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Estate of Pimentel v. City of Ceres

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 24, 2019

ESTATE OF NICHOLAS A. PIMENTEL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF CERES, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS (DOC. NO. 18)

         This matter is before the court on defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, filed on February 19, 2019. (Doc. No. 18.) On April 2, 2019, that motion came before the court for hearing. Attorney Mark Merin and Andrew Rausch appeared on behalf of plaintiffs, and attorney Allen Christiansen appeared on behalf of defendants. Having considered the parties' briefing, and having heard from counsel, the court will grant defendants' motion in part.

         BACKGROUND

         In the complaint, plaintiffs allege as follows. On or about Sunday, October 22, 2017, at approximately 1:00 a.m., decedent Nicholas A. Pimentel and plaintiff Maria Pilar Rivera occupied a vehicle, which was being driven by decedent Pimentel. (Doc. No. 1 (“Compl.”) at ¶ 20.) Decedent Pimentel allegedly drove through a “Stop” sign without completely coming to a stop in an unincorporated area of Stanislaus County. (Id. at ¶ 21.) A law enforcement vehicle, located behind the Pimentel's vehicle, activated its flashing lights. (Doc. No. 22.) Because decedent Pimentel and plaintiff Rivera were within a few blocks of their residence, decedent Pimentel decided that he would attempt to reach his residence before pulling over. (Id. at ¶¶ 23- 24.) The law enforcement vehicle was soon joined by other law enforcement vehicles, which were being driven by defendants Venn, Bays, and Doe defendants 1 through 25. (Id. at ¶¶ 25- 26.) One of these vehicles, operated by defendant Doe 1, performed a Pursuit Intervention Technique (“PIT”) maneuver on decedent Pimentel's vehicle, causing it to spin out. (Id. at ¶ 27.) Within moments of Pimentel's vehicle coming to a stop following the performance of the PIT maneuver, defendants Venn, Bays, and Does 1 through 25 began shooting at decedent Pimentel's vehicle, without prior warning, provocation, or any reasonable fear of risk or threat to themselves or to others. (Id. at ¶ 31.) Decedent Pimentel, who covered plaintiff Rivera within the vehicle to shield her from gunfire, was shot several times. (Id. at ¶¶ 32-33.) For his gunshot wounds, decedent Pimentel required immediate medical treatment, which was not immediately summoned or provided. (Id. at ¶¶ 38-39.) Following the shooting, and on information and belief, Does 1 through 25 made an unlawful entry into the home of decedent Pimentel and plaintiff Rivera and conducted an unlawful search for pretextual evidence that might justify the shooting. (Id. at ¶ 40.)

         Plaintiffs filed their complaint on September 5, 2018, alleging a variety of civil rights violations. Defendants filed the instant motion for judgment on the pleadings on February 19, 2019. (Doc. No. 18.) Plaintiffs filed an opposition on March 5, 2019. (Doc. No. 19.) Defendants filed their reply on March 12, 2019. (Doc. No. 21.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” In reviewing a motion brought under Rule 12(c), the court “must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Fleming v. Pickard, 581 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2009). The same legal standard applicable to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion applies to a Rule 12(c) motion. Dworkin v. Hustler Magazine, Inc., 867 F.2d 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 1989). Accordingly, “judgment on the pleadings is properly granted when, taking all the allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Marshall Naify Revocable Tr. v. United States, 672 F.3d 620, 623 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles, 179 F.3d 698, 699 (9th Cir. 1999)); see also Fleming, 581 F.3d at 925 (noting that “judgment on the pleadings is properly granted when there is no issue of material fact in dispute, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law”). The allegations of the nonmoving party must be accepted as true, while any allegations made by the moving party that have been denied or contradicted are assumed to be false. MacDonald v. Grace Church Seattle, 457 F.3d 1079, 1081 (9th Cir. 2006). The facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of that party. Living Designs, Inc. v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 431 F.3d 353, 360 (9th Cir. 2005).

         Courts have discretion both to grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings with leave to amend or to simply grant dismissal of causes of action rather than grant judgment as to them. Lonberg v. City of Riverside, 300 F.Supp.2d 942, 945 (C.D. Cal. 2004) (citations omitted); see also Pac. W. Grp. v. Real Time Sols., Inc., 321 Fed. App'x 566, 569 (9th Cir. 2008);[1] Woodson v. California, No. 2:15-cv-01206-MCE-CKD, 2016 WL 524870, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 10, 2016). Generally, dismissal without leave to amend is proper only if it is clear that “the complaint could not be saved by any amendment.” Intri-Plex Techs. v. Crest Grp., 499 F.3d 1048, 1056 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing In re Daou Sys., Inc., 411 F.3d 1006, 1013 (9th Cir. 2005)); see also Ascon Props., Inc. v. Mobil Oil Co., 866 F.2d 1149, 1160 (9th Cir. 1989) (noting that “[l]eave need not be granted where the amendment of the complaint . . . constitutes an exercise in futility”).

         ANALYSIS

         Defendants move for judgment on the pleadings with respect to multiple causes of action set forth in plaintiffs' complaint. Each argument is addressed in turn below.

         A. Judgment on Claims Against Ceres Police Department as Duplicative

         First, defendants move for judgment as to all causes of action brought against the Ceres Police Department. (Doc. No. 18-1 at 11.) They argue that the Ceres Police Department, as a sub-unit of a municipality, is not a “person” within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id.)

         In seeking dismissal, defendants cite to a concurring opinion in United States v. Kama, 394 F.3d 1236, 1239-40 (9th Cir. 2005) (Ferguson, J., concurring), which stated that “municipal police departments and bureaus are generally not considered ‘persons' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Defendants misconstrue this opinion. In reaching that conclusion, the concurring opinion cited to the Ninth Circuit's decision Hervey v. Estes, 65 F.3d 784, 791-92 (9th Cir. 1995), which held that the Tacoma Narcotics Enforcement Team was not a “person” under § 1983 because it was an intergovernmental task force composed of several local, county, and state governmental entities, not a separate legal entity unto itself. Because this case alleges claims against a police department, and not an intergovernmental association, the court finds Hervey to be of only limited guidance. The concurring opinion in Hervey also relied upon an Eleventh Circuit decision, Dean v. Barber, 951 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1992), which found that because the county sheriff's department lacked the capacity to be sued under Alabama law, it could not be sued under § 1983. However, California law is to the contrary. See Karim-Panahi v. L.A. Police Dep't, 839 F.2d 621, 624 n.2 (9th Cir. 1988) (“Municipal police departments are ‘public entities' under California law and, hence, can be sued in federal court for alleged civil rights violations.”).

         More recently, the Ninth Circuit has permitted an action under § 1983 to proceed against a California sheriff's department in the face of the department's contention that it is not a “person” within the meaning of § 1983. Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552, 564-65 (9th Cir. 2001) (affirming the district court's holding that when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department acts on behalf of the County, it is subject to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983); see also Brewster v. Shasta County, 275 F.3d 803, 807 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding that the Shasta County Sheriff is subject to liability under § 1983 after concluding that the “Shasta County Sheriff acts for the County, not the state, when investigating crime in the county”). The undersigned concludes that these binding decisions control resolution of this issue, and therefore will deny defendants' motion for judgment with respect to plaintiff's claims against the Ceres Police Department.[2]

         B. Dismissal of Claims Against Defendant Smith

         Next, defendants seek judgment on the pleadings as to all claims brought against Brent Smith, the Ceres Chief of Police. (Doc. No. 18-1 at 11-13.) Defendants argue that the complaint includes insufficient factual allegations to state a claim against defendant Smith in his individual capacity. (Id.)

         “An official may be liable as a supervisor only if either (1) he or she was personally involved in the constitutional deprivation, or (2) a sufficient causal connection exists between the supervisor's wrongful conduct and the constitutional violation.” Felarca v. Birgeneau, 891 F.3d 809, 819-20 (9th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Larez v. City of Los Angeles, 946 F.2d 630, 645 (9th Cir. 1991) (noting that whether a supervisor in his individual capacity is liable for a failure to supervise “hinges upon his participation in the deprivation of constitutional rights”). “A supervisor can be liable in his individual capacity for his own culpable action or inaction in the training, supervision, or control of his subordinates; for his acquiescence in the constitutional deprivation; or for conduct that showed a reckless or callous indifference to the rights of others.” Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1208 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Watkins v. City of Oakland, 145 F.3d 1087, 1093 (9th Cir. 1998)). If a subordinate has committed a constitutional violation, the liability of a supervisor “depends upon whether he set in motion a series of acts by others, or knowingly refused to terminate a series of acts by others, which he knew or reasonably should have known, would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury.” Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 485 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Watkins, 145 F.3d at 1093).

         Here, the court can find no factual allegations in the operative complaint that, if true, would demonstrate that defendant Smith took any action with respect to plaintiffs. The allegations of the complaint do not involve any of Smith's conduct, but are instead premised solely on his role as a supervisor. For instance, the complaint alleges that Smith “knew or should have known that law enforcement officers under [his] command . . . were inadequately trained, supervised, or disciplined[.]” (Compl. at ¶ 51.) It then states that these “actions and inactions were motivated by evil motive or intent, involved reckless or callous indifference to Nicholas A. Pimentel and Plaintiff Maria Pilar Rivera's rights secured by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, or were wantonly or oppressively done.” (Id. at ¶ 52.) Left unsaid is what defendant Smith did or failed to do. In the absent such allegations, the court will grant defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings with respect to defendant Smith with leave to amend.

         C. Dismissal of Certain Aspects of Plaintiffs' Familial Association Claims

         Plaintiffs' fourth cause of action is brought by the decedent's son A.D.P. and the Estate of Diane L. Pimentel, and alleges violations of their rights to intimate association under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Compl. at ¶¶ 64-66.) Plaintiffs' fifth cause of action is brought by A.D.P., the Estate of Diane L. Pimentel, Maria Pilar Rivera, Summer Pimentel, Matthew Pimentel, Travis Pimentel, and Derek Pimentel, and alleges violations of their rights to intimate association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. (Id. at ¶¶ 69-71.) Defendants argue that Estate of Diane L. Pimentel lacks standing, and that in any event they are entitled to judgment on the pleadings in their favor with respect to the fifth cause of action in its entirety. (Doc. No. 18-1 at 13-16.) Each of these arguments is addressed below.

         1. Judgment as to the Fifth Cause of Action as Duplicative

         First, defendants move for judgment as to plaintiffs' fifth cause of action. (Id. at 14.) This claim alleges violation of plaintiffs' rights of association, companionship, and society under the First Amendment. Defendants argue that this claim is duplicative of the fourth cause of action, which alleges violation of those same rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id.)

         Defendants' argument is directly contrary to Ninth Circuit caselaw, which holds that familial association claims brought under the First Amendment are not duplicative of familial association claims brought under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Keates v. Koile, 883 F.3d 1228, 1235-36 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit reviewed the two causes of action and concluded that “claims under both the First and Fourteenth Amendment for unwarranted interference with the right to familial association could survive a motion to dismiss.” In other words, there is nothing duplicative or superfluous about alleging familial association claims under each Amendment. Although the undersigned is aware of at least one contrary district court ruling, the court finds that this case is no longer good law in light of the decision in Keates. See Reyes ex rel. Reyes v. City of Fresno, No. CV F 13-0418 LJO SKO, 2013 WL 2147023, at *10 (E.D. Cal. May 15, 2013) (dismissing plaintiffs' First Amendment familial association claim as superfluous after finding that “[t]he weight of authorities indicates that the Fourteenth Amendment is the more precise source for familial association rather than the First Amendment”). Accordingly, defendants' motion seeking judgment on the pleadings with respect to plaintiffs' fifth cause of action will be denied.

         2. Judgment as to the Fourth and Fifth Causes of Action as Alleged by ...


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