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Lawson v. Tehama County

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 7, 2017

LEE LAWSON, Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff Lee Lawson (“plaintiff”) appears in pro per in this civil rights action alleging violation of his rights under the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution, together with a state tort claim for trespassing. ECF No. 1.

         Defendant Tehama County and defendant employees of the County (“the County” collectively) move to dismiss the federal claims asserted for failure to state a cognizable legal theory to support them, and to dismiss the state claim for failure to exhaust prerequisite administrative remedies. ECF No. 16. Defendant Roger Meyer moves to strike, or alternatively to dismiss, the claim against him against him pursuant to the dictates of California Civil Code section 425.16(a), California's Anti-SLAPP statute, [1] and California Civil Code section 47.

         As a threshold matter the court notes that a complaint filed by a plaintiff acting in pro per is entitled to enhanced deference by a court ruling on motions for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12. The courts of this Circuit have long held that a pro per “complaint should not be dismissed unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim that would entitle [him] to relief. All allegations of material fact are taken a true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Berg v. Popham, 412 F.3d 1122, 1125 (9th Cir. 2005), quoting Daniel v. County of Santa Barbara, 288 F.3d 375, 380 (9th Cir. 2002). These holdings emanate from the Supreme Court's decision in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972). Thus plaintiff is entitled to notice of the deficiencies in his complaint and an opportunity to amend unless the complaint's deficiencies cannot be cured by amendment. See Noll v. Carlson, 809 F.2d 1446, 1448 (9th Cir. 1987), citing Broughton v. Cutter Laboratories, 622 F.2d 458, 460 (9th Cir. 1980).

         During the hearing held on defendant' motions to dismiss et al. (November 2, 2017), plaintiff indicated that he desired to amend his complaint as he had many supplemental facts to add to the original allegations. After considering the motions, which in part, have merit on the present allegations, and in view of the law which would mandate an amendment opportunity for plaintiff, and in light of promised supplemental facts, the undersigned has determined that it would be more efficient for all concerned to simply allow plaintiff to amend his complaint, and test those allegations in a subsequent motion to dismiss, if at all at this juncture, in the near future. In essence, this order defers the motions to dismiss pending amendment of the complaint.

         However, to guide the parties in their subsequent efforts, this order will set forth plaintiff's claims, and track the arguments of the parties on the motions.


         Plaintiff states the following facts in his Complaint. Having recently retired after living for many years in Alaska, plaintiff bought two 160 acres parcels of land in Tehama County on October 5, 2016 on which he planned to build a farm with two friends soon to retire from positions in Alaska. Initially he moved a travel trailer onto one of the properties and put it next to an old trailer already on the property which he used to store tools, he hired a contractor to excavate dirt roads to allow travel onto and across the property, and he erected two greenhouses and had a permitted water well installed. ECF 1 at ¶12.

         On February 23, 2017 his contractor, Ms. Alexander, was stopped by defendants Keith Curl, Agent Weston, and Deputy Sheriffs Buck Squire and Jerry Jungwirth, who questioned her presence, asked if she were growing marijuana, and informed her they were there in response to a complaint by defendant Roger Meyer. Ms. Alexander notified plaintiff of the contact and indicated she felt threatened by the contact and was afraid to go back to the property. Id. at ¶ 14.

         On March 1, 2017 plaintiff received a certified letter titled “Notice of Violation and Proposed Administrative Penalty, giving plaintiff 10 days to “abate the public nuisance, ” and signed by Keith Curl from the Tehama County Department of Environmental Health. Id. at ¶ 15.

         Plaintiff drove 150 miles from his home in Wilton, near Sacramento California, to Red Bluff, California, in Tehama County to meet with Agent Curl who told him he would have to tear down the greenhouses he had erected and remove the travel trailers on the property as none of them were permitted, and further explained that although others had such unpermitted items on nearby properties no one had complained so no demands for removal had been made. Because of the size of the threatened fines plaintiff agreed to take the demanded actions by March 31, 2017. Id. at ¶ 16. Although plaintiff recounts that Agent Curl told him the fines would be $500 per day until abatement, id. at ¶ 17(A), he has since provided copies of the notices which reflect penalties of $100 per day regarding the well, and $100 per day for the travel trailer, and an opportunity to contest the abatements by requesting a hearing before the County Board of Supervisors by a date certain, but also providing that scheduling a hearing would not retard the accumulation of fines. It is important to note that the Notice regarding the well abatement indicates that County officials performed an examination of the well, Attachment to ECF No 18, plaintiff's Response to County Motion to Dismiss, which plaintiff points out required them to go onto plaintiff's property which was posted with “No Trespassing” signs. Id. at ¶ 26.

         On March 5, 2017 Ms. Alexander reported that as she attempted to return to the property to repair the road and remove the greenhouses that had been declared a nuisance she discovered the gate to plaintiff's property had been locked, a sign left on the gate, tools were stolen from the storage trailer, the greenhouses had been ransacked and fuel stored in them stolen, a 4 wheeler had been vandalized, and other property was missing. Id. at ¶ 19, 20.

         On March 6, 2017, having been unable to reach Deputy Sheriff Buck Squires by telephone, plaintiff returned to Red Bluff to meet with him together with Ms.Alexander. In the Sheriff's absence Deputy Noel Clem advised them to call dispatch and leave a complaint, but suggested a court action would be more promising. Id. at ¶ 21. Upon calling dispatch they spoke with Deputy Chris Smith who informed them he personally had two unpermitted travel trailers on his property and had not been challenged, then met with them to take the complaint and indicated confusion as to why the other deputies refused to take the complaint. Id. at ¶ 21.

         Deputy Squires ultimately joined the group and discussed pictures that had been used to identify the structures on plaintiff's property that he said were taken by defendant Roger Meyers but the deputy refused to provide copies to plaintiff.. Id. at ¶23.


         Plaintiff pleads claims under the following theories:

1. 42 U.S.C. section 1983 is pled on the factual premises that the County defendants illegally encroached upon plaintiff's property and in the process conducted a search without a warrant as a prelude to issuing the citations for nuisance related to his placement of greenhouses and a trailer on his property, and for having an illegal, unpermitted well on the property. Plaintiff clarified at the hearing on this matter held November 2nd (on facts outside the complaint) that he did have a permit for the well, but the County's attorney explained that plaintiff's contractor, who installed the well had informed the County that the permit was for a domestic well but he had been contracted to install an agricultural well.[2]
The non-governmental defendant, Roger Meyer, is implicated in this claim on the ground that he allegedly participated in a conspiracy with the governmental defendants to invade plaintiff's rights, although there were insufficient facts to establish a conspiracy between Meyer and the state actors.
2. A stand-alone claim for invasion of plaintiff's Fourth Amendment right to be free of governmental searches of his property without a warrant.
3. Violation of plaintiff's right to equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment, i.e, an equal protection class of one.
4. An Eighth Amendment claim for excessive fines.
5. A State law claim for trespassing by all of the individual defendants.

         Plaintiff seeks damages, both compensatory and punitive, attorney fees to cover future actions, an injunction requiring institution and use of appropriate policies and supervision of deputies, officers and agents of the County.

         Much of defendants' attacks upon the complaint are procedural in nature but the court will discuss the sufficiency of the substantive allegations in the context of addressing each of the procedural grounds raised. In discussing these motions the court must use the standards applied in assessing pro se pleadings as discussed above..



         All of the claims against defendant Meyer stem from the factual allegations that he was the complainant regarding the purportedly illegal maintenance of a travel trailer, greenhouses and the water well located on plaintiff's property without permits to support them, and that without this complaint there would have been no action against plaintiff by the County, together with the uncontested allegation that Meyer took photographs of plaintiff's property which formed the basis for the inquiries by the County.

         Defendant Meyer's attack is primarily based upon state privileges that preclude actions against persons that emanate from their ...

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