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Karkanen v. Family Court Services of Contra Costa County

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 26, 2017



          HAYWOOD S. GILLIAM, JR. United States District Judge.

         Pro se plaintiff Kristina Karkanen filed her complaint on February 27, 2017. Dkt. No. 1 (“Compl.”). She alleges that, in 2008, she filed a dissolution-of-marriage action in the Superior Court of California, Contra Costa County (“Superior Court”), and that, in 2009, the parties were awarded joint custody of their minor daughter, J.K. Id. at 6.[1] Beginning in 2011, additional proceedings were held to resolve various timeshare and custody issues-including a mediation and custody evaluation in 2013. Id. at 5-18.[2] Plaintiff alleges that her constitutional rights were violated during these proceedings, and asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Magda Lopez, James Paulsen, Tish Reese (collectively, “Judicial Defendants”), Elizabeth Braunstein, and “Contra Costa County, including through its Family Court Services Division.” Compl. at 18-28.[3]

         The following motions are pending before the Court: (1) the Judicial Defendants' motion to dismiss, Dkt. Nos. 7 and 8; (2) Defendant Braunstein's motion to dismiss, Dkt. No. 18; (3) Plaintiff's administrative motion to file under seal, Dkt. No. 15; and (4) Defendants' motion to stay discovery, Dkt. No. 30. The Court held a hearing on the motions on June 22, 2017. Having carefully considered the papers, oral arguments, and relevant authorities, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motions to dismiss without leave to amend, DENIES Plaintiff's administrative motion to seal, and DENIES Defendants' motion to stay.


         The Court finds that Plaintiff's complaint must be dismissed as to each defendant for the reasons articulated below.

         A.Contra Costa County, including through its Family Court Services Division”

         Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim against “Contra Costa County, including through its Family Court Services Division.” Compl. at 23. The caption of the complaint names “County of Contra Costa, Family Court Services.” Id. at 1. The FCS Office, however, is unquestionably an entity of the Superior Court. See FCS Webpage. Therefore, the Court rejects Plaintiff's assertion in opposition that she is not suing the Superior Court, but rather “the municipal entity of Contra Costa County and its Family Court Services.” See Dkt. No. 10 at 23. Plaintiff's complaint centers on alleged constitutional violations that occurred during the mediation and custody proceedings conducted by FCS, allegedly resulting in Superior Court decisions that were adverse to Plaintiff. See Compl. at 5-18. Thus, the only reasonable construction of Plaintiff's complaint is that she is suing FCS, an entity of the Superior Court. Such a suit is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Simmons v. Sacramento Cty. Superior Court, 318 F.3d 1156, 1161 (9th Cir. 2003) (§ 1983 claim against Sacramento Superior Court barred by Eleventh Amendment).[4]

         B. Judicial Defendants

         In California, the mediators of a custody and visitation dispute may, subject to certain restrictions, submit a recommendation to the court after mediation and an assessment of the child's interests and needs. Cal. Fam. Code § 3161 (describing purposes of mediation); id. § 3180 (describing duties of mediators); id. § 3183 (describing submission of recommendation by mediator to court); see also Cal. R. Ct. 5.210 (setting standards for court-connected child custody mediation services). Where the mediator is authorized to submit a recommendation to the court, the mediation and recommendation process is called “child custody recommending counseling” and the mediator is called a “child custody recommending counselor.” Id. § 3183.

         The allegations against Defendants Reese and Paulsen relate to their conducting recommending mediation and tendering recommending mediation reports to the Superior Court in Plaintiff's proceedings. Compl. at 2-3, 8-9, 12-18. Both were employed by FCS: Reese is described both as a “Recommending Mediator” and “Recommending Counselor, ” while Paulsen is described as an “Administrator” and a “Recommending Counselor” who allegedly supervised Defendant Reese and other mediators. Id. at 2-3, 8, 13. Defendant Lopez was the Director of FCS, and oversaw all FCS' Recommending Counselors, including Defendant Paulsen. Id. at 3. Plaintiff alleges that Lopez allowed Paulsen to make false statements in his recommending mediation reports. Id. at 16.

         Judicial Defendants enjoy absolute quasi-judicial immunity from liability for the conduct described in the complaint. Conducting court-connected mediation and making recommendations to the Superior Court regarding disputes are both “judicial act[s] with a sufficiently close nexus to the adjudicative process” and “involve the exercise of discretion in resolving disputes.” See Burton v. Infinity Capital Mgmt., 753 F.3d 954, 959-60 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). This conduct is also consistent with the historical definition of absolute judicial immunity at common law, as the “touchstone” that determined its applicability “was performance of the function of resolving disputes between parties, or of authoritatively adjudicating private rights.” Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 433 n.8 (1993); see also Miller v. Gammie, 335 F.3d 889, 897 (9th Cir. 2003) (“[A]bsolute immunity shields only those who perform a function that enjoyed absolute immunity at common law.”). Moreover, the Ninth Circuit has found that absolute quasi-judicial immunity applies under remarkably analogous circumstances. See Meyers v. Contra Costa Cty. Dep't of Social Servs., 812 F.2d 1154, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 1987). In Meyers, the supervising counselor and associate counselor, like Judicial Defendants, conducted mediation of custody and visitation disputes, tendered reports to the courts, were court employees performing duties authorized by California law, and were not acting “clearly and completely” beyond their jurisdiction. See Id. The analogous facts of Meyers support the finding that absolute quasi-judicial immunity applies here, too. See id.; see also Wagshal v. Foster, 28 F.3d 1249, 1254 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (“[A]bsolute quasi-judicial immunity extends to mediators and case evaluators in the [District of Columbia] Superior Court's ADR process . . . [so long as they act] within the scope of their official duties.”); Putman v. State Bar of Cal., No. SACV 08-625-DSF(CW), 2010 WL 3070435, at *7 (C.D. Cal. June 25, 2010) (ruling that “neutral third-parties” enjoy absolute quasi-judicial immunity “for their conduct in performing dispute resolution services which are connected to the judicial process and involve . . . the making of findings or recommendations to the court or . . . mediation . . . or other similar resolution of pending disputes”), report and recommendation adopted as modified, 2010 WL 3070425 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 3, 2010) (quoted language unchanged).[5]

         C. Defendant Braunstein

         In California, “[c]ourts order child custody evaluations, investigations, and assessments to assist them in determining the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of children with regard to disputed custody and visitation issues.” Cal. Ct. R. 5.220(b).[6] “A ‘child custody evaluator' is a court-appointed investigator as defined in Family Code section 3110.” Cal. Ct. R. 5.225(b)(1). “A ‘child custody evaluation' is an investigation and analysis of the health, safety, welfare, and best interest of a child with regard to disputed custody and visitation issues conducted under Family Code sections 3111 and 3118, Evidence Code section 730, or Code of Civil Procedure section 2032.010 et seq.” Cal. Ct. R. 5.225(b)(2).

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Braunstein, a licensed psychologist, was appointed by the Superior Court as a child custody evaluator in Plaintiff's case. Compl. at 3, 9. Plaintiff's reference to “court-appointed 730 experts” appears to indicate that Braunstein was appointed under section 730 of the California Evidence Code. See Compl. at 15; Cal. Evid. Code § 730 (“When it appears to the court . . . that expert evidence is or may be required . . . the court . . . may appoint one or more experts to investigate, to render a report as may be ordered by the court, and to testify as an expert at the trial . . . .”). Notwithstanding the many transgressions alleged by Plaintiff, Braunstein's ...

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