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Z.F. v. Ripon Unified School District

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 31, 2017

Z.F., a minor, by and through his parents M.A.F. and J.F. and M.A.F. and J.F. individually; L.H., and J.H., minors by and through their parents J.A. and J.R.H. and J.A. and J.R.H. individually; A.N, a minor by and through his parents, G.N. and M.R. and G.N. and M.R. individually, Plaintiffs,
v.
RIPON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, RIPON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF TRUSTEES, SAN JOAQUIN COUNTRY OFFICE OF EDUCATION, VALLEY MOUNTAIN REGIONAL CENTER, MODESTO CITY SCHOOLS, MODESTO CITY SCHOOLS BOARD OF EDUCATION, RICHARD JACOBS, Executive Director of VMRC, in his official and individual capacity, TARA SISEMORE-HESTER, Coordinator for Autism Services for VMRC, in her official and individual capacity, VIRGINIA JOHNSON, Director of Modesto City Schools SELPA, in her official and individual capacity, SUE SWARTZLANDER, Program Director for Modesto City Schools, in her official and individual capacity, and DOES 1-200, Defendants. VALLEY MOUNTAIN REGIONAL CENTER, RICHARD JACOBS, and TARA SISEMORE-HESTER, Counterclaimants,
v.
M.A.F. and SPECIAL NEEDS ADVOCATES FOR UNDERSTANDING, Counterdefendants.

          ORDER

          Troy L. Nunley United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Counterdefendants J.A.[1] and M.A.F.'s (jointly “Counterdefendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment or For Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 258). Counterclaimants Valley Mountain Regional Center (“VMRC”), Tara Sisemore-Hester, and Richard Jacobs (jointly “Counterclaimants”) oppose the motion. (ECF No. 263.) Counterdefendants filed a reply. (ECF No. 276.) Having reviewed the briefing filed by both parties and for the reasons stated below, the Court hereby GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Counterdefendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 258).

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs are three families suing four defendant agencies for disability services. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Plaintiffs along with other families sued in an earlier action entitled Z.F., et al. v. Ripon Unified School District, et al., 2:08-cv-00855-GEB-JFM. In that action, Plaintiffs brought claims similar to the instant action. However, the Court dismissed the action because it found some Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies. Plaintiffs who had exhausted their administrative remedies were permitted to refile in this action. Plaintiffs allege Defendants violated the IDEA, Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and the Unruh Act. (See ECF No. 1.) During the pending litigation, Defendants VMRC, Tara Sisemore-Hester, and Richard Jacobs allege that Counterdefendants made libelous and slanderous statements against them in the form of interviews with reporters and postings to autism reform websites.[2] (Counterclaims, ECF No. 21.) Counterclaimants filed three counterclaims for libel, slander and malicious prosecution arising from statements allegedly made by M.A.F. on the SNAFU website and to the media. (See ECF No. 21.)

         Counterdefendants filed a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 35) on August 2, 2010. In the Court's order dated February 2, 2011, the Court denied in part and granted in part Counterdefendants' motion. (ECF No. 111.) The Court dismissed the malicious prosecution counterclaim and Counterclaimants did not reassert it. After completion of discovery, Counterdefendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on November 13, 2014. (ECF No. 261.)

         II. Standard of Law

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party demonstrates no genuine issue as to any material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). Under summary judgment practice, the moving party always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis of its motion, and identifying those portions of “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file together with affidavits, if any, ” which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “[W]here the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial on a dispositive issue, a summary judgment motion may properly be made in reliance solely on the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file.” Id. at 324 (internal quotations omitted). Indeed, summary judgment should be entered against a party who does not make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.

         If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 (1986); First Nat'l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 288-89 (1968). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party may not rely upon the denials of its pleadings, but is required to tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that the dispute exists. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986), and that the dispute is genuine, i.e., the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. at 251-52.

         In the endeavor to establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that “the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” First Nat'l Bank, 391 U.S. at 288-89. Thus, the “purpose of summary judgment is to ‘pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Rule 56(e) advisory committee's note on 1963 amendments).

         In resolving the summary judgment motion, the court examines the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with any applicable affidavits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); SEC v. Seaboard Corp., 677 F.2d 1301, 1305-06 (9th Cir. 1982). The evidence of the opposing party is to be believed, and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts pleaded before the court must be drawn in favor of the opposing party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, inferences are not drawn out of the air, and it is the opposing party's obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F.Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff'd, 810 F.2d 898 (9th Cir. 1987). Finally, to demonstrate a genuine issue that necessitates a jury trial, the opposing party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 587.

         III. Analysis

         With the exception of two arguments, the Court does not reach the merits of Counterdefendants' remaining arguments. As discussed below, Counterdefendants or Counterclaimants have failed to meet their burden on a motion for summary judgment. Counterdefendants first argue that Counterclaimants Tara Sisemore-Hester and Richard Jacobs are public officials and therefore must establish that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with actual malice. Additionally, Counterdefendants' statements could be construed as asserting that VMRC is also a public official for the purposes of a defamation action. The Court turns to this analysis before turning to the arguments brought against each individual counterclaim.

         A. Counterclaimants are not public officials

         Counterdefendants assert that Counterclaimants are public officials and therefore must demonstrate actual malice to succeed on their defamation claims. (ECF No. 261 at 4.) Counterclaimants argue that the Court already determined that Counterclaimants are not pubic officials. (ECF No. 263 at 8.) However, the Court's previous order dealt with the issue of limited pubic figures, which is distinct from public officials. The elements Counterclaimants must establish to succeed on claims of libel and slander turns on the determination of whether they are considered public officials.

         Under California law, whether someone is a public official is determined by federal standards. Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 84 (1966). A person qualifies as a public official if they:

“(1) [have], or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs; (2) usually enjoys significantly greater access to the mass media and therefore a more realistic opportunity to contradict false statements than the private individual; (3) holds a position in the government which has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the person's qualifications and performance beyond the general public interest in the qualifications and performance of all government employees; and (4) holds a position which invites public scrutiny and discussion of the person holding it entirely apart from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular controversy.”

Mosesian v. McClatchy Newspapers, 205 Cal.App.3d 597, 608-09 (1988).

         “The ‘public official' designation applies at the very least to those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.” Rosenblatt, 383 U.S. at 85. California courts do not consider “government employment a dispositive factor in resolving the issue of public official status.” Ghafur v. Bernstein, 131 Cal.App.4th 1230, 1239 (2005). “[T]he touchstone of public official status is the extent to which the plaintiff's position is likely to attract or warrant scrutiny by members of the public.” Kahn v. Bower, 232 Cal.App.3d 1599, 1611 (1991). The scrutiny may be caused by the prominence of the position or the duties of the position tend to naturally have a large or dramatic impact on members of the public. Id.

         i. Counterclaimant VMRC

         Counterdefendants assert that VMRC is a private entity that “performs a role typically reserved for governmental entities.” (ECF No. 261 at 4.) Counterdefendants argue that a person need not be employed by a government entity to be considered a public official. (ECF No. 261 at 4.) Counterclaimants do not address whether VMRC is a public official. However, Counterdefendants do not cite any case law that would suggest that an entity, non-profit or governmental, may be considered a person such that a Court may hold that they are a person who constitutes a public official. Likewise, the Court conducted an independent search and cannot identify a case that precisely resolves this question. Without Counterdefendants providing case analysis, the Court ...


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