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Bennett v. County of Shasta

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 12, 2016

THE COUNTY OF SHASTA, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Robert Bennett ("Plaintiff") alleges his constitutional rights were violated when local law enforcement seized his dogs from his Shasta County property. He thus brings this action against the County of Shasta ("County"), Sheriff Tom Bosenko ("Sherriff") in his official capacity, Officer Mayra Morris ("Morris") in her official capacity, Officer Colleen Ferrara ("Ferrara") in her official capacity, and the Haven Humane Society ("Haven"). This Court granted the County's and Haven's Motions for a More Definite Statement (ECF Nos. 14 and 15), and Plaintiff then filed his First Amended Complaint ("FAC") (ECF No. 27). Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motions to Procedure Dismiss the FAC (ECF Nos. 29 and 30) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the Motions are GRANTED in their entirety.[1]


         Plaintiff has bred Shepadoodles at his property in Shasta County since 2006. In August 2011, Plaintiff started receiving nuisance complaints regarding his dogs.

         On February 3, 2013, Ferrara found two dogs running in Plaintiff's neighborhood without an owner present. She believed them to be Plaintiff's and returned the animals to his property with assistance from Morris, the Sheriff's Animal Care and Enforcement Unit Manager. In doing so, Plaintiff alleges both officers unlawfully entered his property to investigate the living conditions of his dogs. Morris and Ferrara repeated these acts the next day despite his request that they leave. Over this two-day period, Plaintiff claims he was cited for violating six different animal ordinances, see e.g., Shasta, CA, County Ordinances ch. 6.04 (1991), and California Penal Code § 597, titled "Cruelty to animals." See FAC ¶¶ 27 and 28.[3]

         On May 16, 2013, the County served Plaintiff with a search warrant and seized all of his dogs. Plaintiff was cited for five additional animal ordinances at that time and was charged with violating Penal Code § 591, which criminalizes tampering with telephone, cable or other electricity lines. During the seizure that culminated in his arrest,, Plaintiff claims a gun was pointed at his head, the arresting officer used unreasonable force, and several verbal threats were made towards him.

         Plaintiff requested a post-seizure administrative hearing to avoid forfeiture of his dogs, pursuant to Penal Code section 597.1(j). The hearing lasted over a month and was conducted by a "hearing officer." The officer required $3, 000 in improvements on Plaintiff's land to demonstrate that he could "provide the necessary care for the" dogs. See § 597.1(j). After Plaintiff allegedly made improvements, he argues the County visited his property and told him he "had done a great job, but would ‘like it' if he made some additional improvements." FAC ¶ 57.

         Plaintiff further alleges the entire post-seizure process was flawed because the hearing officer was biased, the scope of the hearing was improper, he was not allowed to subpoena witnesses, no factual evidence was produced by the County, and he did not have counsel throughout the proceedings. With respect to bias, Plaintiff points to the fact that he was excluded from a closed-door conversation between the officer and the County. As to scope, he claims the hearing officer failed to address whether the seizure of Plaintiff's animals was proper when the officer remarked that such a determination was "above his pay grade." FAC ¶ 119.

         On August 23, 2013, the "Results After Hearing" stipulated that Plaintiff cover the costs incurred by the County in housing the dogs at a rate of $15 each day for each dog. Plaintiff asserts he was required to pay $3, 600 in lien charges, and that the County demanded another $4, 000. In the end, Plaintiff's dogs were not returned and his property interest in the animals was deemed forfeited on December 22, 2013.

         On July 8, 2013, the same day Plaintiff's post-seizure hearing began, he was charged "in violation of Section 597.1 of the Penal Code." Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s Mot. to Dis; see also ECF No. 32-1. However, Plaintiff was ultimately convicted of only Shasta County ordinances. See ECF No. 29-3.

         Plaintiff brings this lawsuit seeking a declaration that Penal Code section 597.1 is void for vagueness, that the County Defendants' conduct violated his Fourth Amendment rights, and that Defendants violated his right to due process. Plaintiff also seeks a minimum of $250, 000 related to the loss of his dogs. He also brings a claim alleging that Defendants conspired to interfere with his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985. For their part, Defendants challenge the legal sufficiency of the entirety of Plaintiff's complaint. They argue that Plaintiff only has standing to challenge one provision of Penal Code section 597.1 and that that provision is sufficiently clear for due process purposes as a matter of law. They also contend that Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts to support his claims against the County and that Plaintiff's inability to allege his membership in a suspect class dooms his § 1985 claim.


         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact must be accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996). Rule 8(a)(2) "requires only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). A complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not require detailed factual allegations. However, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). A court is not required to accept as true a "legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing 5 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216 (3d ed. 2004) (stating that the pleading must contain something more than "a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action")).

         Furthermore, "Rule 8(a)(2) . . . requires a showing, rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 (internal citations and quotations omitted). Thus, "[w]ithout some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirements of providing not only ‘fair notice' of the nature of the claim, but also ‘grounds' on which the claim rests." Id. (citing Wright & Miller, supra, at 94, 95). A pleading must contain "only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. If the "plaintiffs . . . have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed." Id. However, "[a] well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and ‘that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'" Id. at 556 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         A court granting a motion to dismiss a complaint must then decide whether to grant leave to amend. Leave to amend should be "freely given" where there is no "undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, . . . undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [or] futility of the amendment . . . ." Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962); Eminence Capital, LLC v. Aspeon, Inc., 316 F.3d 1048, 1052 (9th Cir. 2003) (listing the Foman factors as those to be considered when deciding whether to grant leave to amend). Not all of these factors merit equal weight. Rather, "the consideration of prejudice to the opposing party . . . carries the greatest weight." Id. (citing DCD Programs, Ltd. v. Leighton, 833 F.2d 183, 185 (9th Cir. 1987)). Dismissal without leave to amend is proper only if it is clear that "the complaint could not be saved by any amendment." Intri-Plex Techs. v. Crest Group, Inc., 499 F.3d 1048, 1056 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing In re Daou Sys., Inc., 411 F.3d 1006, 1013 (9th Cir. 2005); Ascon Props., Inc. v. Mobil Oil Co., 866 F.2d 1149, 1160 (9th Cir.1989) ("Leave need not be granted where the amendment of the complaint . . . constitutes an exercise in futility . . . .")).


         Defendants' Motions are GRANTED as to all five of Plaintiffs' causes of action. Initially, with respect to Plaintiff's First Cause of Action, which seeks a judicial determination that various Penal Code sections are vague as applied, Plaintiff has standing to challenge only Penal Code section 597.1, and despite Plaintiff's argument to the contrary, that subsection is far from vague. Furthermore, the allegations relevant to Plaintiff's Second, Third, and Fourth causes of action fail to demonstrate municipal liability and must therefore be dismissed. Plaintiff's Third Cause of Action also fails to state a claim against Haven because the allegations are insufficient to establish either that Haven deprived him of due process or that Haven acted under color of law. Finally, Plaintiff's Fifth Cause of Action under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 must be dismissed because Plaintiff cannot show that he is a member of a suspect class.

         A. The Only Provision of Penal Code section 597.1 That Plaintiff Has Standing to Challenge is Neither Vague on its Face nor Vague as Applied

         To challenge any law, a party must demonstrate "injury in fact, causation, and a likelihood that a favorable decision will redress [his] alleged injury." Carrico v. City and County of San Francisco, 656 F.3d 1002, 1005 (9th Cir 2011) (citing Lopez v. Candaele, 630 F.3d 775, 785 (9th Cir.2010)). Here, Plaintiff lacks standing to challenge sections 597.1 (a), (g), or (h) because he was never convicted of these provisions. See ECF Nos. 29-2 and 29-3. He was convicted of only Shasta County ordinances, which are not in dispute here. See Carrico, 656 F.3d at 1005.

         Plaintiff did receive a post-seizure administrative hearing, pursuant to sub-section (j), and thus has standing to challenge this provision. Penal Code section 597.1(j) provides: "No animal properly seized under this section or pursuant to a search warrant shall be returned to its owner until the owner can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the seizing agency or hearing officer that the owner can and will provide the necessary care for the animal." Plaintiff requests the provision be deemed "void for vagueness, and at a minimum, void for vagueness as applied." FAC ¶ 62; see Schwartzmiller v. Gardner, 752 F.2d 1341, 1347 (9th Cir. 1984) (requiring a "facial" and "as applied" analysis to be exclusive of each other).

         A law will be deemed vague on its face if the challenging party can demonstrate the text is "impermissibly vague in all its applications." Castro v. Terhune, 712 F.3d 1304, 1310-11 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Humanitarian Law Project v. U.S. Treasury Dep't, 578 F.3d 1133, 1146 (9th Cir. 2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In adjudicating a facial vagueness challenge, courts conduct a disjunctive, two-part test. F.C.C. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 132 S.Ct. 2307, 2317 (2012). First, courts ask whether the statute in question provides sufficient guidance to the parties that it regulates so that they can understand "what is required of them [and] act accordingly[.]" Id. (citing Grayned v. City ...

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