez registered and stored his weapons in the armory; (3) failing to discuss and remedy Lopez's mental health issues at the Command's FPB; (4) giving Lopez the master key, in violation of a Marine Corps Order; (5) putting a Marine who had multiple Non-Judicial Punishments and was in the process of being administratively discharged on Duty as the Sentry and in-possession of the master key; (6) failing to enforce non-discretionary Department of Defense and Marine Corps orders; (7) failing to provide emergency medical attention immediately after the shooting; and (8) failing to contact local civilian authorities to assist. Id ¶ 43.

         While acknowledging the tragic nature of this case, Defendant moves to dismiss under Feres v. United States and its progeny, which prohibit suits against the military for injuries arising out of or in the course of activity “incident to service.” 340 U.S. at 146. Defendant argues the “Feres doctrine” divests the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs case. Mot. at 1, 3.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction; “[t]hey possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute, which is not to be expanded by judicial decree.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994) (citation omitted). Accordingly, “[i]t is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction, and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party ...


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