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Estate of Vargas v. Binnewies

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 25, 2017



         This matter is before the court on two motions filed by defendants to dismiss plaintiffs' first amended complaint for failure to state a claim. Hearings on these motions were held on January 19, 2017, and February 21, 2017. Attorneys Jeffrey Eisinger and William Schmidt appeared on behalf of plaintiffs Estate of Armando Vargas and Gloria Redondo. Attorney Jena Harlos appeared on behalf of defendants Sheriff Doug Binnewies, Lieutenant Codie Hart, and Deputies Cooper, Smalls, Reeder, Day, Detrich, and Jay. Deputy Attorney General Wilfred Fong appeared on behalf of defendants Pamela Ahlin and Dolly Matteucci. For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant the defendants' motions to dismiss and also grant plaintiffs leave to file a second amended complaint.


         This case concerns the suicide of Armando Vargas on or about September 15, 2015, while he was being held in pretrial custody at the Mariposa County Jail. According to plaintiffs' first amended complaint, prior to his death, Mr. Vargas had a long history of suffering from mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, delusions, and psychosis. (Doc. No. 11 ¶ 18.) He also had a history of attempted suicide and was previously designated a suicide risk by both prison officials and mental health professionals. (Id.)

         The first amended complaint also alleges the following. Mr. Vargas was arrested on February 1, 2015 and detained at the Mariposa County Jail, a relatively small facility with a maximum capacity of approximately sixty inmates. (Id. ¶ 15) On February 9, 2015, based on concerns expressed by Mr. Vargas's counsel, the Mariposa County Superior Court ordered a mental evaluation of Mr. Vargas. (Id. ¶ 16.) Based on that evaluation, the state trial court deemed Mr. Vargas incompetent to stand trial or assist in his own defense. (Id.) Therefore, on March 24, 2015, the court ordered that Mr. Vargas be transferred to the Napa State Hospital, one of five state hospitals overseen by the California Department of State Hospitals. (Id. ¶ 17.)[1]After a short stay at Napa State Hospital, Mr. Vargas was declared by medical staff there to be competent to stand trial and was returned to the Mariposa County Jail. (Id.)

         Upon his return to the Mariposa County Jail, Mr. Vargas again displayed signs of mental instability. (Id. ¶ 19.) On July 9, 2015, the state trial court once again sought a mental evaluation of Mr. Vargas, and on August 20, 2015, it again found him incompetent to stand trial and ordered his transfer back to Napa State Hospital. (Id. ¶ 20.) However, Mr. Vargas never returned to Napa State Hospital. In a letter he wrote to the Harper Medical Group, dated August 26, 2015, Mr. Vargas stated he believed he would be killed if returned to the state hospital and that he would not let that happen. (Id. ¶ 22.) On September 15, 2015, Mr. Vargas said goodbye to jail staff and other inmates. (Id. ¶ 23.) He was found hanging from a bunk in a cell shortly thereafter. (Id.)[2]On September 20, 2015, Mr. Vargas was declared brain dead and his heart stopped beating. (Id.)

         Plaintiff Gloria Redondo, Mr. Vargas's mother, commenced this action as the successor in interest of, and with, Mr. Vargas's estate, on August 23, 2016.[3] Broadly speaking, plaintiffs bring this action against two groups of defendants: (1) defendants Sheriff Doug Binnewies, Lieutenant Codie Hart, and Deputies Cooper, Smalls, Reeder, Day, Detrich, and Jay, members of the Mariposa County Sheriff's Office (collectively, the “county defendants”); and (2) defendants Pamela Ahlin, the director of the California Department of State Hospitals, and Dolly Matteucci, the director of the Napa State Hospital (collectively, the “state defendants”). On November 8, 2016, after the parties met and conferred regarding a pleading dispute, plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint. (See Doc. No. 28 at 1.) Therein, plaintiffs state the following claims: (1) deliberate indifference to a serious medical need under the Fourteenth Amendment against the county defendants; (2) deliberate indifference to a serious medical need under the Fourteenth Amendment against the state defendants;[4] (3) an equal protection violation under the Fourteenth Amendment against the state defendants; (4) negligence against the county defendants; and (5) violations of California Government Code §§ 844.6 and 845.6 against the county defendants.

         On December 9, 2016, the state defendants filed a motion to dismiss all claims brought against them. (Doc. Nos. 27-28.) On January 3, 2017, plaintiffs filed their opposition to that motion. (Doc. No. 30.) On January 10, 2017, the state defendants filed their reply. (Doc. No. 31.) On January 19, 2017, the court heard argument on the state defendants' motion.

         On January 24, 2017, the county defendants filed a motion to dismiss certain claims brought against them. (Doc. No. 34.) On February 7, 2017, plaintiffs' filed their opposition to that motion. (Doc. No. 37.) On February 14, 2017, the county defendants filed their reply. (Doc. No. 39.) The court heard oral argument and took under submission the county defendants' motion on February 21, 2017.


         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 claim for relief must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Though Rule 8(a) does not require detailed factual allegations, 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); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         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). However, the court need not assume the truth of legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. United States ex rel. Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638, 643 n.2 (9th Cir. 1986). 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).


         A. Federal Civil Rights Claims

         The Civil Rights Act, pursuant to which plaintiffs allege various Fourteenth Amendment violations, provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of [state law] . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution . . . shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus, to make out a valid claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege and eventually prove that (i) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; (ii) this conduct deprived a person of constitutional rights; and (iii) there is an actual connection or link between the actions of the defendants and the deprivation allegedly suffered by decedent. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-95 (1978); Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 370-71 (1976). “A person ‘subjects' another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of § 1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in another's affirmative acts, or omits to perform an act which he is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made.” Lacey v. Maricopa County, 693 F.3d 896, 915 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740, 743 (9th Cir. 1978)).

         Supervisory personnel are generally not liable under § 1983 for the actions of their employees under a theory of respondeat superior and, therefore, when a named defendant holds a supervisorial position, the causal link between her and the claimed constitutional violation must be specifically alleged. See Fayle v. Stapley, 607 F.2d 858, 862 (9th Cir. 1979); Mosher v. Saalfeld, 589 F.2d 438, 441 (9th Cir. 1978). Vague and conclusory allegations concerning the involvement of official personnel in civil rights violations are not sufficient. See Ivey v. Board of Regents, 673 F.2d 266, 268 (9th Cir. 1982).

         1. Deliberate Indifference Claims

         Plaintiffs allege that the conduct of the county and state defendants each, separately, constituted deliberate indifference in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

         The Fourteenth Amendment provides that “[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” See U.S. Const. amend. 14 § 1. The Fourteenth Amendment provides both procedural and substantive protections that bar certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them. County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 840 (1998). Here, because Mr. Vargas was a pretrial detainee at the time of the alleged incidents, his right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment is derived from the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the Eighth Amendment. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 (1979); Castro v. County of Los Angeles, 833 F.3d 1060, 1067-68 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. denied sub nom. Los Angeles County, Cal. v. Castro, 137 S.Ct. 831 (2017). The duty to protect pretrial detainees from suicide is grounded in the substantive liberty interest in adequate medical care.[5] See Simmons v. Navajo Cty., Ariz., 609 F.3d 1011, 1018 (9th Cir. 2010); Johnson v. Meltzer, 134 F.3d 1393, 1397 (9th Cir. 1998); Schwartz v. Lassen Cty. ex rel. Lassen Cty. Jail (Detention Facility), 838 F.Supp.2d 1045, 1052 (E.D. Cal. 2012). In particular, “persons in custody ha[ve] the established right to not have officials remain deliberately indifferent to their serious medical needs.” Gibson v. County of Washoe, Nev., 290 F.3d 1175, 1187 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Carnell v. Grim, 74 F.3d 977, 979 (9th Cir. 1996)), overruled on other grounds by Castro, 833 F.3d at 1076. Moreover, “[i]ncapacitated criminal defendants have liberty interests in freedom from incarceration and in restorative treatment.” Oregon Advocacy Ctr. v. Mink, 322 F.3d 1101, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003). When determining whether the failure to provide timely restorative treatment constitutes a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, courts must balance the detainee's liberty interests against the legitimate interests of the state. Id. (citing Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 321 (1982)).

         Generally, when considering a motion to dismiss such a claim, a district court must assess whether the plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to permit the court to infer the plaintiff had a “serious medical need” and a defendant was “deliberately indifferent” to that need. Jett v. Penner, 439 F.3d 1091, 1096 (9th Cir. 2006); see also Simmons, 609 F.3d at 1018 (“[W]e have previously recognized that a heightened suicide risk can present a serious medical need.”). Specifically, to state a deliberate indifference claim based on an officer's failure to protect a pretrial detainee, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) the defendant made an intentional decision with respect to the conditions of plaintiff's confinement; (2) those conditions exposed plaintiff to a substantial risk of serious harm; (3) the defendant did not take reasonable available measures to abate that risk, even though a reasonable officer in the circumstances would have appreciated the high degree of risk involved-making the consequences of the defendant's conduct obvious; and (4) the defendant caused plaintiff's injuries by not taking those measures. Castro, 833 F.3d at 1068-71. The defendant's failure to take reasonable measures to abate the substantial risk of serious harm must amount to “more than negligence but less than subjective intent-something akin to reckless disregard.” Id. at 1071.[6]

         a. County Defendants

         In their first deliberate indifference claim, plaintiffs allege that the county defendants, working in either a staff or supervisory capacity, failed to prevent Mr. Vargas's suicide while he was incarcerated at the Mariposa County Jail. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that the county defendants denied Mr. Vargas access to medication for his mental illnesses, failed to place him in a hang-proof cell, and failed to otherwise properly monitor him. (Doc. No. 11 ¶¶ 21, 27.) To support their claim, plaintiffs generally reference the existence of documentation regarding Mr. Vargas's psychotic and schizophrenic behavior, his history of suicide attempts, the fact that he was not being medicated, concerns expressed by the state court as to his mental competency, and his own expressed intent to commit suicide. (See Id. ¶¶ 18, 26.) However, plaintiffs allege only in conclusory fashion that the county defendants were “on notice” of each of these ...

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