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Neil v. Modesto City Schools District

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 6, 2017

DONESHIA NEIL, Deceased, THROUGH HER SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST LATISHA CYPRIAN; LATISHA CYPRIAN, Individually, Plaintiff,
v.
MODESTO CITY SCHOOLS DISTRICT, a public entity; MODESTO CITY SCHOOLS DISTRICT BOARD MEMBERS STEVEN GRENBEAUX, SUE ZWAHLEN, CHAD BROWN, CRAIG RYDQUIST, AMY NEUMANN, CINDY MARKS, JOHN WALKER, PAMELA ABLE, VIRGINA GINGER JOHNSON, JULIE A. BETSCHART, DAN PARK, NADENE GALAS, RICHARD BAUM, Individually CHRISTOPHER CHILLES, and ARY CARY ALHO Individually; COUNTY OF STANISLAUS, a public entity; STANISLAUS COUNTY OFFICE OF EDUCATION; and DOES 1-50, jointly and severally, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS (ECF NO. 20)

          Lawrence J. O'Neill UNITED STATES CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Doneshia Neil (“Neil”), deceased, through her successor in interest Latisha Cyprian, (“Plaintiff” or “Cyprian”) filed a first amended complaint (“FAC”) in this action on April 24, 2017 against Defendants Stanislaus County, Stanislaus County Office of Education (“SCOE”) (collectively, “Stanislaus Defendants”), Modesto City School District (“MCSD”), MCSD Board Members: Steven Grenbeaux, Sue Zwahlen, Chad Brown, Amy Neumann, Cindy Marks, and John Walker, (collectively “School Board Defendants”), and MCSD administrators: MCSD Superintendent Pamela Able, MCSD Associate Superintendent Virgina (Ginger) Johnson, MCSD Deputy Superintendent Craig Rydquist, Associate Superintendent Julie A. Betschart[1], Fred Beyer High School Principal Dan Park, Fred Beyer High School Assistant Principal Nadene Galas, Thomas Downey High School Principal Richard Baum, Thomas Downey High School Assistant Principal Christopher Chilles[2], and Fred Beyer High School Campus Supervisor Gary Carvalho (“MCSD Administrator Defendants”), (collectively “MCSD Defendants”), and Does 1-50. This action arises out of Neil's suicide following discipline and expulsion from two public high schools in Stanislaus County. MCSD Defendants move to dismiss the FAC in part.

         II. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS[3]

         In the fall of 2014[4], Neil, an African-American girl, was enrolled as a high school freshman at Fred Beyer High School in Modesto, CA. (FAC ¶ 32.) Neil was an honor roll student and an active participant in several Beyer High School sports teams. (Id.) On January 12, 2015, Neil was involved in a verbal and physical altercation with a Caucasian student. (Id. ¶ 34.) Neil and two other African-American students were suspended following the incident, but the Caucasian student was not. (Id.) Neil alleges that she was not given notice or the opportunity to tell her side of the story by Defendants Galas, Park, and Carvalho in violation of the California Education Code and SCOE policy. (Id.) Defendant Galas later contacted Plaintiff to inform her that Neil could not return to school because Defendants Galas and Park heard that Neil was making threats of violence against a Caucasian student. (Id. ¶ 38.) Galas suggested that Neil be sent to an inferior alternative school, called Turnaround Opportunity School (“TOPS”). (Id.) Plaintiff Cyprian was pressured into withdrawing Neil from Beyer High School and sending her to Downey High School to avoid having to send her to TOPS. (Id. ¶¶ 39-40.)

         Shortly after transferring to Downey High School, Neil was suspended for a fighting incident by Defendants Chilles and Baum without notice or an opportunity to be heard. (Id. ¶ 42.) Neil steadfastly denied any involvement in the incident. (Id.) On February 6, 2015, while Neil was suspended, her mother was informed by Defendant Chilles that Neil could not return to Downey High School, and that she could either enroll at TOPS or return to Beyer High School. (Id. ¶ 44.) Plaintiff contacted Defendant Galas to try to re-enroll Neil at Beyer High School, but was unsuccessful. (Id.)

         At some time on February 6, 2015[5], Neil committed suicide by consuming a toxic, lethal dose of over-the-counter antihistamine (allergy) medicine. (Id. ¶ 45.) Chief Deputy Coroner Sergeant Ed Ridenour of the Stanislaus County Coroner's Office made relevant observations about Neil's death, drawing in part on Neil's suicide note. (Id.) Sergeant Ridenour noted that Neil indicated in her suicide note that she “believed her life was over [and that] she based [her belief in part] on being expelled from Beyer High School.” (Id.) Sergeant Ridenour also noted that Neil “mentioned [in her suicide note] about being transferred to a new school and not having any friends there.” (Id.) Sergeant Ridenour also indicated that “[b]ased on my training and experience, I believe . . . other incidents which may have directly influenced her decision [to commit suicide] were the recent expulsion from school.” (Id.)

         III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff brings four causes of action: 1) deprivation of Plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) against Stanislaus County, SCOE, MCSD, MCSD Board Members, and Defendants Rydquist, Betschart, Johnson, Park, Galas, Baum, and Carvalho (first cause of action)[6]; 2) violation of the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974 (“EEOA”) (20 U.S.C. § 1703) against Stanislaus County, SCOE, MCSD, MCSD Board Members, and Defendants Rydquist, Betschart, and Johnson (second cause of action); 3) violation of Title VI (42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq.) against Stanislaus County, Stanislaus County Office of Education, MCSD, and MCSD Board Members, and Defendants Rydquist, Betschart, and Johnson (third cause of action); and 4) Monell liability under 42 U.S.C § 1983 against Stanislaus County (fourth cause of action). (ECF No. 10, (“Complaint”).)[7] Plaintiff alleges federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 1343(a)(3) and (4). Venue is proper in this Court.

         Now before the Court is MCSD Defendants' motion to dismiss several of the claims set forth in the FAC. (ECF No. 20.) MCSD Defendants first argue that the claims against all individual Defendants should be dismissed because the FAC fails to set forth any factual allegations linking those individuals to the alleged violations. Second, with respect to the first cause of action under § 1983, MCSD Defendants argue that none of the individual Defendants can be sued in their official capacities because the District is not a person within the meaning of § 1983, and because the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars them being sued in their official capacities. Lastly, they argue that Cyprian fails to allege facts sufficient to state any claim individually for purposes of the alleged discrimination against Neil. Plaintiff opposed Defendants' motion. (ECF No. 22.) Defendants submitted a reply. (ECF No. 23.) Defendants' motion is now ripe for review, and is suitable for disposition without oral argument. See Local Rule 230(g).

         IV. STANDARD OF DECISION

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is a challenge to the sufficiency of the allegations set forth in the complaint. Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). A 12(b)(6) dismissal is proper where there is either a “lack of a cognizable legal theory” or “the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.” Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). In determining whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief may be granted, the Court accepts as true the allegations in the complaint, construes the pleading in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, and resolves all doubts in the pleader's favor. Lazy Y Ranch Ltd. v. Behrens, 546 F.3d 580, 588 (9th Cir. 2008).

         Under Rule 8(a), a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” 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). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         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.”). Moreover, 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). In practice, “a complaint . . . must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 562. In other words, the complaint must describe the alleged misconduct in enough detail to lay the foundation for an identified legal claim. “Dismissal without leave to amend is proper if it is clear that the complaint could not be saved by amendment.” Kendall v. Visa U.S.A., Inc., 518 F.3d 1042, 1051 (9th Cir. 2008). To the extent that the pleadings can be cured by the allegation of additional facts, the Court will afford the plaintiff leave to amend. Cook, Perkiss and Liehe, Inc. v. N. Cal. Collection Serv. Inc., 911 F.2d 242, 247 (9th Cir. 1990) (citations omitted).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Claims Against Individual Defendants

         1. First Cause of Action as to Defendants Sued in Their Official Capacities

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff's first cause of action should be dismissed as to individual Defendants sued in their official capacities. (ECF NO. 21 at 5-8.) Based on the Court's reading of the FAC, Plaintiff sues each individual Defendant in their individual capacities only. (FAC ¶¶ 8-22; see, e.g., id. ¶ 8 (“Defendant Grenbaux is being sued in his individual capacity.”); id.at 1 (indicating in the case caption that individual Defendants are sued individually.) However, in its opposition, Plaintiff appears to suggest that she is suing School Board Defendants and Defendants Able and Johnson in their official capacities as well as their individual capacities. (ECF No. 22 at 13-15 (“Defendants GRENBEAUX, ZWAHLEN, BROWN, NEUMAN, MARKS, WALKER, ABLE and JOHNSON . . . are sued in their official and individual capacities.”).) For purposes of this motion, Plaintiff's case is limited to what is pled in the FAC; she cannot make new allegations in the opposition. Schneider v. California Dep't of Corr., 151 F.3d 1194, 1197 n.1 (9th Cir. 1998) (“In determining the propriety of a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, a court may not look beyond the complaint to a plaintiff's moving papers, such as a memorandum in opposition to a defendant's motion to dismiss.”) (emphasis in original). Therefore, the Court assumes that all individual Defendants are sued only in their individual capacities. However, for the sake of clarity, because both parties seem to believe that certain individual Defendants are sued in their official capacities, and because Plaintiff will have an opportunity to amend the FAC, the Court will briefly address why Plaintiff is barred from suing School Board Defendants and Defendants Able and Johnson under § 1983 in their official capacities.

         The Eleventh Amendment bars § 1983 claims against state actors sued in their official capacities. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66 (1989). That immunity also extends to “governmental entities that are considered ‘arms of the State' for Eleventh Amendment purposes, ” as well as officials of those entitles sued in their official capacity. Id. at 70-71. California school districts are considered “arms of the State.” See Belanger v. Madera Unified School Dist., 963 F.2d 248, 253-54 (9th Cir. 1992) (“Under California law, school districts are agents of the state that perform central governmental functions”). Plaintiff alleges that School Board Defendants, as well as Superintendent Able and Associate Superintendent Johnson were employees of MCSD and acting within the scope of their duties ...


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