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Collins v. City of Colton

United States District Court, C.D. California

April 5, 2017

RONALD J. COLLINS
v.
CITY OF COLTON;

          PRESENT: HONORABLE CHRISTINA A. SNYDER

          CIVIL MINUTES - GENERAL

         Proceedings: (IN CHAMBER) - DEFENDANT SCOTT CHADWICK'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkt. 37, filed February 24, 2017), DEFENDANTS CITY OF COLTON AND JACK MORENBERG'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkt. 38, filed February 24, 2017)

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On February 10, 2015, plaintiff Ronald J. Collins filed an action in San Bernardino Superior Court against defendants City of Colton (the “City”) and Jack Morenberg (collectively, the “City defendants”). Dkt. 1-1. On June 9, 2015, plaintiff filed a first amended complaint in Superior Court. Dkt 1-9 (“FAC”). In the FAC, Collins asserted three claims for relief: (1) conversion; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (3) unreasonable seizure in violation the Fourth Amendment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. On August 31, 2015, the City defendants removed the action to this Court. Dkt. 1.

         On October 19, 2015, the Court dismissed without prejudice plaintiff's Section 1983 claim against the City and Collins' conversion claim against both City defendants. Dkt. 17. On December 29, 2015, the Court entered an order, pursuant to the stipulation of Collins and the City defendants to dismiss the claim for conversion in its entirety, and the Section 1983 claim as against the City. Dkt. 25.

         On October 8, 2015, Collins filed a second action in San Bernardino County Superior Court against the City defendants and Scott Chadwick, owner of the automobile dealership. Collins v. City of Colton , Case No. 5:15-cv-02470-CAS-KK (“Second Action”), dkt. 1-4, Ex. A (“Second Action Compl.”). Collins asserted two claims the City defendants and Chadwick: (1) unreasonable seizure in violation the Fourth Amendment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (2) malicious prosecution. Id. On December 3, 2015, this case was removed to this Court. Second Action dkt. 1. On December 15, 2015, pursuant to Collins' request, the Court dismissed plaintiff's Section 1983 claim as against Chadwick. Second Action dkt. 13.

         On February 11, 2016, pursuant to the stipulation of all of the parties, the Court consolidated Collins' two actions. Dkt. 28. The following claims remain at issue in the consolidated case: (1) unreasonable seizure, pursuant to Section 1983, as against the City defendants; (2) malicious prosecution as against all defendants; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress as against the City defendants.

         On February 24, 2017, Chadwick filed a motion for summary judgment on Collins' claim of malicious prosecution. Dkt. 37 (“Chadwick MSJ”). On the same day, the City defendants filed a motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication of the claims against them. Dkt. 38 (“City MSJ”). On March 3, 2017, Collins filed his oppositions to defendants' motions. Dkts. 40 (“Opp'n to Chadwick”), 41 (“Opp'n to City”). The City defendants and Chadwick filed replies in support of their respective motions on March 13, 2017.[1]

         Having carefully considered the parties' arguments, the Court finds and concludes as follows.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are not disputed.

         On April 8, 2013, plaintiff purchased a truck from Chadwick Auto Wholesale, which is owned by Chadwick.[2] At the time of purchase, plaintiff signed, under penalty of perjury, a California Department of Motor Vehicles Statement of Facts attesting that the purchase of the truck constituted “an out of state sale” and that “NO sales tax or license fees were collected at time of sale.”[3] Because the sale of the truck was completed as an out-of-state sale, Chadwick directed Hector Flores, an employee, to remove the truck's license plates before the truck was turned over to plaintiff.[4]

         On May 31, 2013, Collins filed an action against Chadwick in Alabama alleging that Chadwick had sold Collins a defective truck.[5] The Circuit Court of Mobile County dismissed Collins' complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.[6]

         While the Alabama case was pending, Daniel Ruiz-Collins' neighbor at a Howard Johnson Hotel in Norco (“Norco hotel”), California-called Chadwick and stated that Collins had asked Ruiz's daughter to write a statement on Collins' behalf stating that the truck plaintiff purchased from Chadwick did not run properly.[7] Ruiz also stated that Collins asked Ruiz to lie about the condition of the truck and promised Ruiz money, the truck, and a trip to Hawaii.[8]

         In or about July 2013, Gary Boyd-the prior owner of the truck in question- called Chadwick and told him that Collins had contacted Boyd because Collins was upset that the truck had broken down.[9] After the conversation, Boyd sent Chadwick a letter stating that the truck was in good working condition when Boyd sold the truck to Chadwick.[10]

         In or about September 2013, Ruiz called Chadwick and stated that Collins continued to stay at the Norco hotel and had been driving the truck in question daily, with license plates.[11] At Chadwick's request, Ruiz sent Chadwick a photograph of the truck.[12]Chadwick confirmed that the license plates matched those that he had directed Flores to remove on April 8, 2013.[13]

         On or about September 11, 2013, Colton Police Officer Samuel Smith was dispatched to Chadwick Auto Wholesale regarding a report of stolen license plates.[14]When he arrived at Chadwick Auto Wholesale, Smith spoke with Chadwick, who reported that that someone had stolen license plates from his business on or about April 8, 2013.[15] Chadwick told Smith that he sold a Chevrolet truck to plaintiff on April 8, 2013, and that the transaction constituted an out-of-state sale that required Chadwick to return the license plates to the state.[16] Chadwick also stated that he received an anonymous call on September 10, 2013 from a man who stated that the truck was at the Norco hotel.[17]

         On September 23, 2013, Chadwick encountered Colton City Detective Morenberg at a business that they both frequented.[18] Chadwick told Morenberg that Chadwick had additional information about an incident at Chadwick's business.[19] Later, Morenberg met Chadwick at his business and Chadwick recounted the April 8, 2013 transaction with Collins.[20] Chadwick showed Morenberg a signed DMV Statement of Fact, the letter from Boyd, and a letter from Ruiz.[21] Chadwick also reported and described the phone calls from Boyd and Ruiz.[22] The signed DMV statement that Morenberg was shown included typed text providing: “Customer demand title, out of state sale. No Sales tax or license fees were collected at time of Sale” and a handwritten statement providing: “Customer took on flatbed to AL. Window sticker was shredded in error. Customer will register title in AL. No CA record for this transaction is needed.”[23] However, Chadwick later testified that there was a second copy of the signed statement without the handwritten terms, leading Chadwick to believe the statement was “signed and then filled out later.”[24]Chadwick told Morenberg that Chadwick had asked an employee to remove the license plates from the truck.[25] Chadwick did not seek out the employee, Flores, to confirm that Chadwick had asked Flores to remove the plates.[26] Chadwick reported to Morenberg that he had noticed the license plates were missing the day after the sale to plaintiff, but Chadwick assumed that his employees had processed the return of the plates to the DMV.[27] Chadwick also told Morenberg that plaintiff had filed suit against Chadwick.[28]

         On October 2, 2013, Morenberg drove over to the Norco Hotel and observed a truck matching the description of the vehicle purchased by Collins.[29] The truck had the same license plate number as the plates that had been removed at the time of sale.[30]Morenberg impounded the truck, removed the license plates, and placed the plates into evidence.[31] Morenberg then knocked on Collins' door and interviewed him.[32] Collins stated that there were materials in the truck which he intended to use in a future lawsuit contemplated against Chadwick.[33] Morenberg denied Collins' request to remove his paperwork from the backseat of the truck.[34] Collins asserted several times that the plates were on the vehicle when he purchased it.[35] Collins called the paramedics after Morenberg left the hotel.[36]

         On October 10, 2013, Morenberg authored a police report.[37] Morenberg reported that he interviewed Boyd and Ruiz.[38] Ruiz confirmed that plaintiff had offered money or trips to Ruiz in exchange for Ruiz's assistance in writing letters that the truck was defective.[39] Although Morenberg reported that he contacted Boyd by phone, during Boyd's deposition, Boyd could not recall any police officer or detective speaking to him about the truck or the surrounding circumstances.[40]

         Morenberg concluded that the report should be referred to the District Attorney's office for review for possible filing of criminal charges.[41] Morenberg subsequently submitted the case to the San Bernardino District Attorney's Office for evaluation and the possible filing of criminal charges.[42]

         On October 13, 2013, Lieutenant Jim Joliff received a letter from Rene Korper, Collins' counsel.[43] In the letter, Korper asserted that: (1) Morenberg's allegation, at the time he impounded the truck, that plaintiff attempted to bribe a witness to the prospective lawsuit between Collins and Chadwick was false; (2) there was no justification for impounding the truck; (3) there was no probable cause to believe the vehicle was or contained evidence of a crime; (4) Collins suffered severe seizures as a result of the emotional distress caused by the impounding of his vehicle.[44] Korper requested the return of Collins' vehicle.[45] Joliff spoke by telephone with Korper that same day and requested that Korper's client complete a citizen complaint form if he desired to initiate a formal internal investigation.[46] Joliff faxed the “Citizen Complaint Form” to Korper, along with a document setting forth the Colton Police Department's procedure for reporting police misconduct and a form requiring the complainant to attest that he knows that “[i]t is against the law to make a complaint that you know to be false.”[47] Joliff never received a completed complaint form from plaintiff or his counsel.[48]

         On or about October 22, 2013, Morenberg asked Chadwick for any additional documentation related to the case.[49] Chadwick provided signed sales documents and attorney correspondence related to the Alabama litigation, and identified the employee who filled out the DMV Statement of Facts.[50] Morenberg provided this information to the District Attorney's office in a supplemental report.[51]

         On or about November 6, 2013, the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office filed a felony complaint against plaintiff in San Bernardino Superior Court.[52] The complaint alleged that plaintiff had committed perjury, second degree commercial burglary, and bribery of a witness.[53]

         On August, 13, 2014, the San Bernardino County Superior Court held a preliminary hearing on the criminal charges against Collins.[54] During the hearing, plaintiff's counsel elicited testimony tending to undermine the prosecution's case against plaintiff. For example:

● Chadwick testified that he did not look at the DMV Statement of Facts before plaintiff signed it and that he believed the handwritten portion of the Statement was filled out after plaintiff signed the document.[55]
● Chadwick testified that the handwritten portion the DMV Statement of Facts providing “Window sticker was shredded in error” was incorrect; the stickers were not shredded.[56]
● Chadwick testified at the hearing that he saw the license plates after they were removed, and told Morenberg as much.[57] However, Morenberg testified that Chadwick's assertion that he saw the plates after they were removed was inconsistent with the Chadwick's September 2013 statement to Morenberg.[58]
● Morenberg testified that, before speaking with Chadwick about this incident, Morenberg and Chadwick knew one another because they participated in a common hobby.[59]
● Collins' counsel elicited testimony from Morenberg demonstrating inconsistencies in what Collins offered to Ruiz in exchange for his assistance in Collins' lawsuit against Chadwick.[60]

         On the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing, the Superior Court concluded that “[i]t does appear . . . that the offenses alleged in the complaint have been committed and that sufficient cause exists to believe the defendant committed those offenses.”[61] The Superior Court therefore ordered Collins “to be held to answer for the offenses as charged in the complaint and any other offenses that as are shown from the evidence.”[62] Also on August 13, 2014, after the preliminary hearing, the District Attorney's office filed an amended complaint adding the allegation that Collins obtained money, labor, or property by false pretenses.[63] The charges against Collins were subsequently dismissed before trial.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying relevant portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a fact or facts necessary for one or more essential elements of each claim upon which the moving party seeks judgment. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         If the moving party meets its initial burden, the opposing party must then set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial in order to defeat the motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e). The nonmoving party must not simply rely on the pleadings and must do more than make “conclusory allegations [in] an affidavit.” Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. Summary judgment must be granted for the moving party if the nonmoving party “fails to 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.” Id. at 322; see also Abromson v. Am. Pac. Corp., 114 F.3d 898, 902 (9th Cir. 1997).

         In light of the facts presented by the nonmoving party, along with any undisputed facts, the Court must decide whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 631 & n.3 (9th Cir. 1987). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, “the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts . . . must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted); Valley Nat'l Bank of Ariz. v. A.E. Rouse & Co., 121 F.3d 1332, 1335 (9th Cir. 1997). Summary judgment for the moving party is proper when a rational trier of fact would not be able to find for the nonmoving party on the claims at issue. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Unreasonable Seizure

         Plaintiff brings a Section 1983 claim against the City defendants for the alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. The basis for Collins' Section 1983 claim is Collins' allegation that Morenberg intentionally and wrongfully seized Collins' truck (and the documents within it) in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. FAC ¶¶ 95-96; Second Action Compl. ¶¶ 46, 49. Section 1983 provides for a cause of action against a person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “To prove a case under section 1983, the plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) the action occurred ‘under color of state law' and (2) the action resulted in the deprivation of a constitutional right or federal statutory right.” Jones v. Williams, 297 F.3d 930, 934 (9th Cir. 2002).

         California law permits a peace officer to impound a vehicle without a warrant when there is probable cause to believe the vehicle is or contains evidence tending to show that a crime has been committed. Cal. Veh. Code § 22655.5(b). Furthermore, under the Fourth Amendment, “the police may seize a car from a public place without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe that the car itself is an instrument or evidence of crime.” United States v. Cooper, 949 F.2d 737, 747 (5th Cir. 1991); see also Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 330 (1990) (noting that a police officer could lawfully seize evidence “which was in plain view and which the officer had probable cause to believe was evidence of a crime”); United States v. Bagley, 772 F.2d 482, 491 (9th Cir. 1985) (“[I]f the existence of probable cause alone justifies the warrantless search of a vehicle parked in a public place, certainly a warrantless seizure of such a vehicle, based only on probable cause, also falls within the automobile exception.”). Therefore, if Morenberg had probable cause to seize Collins' truck, Morenberg did not deprive Collins of his Fourth Amendment rights.

         “Probable cause does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every element of a crime. Rather, probable cause exists where under the totality of the circumstances known to the officer, a prudent person would have concluded that there was a fair probability that the suspect had committed or was committing a crime.” United States v. Noster, 590 F.3d 624, 629-30 (9th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); see also Florida v. Harris, 133 S.Ct. 1050, 1055 (2013) (“The test for probable cause is not reducible to precise definition or quantification. Finely tuned standards such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of the evidence . . . have no place in the [probable-cause] decision. All we have required is the kind of fair probability on which reasonable and prudent [people, ] not legal technicians, act.” (citation and quotation marks omitted)).

         1. Morenberg

         In support of its motion for summary judgment as to Collins' Section 1983 claim against Morenberg for unreasonable seizure, the City defendants make two arguments: (1) Morenberg's seizure of the truck was supported by probable ...


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