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Huskins v. City of Vallejo

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 30, 2017

CITY OF VALLEJO, a public entity, KENNY PARK, MATHEW MUSTARD, and DOES 1-25 Defendants.


          Troy L. NuRley United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants'[1] Motion to Dismiss and Motion to Strike. (ECF Nos. 8, 9) Plaintiffs Denise Huskins (“Huskins”) and Aaron Quinn (“Quinn”) (collectively “Plaintiffs”) oppose the motions. (ECF Nos. 11, 12.) Having reviewed the briefings, and for the reasons detailed below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendants' motion to dismiss and DENIES Defendants' motion to strike.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs set forth details of a home invasion, in which an intruder entered Aaron Quinn's Vallejo home early on March 23, 2015, assaulted Plaintiffs, held them captive, and kidnapped Huskins, ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 12-14, 32, and of the subsequent police investigation of the crime.

         A. Aaron Quinn's Allegations

         Quinn details the intruder's demands for information about Quinn's finances, account and email passwords, and personal history. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 13.) The intruder informed Quinn that he would kidnap Denise Huskins for ransom and ordered Quinn to wait for further communication by cell phone and through Quinn's own email account. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 14.) The intruder then ordered Quinn to remain on a couch within an area marked off by tape. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 14.) The intruder threatened to harm Huskins and Quinn's family if Quinn moved and told Quinn that he would be monitored by surveillance cameras to ensure his compliance. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 14.)

         Quinn spent several hours uncertain about how to proceed to ensure Huskins's safety, received multiple communications demanding ransom for Huskins, and decided about 1:50 p.m. on March 23 to contact the Vallejo Police Department (“VPD”). (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 15-17.)

         Quinn alleges that VPD officers quickly focused on him as a suspect in Huskins's disappearance and ignored evidence that the intruder left behind. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 17-18.) Quinn provided blood and DNA samples to VPD. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 19.) He alleges that VPD took his clothing and, in exchange, provided him with a dirty t-shirt and pants marked “Solano Prison” down the side. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 19.) Quinn was interrogated for 18 hours by VPD, led by VPD Detective Mathew Mustard. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 20-21.) Quinn states he asked to speak with his family and was told, inaccurately, that they were not at the station. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 24.)

         Quinn alleges that when VPD released him on March 24, VPD tried to secure more media coverage by forcing Quinn to exit the front of the station, where media congregated, while sleep deprived and wearing pants marked “Solano Prison.” (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 31.) Quinn states that a lawyer his brother hired that morning arranged a more discrete exit. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 30-31.

         B. Denise Huskins's Allegations

         During this time, Huskins was forced into the trunk of Quinn's car, which the intruder drove, and then transferred to the trunk of a second car. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 32.) In the trunk of the second car, she lost consciousness from a sedative. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 32.) Huskins was driven to an unknown home, tied to a bed with zip ties and a bicycle lock, forced to wear blacked out swim goggles as a blindfold, and forced to record a proof of life tape. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 33, 39.)

         While captive she was raped twice by the intruder, who told her that he was part of a gang and was filming the rapes to use against her if she reported the rapes to the police. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 34, 36, 37.) After the second rape, the intruder told Huskins that she would be released, he then threatened, drugged, and blindfolded her again, and drove her for hours. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 37, 38.) Huskins was released on March 25, near her parents' homes in Huntington Beach, and contacted her father and Huntington Beach Police Department (“HBPD”). (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 42.)

         Huskins states HBPD arrived and she spoke with officers for an hour. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 43.) She provided details of the intrusion, kidnapping, and her release, but denied the rapes for fear of retaliation from the intruder. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 43, 45.) Huskins aunt and cousin, an attorney, arrived and her cousin spoke with Mustard for Huskins. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 48, 50-51.)

         Huskins travelled back to Vallejo by commercial air rather than by VPD provided jet. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 46, 55.) Huskins alleges she did so because she was frightened of the intruder, the media, and police, who she had been told were skeptical of the crime and were offering her immunity. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 51, 55.) She states that when she returned to Vallejo she requested a sexual assault exam and spent two full days speaking with VPD. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 67, 69.)

         C. Plaintiffs' Allegations Regarding VPD's Public Statements

         Plaintiffs allege VPD issued press releases and held press conferences led by Park. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 49, 53, 58, 60.) They also allege that VPD's statements included allegations that Plaintiffs were responsible for Huskins's disappearance and owed the city an apology for plundering resources on the investigation. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 58, 60.) Further, Plaintiffs contend that VPD's strong public statements caused those statements to be widely disseminated in the media. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 64.) Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' actions caused Plaintiffs emotional and physical distress and financial loss. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 92, 94, 95.)

         Plaintiffs assert several federal and state law claims against Defendants. Plaintiffs assert a Fourteenth Amendment claim for defamation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a state law defamation claim, a Fourteenth Amendment claim unreasonable seizure of Quinn and a state law claim for false arrest of Quinn, and state law claims for both Plaintiffs for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 84-142.)

         II. Standards of Law

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” On a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of the complaint are assumed to be true. Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319, 322 (1972). A court is bound to give the plaintiff the benefit of every reasonable inference to be drawn from the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint. Retail Clerks Int'l Ass'n v. Schermerhorn, 373 U.S. 746, 753 n.6 (1963). A plaintiff need not allege “‘specific facts' beyond those necessary to state his claim and the grounds showing entitlement to relief.” Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2009)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         Nevertheless, a 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). While Rule 8(a) does not require detailed factual allegations, “it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A pleading is insufficient if it offers mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”). Additionally, it is inappropriate to assume that the plaintiff “can prove facts that 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).

         Ultimately, a court may not dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff has alleged “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). While the plausibility requirement is not akin to a probability requirement, it demands more than “a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. at 678. This plausibility inquiry is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679.

         In ruling upon a motion to dismiss, the court may consider only the complaint, any exhibits thereto, and matters which may be judicially noticed pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 201. See Mir v. Little Co. of Mary Hosp., 844 F.2d 646, 649 (9th Cir. 1988); Isuzu Motors Ltd. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 12 F.Supp.2d 1035, 1042 (C.D. Cal. 1998).

         B. Motion to Strike

         The California Civil Code provides for the pre-trial dismissal of certain actions, known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP. Makaeff v. Trump Univ., LLC, 715 F.3d 254, 261 (9th Cir. 2013). The purpose of a SLAPP suit is to use litigation or the threat of litigation to prevent or deter people from “exercising their political or legal rights or to punish them for doing so.” Id. The purpose of California Civil Code § 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute, is to identify and dismiss meritless SLAPP suits at an early stage, before the parties or courts have expended too many resources on those suits. Sonoma Foods, Inc. v. Sonoma Cheese Factory, LLC, 634 F.Supp.2d 1009, 1015 (N.D. Cal. 2007); Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 425.16(f)-(g).

         To prevail on an anti-SLAPP motion, the moving party must show that the underlying suit is a SLAPP suit and the underlying suit must be meritless. Courts, therefore, employ a two prong analysis in evaluating anti-SLAPP motions. Roberts v. McAfee, Inc., 660 F.3d 1156, 1163 (9th Cir. 2011). First, the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the suit arises from the defendant's exercise of its political or legal rights, such as rights of petition or free speech. Id. Second, if the defendant makes this showing, then the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that its claim is not meritless by demonstrating a reasonable probability of prevailing on the merits. Id.

         “In the anti-SLAPP context, “probability” is a low bar.” Roberts v. McAfee, 660 F.3d at 1163. The plaintiff can demonstrate a probability of prevailing on its claim by showing that “the complaint is both legally sufficient and supported by a sufficient prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable judgment.” Id.; Wilson v. Parker, Covert & Chidester, 28 Cal.4th 811, 821 (2002).

         III. Analysis - Motion to Dismiss

         Park moves to dismiss all claims against him for failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 8-1 at 6.) Vallejo and Mustard move to dismiss the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Causes of Action against them for failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 8-1 at 6.)

         A. Immunity Pursuant to California Government Code §§ 821.6 and 845

         Defendants argue that they have absolute immunity from liability for defamation, IIED, and NIED, pursuant to California Government Code § 821.6. (ECF No. 8-1 at 11, 14, 16.) Section 821.6 provides that “[a] public employee is not liable for injury caused by his instituting or prosecuting any judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of his employment, even if he acts maliciously and without probable cause.” Cal. Gov't Code § 821.6.

         Binding Ninth Circuit precedent holds that § 821.6 confers immunity only against claims for malicious prosecution. Garmon v. City of Los Angeles, 828 F.3d 837, 847 (9th Cir. 2016). Plaintiffs do not assert a malicious prosecution claim. Accordingly, the Court concludes that Defendants' do not have immunity from liability from Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to § 821.6.

         Defendants also argue that they have immunity from liability for IIED and NIED pursuant to California Government Code § 845. (ECF No. 8-1 at 14-15, 17.) Section 845 provides that “[n]either a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a police department or otherwise to provide police protection service or, if police protection service is provided, for failure to provide sufficient police protection service.” Cal. Gov't Code § 845.

         Plaintiffs do not assert any claim based on Defendants' failure to provide sufficient police protective service or “not freeing Huskins from her captor sooner.” (ECF No. 11 at 24.) Rather, Plaintiffs rely on different theories to support their IIED and NIED claims. (ECF No. 11 at 22- 24, 24-26.) Accordingly, the Court concludes that Defendants do not have immunity from liability from these IIED and NIED claims pursuant to § 845.

         B. First Cause of Action: Stigma-Plus Defamation

         Plaintiffs assert a Fourteenth Amendment claim for defamation against Park pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 84-97.) “Damage to reputation alone is not actionable under § 1983, ” but a claim may lie if Plaintiffs were “stigmatized in connection with the denial of a ‘more tangible' interest. ” Hart v. Parks,450 F.3d 1059, 1069-70 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Paul v. Davis,424 U.S. 693, 701-02; 711-12 (1976)). “This is known as the ‘stigma-plus' test, and [it] can be satisfied in two ways.” Id. at 1070. First, Plaintiffs may satisfy the test by alleging “that the injury to reputation caused the denial of a federal protected right.” Id. (emphasis in original). ...

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