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Garcia v. City of King

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

November 9, 2017

RUFINA RECENDIZ GARCIA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF KING, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION TO STRIKE; GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION TO DISMISS RE: DKT. NOS. 26, 27

          EDWARD J. DAVILA, United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs Rufina Recendiz Garcia (“Recendiz Garcia”) and Eladio Huitzil (“Huitzil”) initiated this suit against Defendants City of King (the “City”), several of the City's police officers[1], and Leyva's Towing, Inc. (“Leyva's Towing”) to challenge the allegedly unlawful towing and storage of their vehicles. Presently before the Court is the City's motion to strike allegations relating to two towing incidents that occurred in 2013 on the grounds that any claims based upon these incidents are time-barred by the applicable statutes of limitations and the statutes of limitation were not otherwise tolled by an earlier-filed action involving allegations of unlawful towing and storage. The City separately moves to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), asserting among other things that the police officers exercised their lawful authority and discretion to have Plaintiffs' vehicles towed; the City cannot be held liable under a respondeat superior theory as a matter of law; the City provided Plaintiffs with written notice of the storage hearing in English and was not required to provide the notice in the Spanish language; the City and its police officers are immune from suit; the California Vehicle Code Sections upon which Plaintiffs base their negligence per se claim do not impose a mandatory duty on the City or its officers; and the Doe Defendants are improper. The Court finds it appropriate to take the motions under submission for decision pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b). For the reasons set forth below, the City's motion to strike is granted in part and denied in part and the motion to dismiss is granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. The Instant Action - filed November 18, 2016

         On or about October 5, 2015, City police officers allegedly conducted a traffic stop of Recendiz Garcia's son, Carlos Daniel Recendiz (“Carlos”), who was driving her truck. First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) at ¶20. The officers allegedly cited Carlos for driving without a license and ordered Leyva's Towing to tow the truck. Id. The officers allegedly denied Carlos' request to call Recendiz Garcia to have her remove the truck. Id. The same day, Recendiz Garcia allegedly went to the City's Police Department and asked, in Spanish, to speak with the Police Chief. Id. at ¶21. Plaintiffs allege that the administrator at the front desk told Recendiz Garcia, in Spanish, to speak with an unidentified officer. Id. Recendiz Garcia alleges that she used her limited English to speak with that officer, but the officer refused her request to release the truck and told her the law required that the truck be impounded for thirty days. Id. The officer allegedly failed to inform her of her right to challenge the validity of the impoundment at a storage hearing. Id.

         A few days later Recendiz Garcia allegedly received a Notice of Stored Vehicle written in English (“Notice”) which provided information about requesting a hearing, but she did not understand the information contained therein. Id. at ¶¶22-23. The same day, Recendiz Garcia allegedly went to Leyva's Towing and requested, in Spanish, the immediate release of her truck. Id. An employee allegedly told Recendiz Garcia that Leyva's Towing was under orders from the City to hold the truck for thirty days and that it would cost $2, 351 to retrieve the truck at the end of the thirty-day period. Id.

         In mid-October 2015, Leyva's Towing allegedly mailed Recendiz Garcia a “Notice of Pending Lien Sale for Vehicle Valued $4, 000 or Less” and an invoice, both written in English. Id. at ¶24. This Notice allegedly instructed Recendiz Garcia to (1) pay her bill and reclaim her vehicle within a month; (2) submit a Declaration of Opposition to dispute the pending sale within a week; or (3) allow the lien sale to proceed on or about November 13, 2015 by doing nothing. Id. Recendiz Garcia alleges that she did not understand these options because they were written in English. Id. Based upon the information Recendiz Garcia received from the Leyva's Towing employee, Recendiz Garcia allegedly made no further attempts to reclaim her truck because she could not afford to pay $2, 351. Id.

         Recendiz Garcia alleges that later in October of 2015, Leyva's Towing released her truck to Greenfield Auto Sales in exchange for $1, 090. Id. at ¶27. Plaintiffs allege that in January of 2016, the Credit Bureau Associates, a collection agency, mailed Recendiz Garcia a debt collection letter in English attempting to collect the money she allegedly owed to Leyva's Towing. Id. at ¶29. In February of 2016, Recendiz Garcia allegedly learned her truck had been released to Greenfield Auto Sales and she repurchased her truck for $1, 690. Id. at ¶30.

         Plaintiffs allege that the City unlawfully towed and stored their vehicles on two prior occasions during 2013. More specifically, Plaintiffs allege that in October of 2013, Defendants towed and stored Plaintiffs' 1991 Toyota Camry, without prior notice, from a legal parking spot in front of Plaintiffs' home because the vehicle had expired registration tags. Id. at ¶33. Plaintiffs allege that they were not informed of their right to a storage hearing and that Leyva's Towing told Plaintiff Huitzil that it had sold the Camry. Id. Earlier, in March of 2013, Defendants allegedly towed and stored Plaintiffs' 2004 Pontiac Sunfire in connection with a traffic stop of Huitzil's son, who was cited for driving without a license. Id. Recendiz Garcia alleges that when she arrived at the traffic stop she asked to remove the vehicle herself instead of having it towed, but Defendants allegedly refused. Id.

         B. Earlier-filed Class Action Suit re Allegedly Unlawful Towing (“Garcia Class Action”)

         On March 10, 2014, Jesus Garcia (“Garcia”) initiated a putative class action suit against the City, several City police officers, and Brian A. Miller, the owner of Miller's Towing, asserting federal civil rights claims and related state claims based upon the alleged unlawful towing of his vehicle. Among other things, Garcia alleged that the individual police officers targeted economically disadvantaged and low-income persons of Hispanic descent for traffic stops without a legitimate reason and unlawfully seized, impounded, sold or otherwise appropriated the drivers' vehicles to the permanent use and benefit of one or more the defendants. Garcia alleged that in more than 89 percent of the cases known to him, the towing was done by Miller's Towing and “other unknown similar companies and persons accomplished the balance of said wrongful acts.” Complaint at ¶19. Garcia alleged that as part of the scheme, Defendant Brian Miller gave the individual police officers a free vehicle in exchange for every ten to fifteen seizures and impoundments contracted to Miller's Towing.

         Garcia alleged that he was subjected to a traffic stop by a City police offer for a minor traffic infraction and was issued a traffic citation. Within minutes of Garcia being stopped, a tow truck allegedly arrived and at the direction of a King police officer, towed Garcia's vehicle without any explanation or instruction for how to retrieve his vehicle. Garcia alleged that Miller's Towing told him his vehicle had been impounded at the order of the police and that he could not recover his vehicle until 30 days had elapsed, and then only upon payment of all towing and impound fees. Garcia alleged that his vehicle was sold, disposed of or converted to the use of the individual defendants or other persons. After the sale, the defendant police officers and Brian Miller allegedly paid a portion of the impoundment fees and sales proceeds to King City as ostensible payment for fines and fees, and unlawfully retained the balance of the fees and sales proceeds. Based on the foregoing, Garcia asserted claims for violations of 42 U.S.C. §§1981 and 1983 (for targeting and wrongful taking of property and deliberate indifference to the violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights) and 42 U.S.C. §1985 (conspiracy). Garcia sought to represent a class defined as: “[a]ll persons subject to a traffic stop by an officer(s) of the King City, California, Police Department whose motor vehicles were seized, impounded, and thereafter sold or otherwise disposed of while under the control of the City of King City, during the period beginning three (3) years before this filing of this lawsuit until the present.” Complaint at ¶44. Garcia filed a First Amended Complaint that added named plaintiffs, repeated the federal claims, added state law claims for conversion, trespass to personal property, deceit and fraud, conspiracy, negligence, and redefined the proposed class as follows:

All persons whose motor vehicles were seized and ordered impounded by an officer(s) of the King City, California, Police Department during the period beginning three (3) years before th[e] filing of this lawsuit until the present and:
(a). Whose motor vehicles were thereafter sold or otherwise disposed of while under an impound order by the City of King City; or
(b). Who were charged and paid impoundment and storage fees in excess of the lawful amount in order to recover their vehicles.

         Garcia Class Action First Amended Complaint at ¶117; see also Second Amended and Restated Complaint at ¶117; Third Amended Complaint at ¶143. In October of 2015, the parties settled the case. In February of 2016, the parties filed a joint motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement. The Settlement Agreement defined the class in pertinent part as follows:

All natural persons whose motor vehicles were stopped and ordered towed and/or impounded by Miller's Towing at the direction of one of the following officers of the King City, California Police Department: Bruce Miller . . . between March 9, 2011 and February 25, 2014. . . .

See Garcia Class Action Docket Entry No. 123. In June of 2016, the Court granted preliminary approval of the class action settlement. See Docket Entry No. 129. In January of 2017, the Court granted final approval of the class action settlement. See Docket Entry No. 149.

         III. STANDARDS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires a plaintiff to plead each claim with sufficient specificity to “give the defendant fair notice of what the...claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal quotations omitted). The factual allegations in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief ...


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