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Estate of Mendez v. City of Ceres

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 27, 2019

ESTATE OF CARMEN MENDEZ, JORGE MENDEZ, SR., JORGE MENDEZ, JR., KYLAND RILEY, ROSARIO SANCHEZ, BERTHA MENDEZ, and DOMINGO MENDEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF CERES, CERES POLICE DEPARTMENT, BRENT SMITH, and DOES 1 TO 50, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS (ECF No. 9)

          LAWRENCE J. O'NEILL, UNITED STATES CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. PRELIMINARY STATEMENT TO PARTIES AND COUNSEL

         Judges in the Eastern District of California carry the heaviest caseloads in the nation, and this Court is unable to devote inordinate time and resources to individual cases and matters. Given the shortage of district judges and staff, this Court addresses only the arguments, evidence, and matters necessary to reach the decision in this order. The parties and counsel are encouraged to contact the offices of United States Senators Feinstein and Harris to address this Court's inability to accommodate the parties and this action. The parties are required to reconsider consent to conduct all further proceedings before a Magistrate Judge, whose schedules are far more realistic and accommodating to parties than that of U.S. Chief District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill, who must prioritize criminal and older civil cases.

         Civil trials set before Chief Judge O'Neill trail until he becomes available and are subject to suspension mid-trial to accommodate criminal matters. Civil trials are no longer reset to a later date if Chief Judge O'Neill is unavailable on the original date set for trial. Moreover, this Court's Fresno Division randomly and without advance notice reassigns civil actions to U.S. District Judges throughout the Nation to serve as visiting judges. In the absence of Magistrate Judge consent, this action is subject to reassignment to a U.S. District Judge from inside or outside the Eastern District of California.

         II. INTRODUCTION

         On August 18, 2018, a City of Ceres police officer fatally shot fifteen-year-old Carmen Mendez following pursuit of a vehicle in which Mendez was a passenger. ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 18-19. Relatives, including decedent's father (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), brought suit against the City of Ceres, the Ceres Police Department, Brent Smith (Chief of Police for Ceres), and Does 1-50 (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under the constitution and laws of California. Before the Court is a Motion for Judgement on the Pleadings filed by Defendants. ECF No. 1. The Court finds it appropriate to rule on Defendant's motion without oral argument. See Local Rule 230(g). For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motion.

         III. BACKGROUND

         On August 18, 2018, fifteen-year-old Carmen Mendez (“Carmen”) was a passenger in a vehicle being pursued by police for reasons not stated in Plaintiffs' complaint. See ECF No. 1 at ¶ 19. According to the allegations, when the vehicle eventually came to a stop, Carmen exited and ran on foot toward a nearby orchard. Id. at ¶ 20. It is further alleged that, while he ran, Carmen was unarmed and “non-threatening, ” but, nonetheless, Carmen was shot in the back several times by at least one police officer. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. The complaint additionally alleges that “[o]ther law enforcement officers at the scene reacted with anger to [the] unnecessary shooting” of Carmen. Id. at ¶ 25. Carmen succumbed to his injuries. Id. at ¶ 26.

         On December 10, 2018, Carmen's father, two brothers, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather filed suit against Defendants, with Carmen's father, Jorge Mendez, Sr., also filing on behalf of Carmen's estate, as one of Carmen's successors-in-interest. ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 5-11. The Plaintiffs' suit alleges three claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”), one claim under California's constitution, and four claims under California state law. See generally ECF No. 1. Absent from the lawsuit is Carmen's mother, Stephanie Beidleman, though she did serve, separate from this action, a notice of tort claims on the City of Ceres and others.[1] ECF Nos. 9-1 at 1-2, 13-1 at Ex. 1.

         On February 21, 2019, Defendants filed their Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (“motion”), alleging nine deficiencies in Plaintiffs' suit that, they claim, entitle Defendants to judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). See generally ECF No. 9-1. Defendants urge this Court to find: that Plaintiffs have failed to meet the pleading standard under Twombly/Iqbal throughout their complaint;[2] that Plaintiffs have failed to join a necessary party; that certain claims and parties are duplicative; that certain Plaintiffs are ineligible for relief under certain claims; and that certain novel claims have no legal basis. Id. On March 7, 2019, Plaintiffs responded, denying each ground raised by Defendants and urging this Court to allow their suit to proceed as filed. ECF No. 11. Defendants' Reply was filed on March 14, 2019. ECF No. 13.

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed- but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12. A motion filed under Rule 12(c) and one filed under Rule 12(b) are “functionally identical, ” with timing being the “principal difference” between them. Dworkin v. Hustler Magazine Inc., 867 F.2d 1188, 1192 (1989). Because the motions are functionally identical, the standard of review under both is the same. Gregg v. Hawaii, Dept. of Pub. Safety, 870 F.3d 883, 887 (2017). “A judgment on the pleadings is properly granted when, taking all the allegations in the pleadings as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Nelson v. City of Irvine, 143 F.3d 1196, 1200 (1998). Like a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), leave to amend a pleading “should be granted even if no request is made unless amendment would be futile.” Pac. W. Grp., Inc. v. Real Time Sols., Inc., 321 Fed.Appx. 566, 569 (2008) (emphasis original).

         V. ANALYSIS

         Defendants urge this Court to find that Plaintiffs' Complaint is substantially deficient on nine grounds. ECF No. 9-1. Specifically, Defendants argue that: (1) Plaintiffs have failed throughout their complaint to allege sufficient facts under Twombly/Iqbal; (2) the case must be stayed because Plaintiffs failed to join a necessary party, Carmen's mother; (3) the Ceres Police Department must be dismissed from the action since naming it and the City of Ceres is duplicative; (4) the Ceres Chief of Police, Brent Smith (“Smith”), must be dismissed from the action because naming him in his official capacity is duplicative and no allegations support naming him in his individual capacity; (5) any Monell claims[3]have been insufficiently pled and must be dismissed; (6) Plaintiffs' two claims for right of intimate association are duplicative, and in any event are inapplicable to any relative other than Carmen's father and brothers; (7) Plaintiffs' cause of action brought under California's constitution fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; (8) Plaintiffs' Bane Act claim fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and can only be brought on behalf of Carmen's estate; and (9) Plaintiffs include duplicative, superfluous language in their Bane Act claim that should be stricken. Id.

         Each argument is addressed in turn below.

         A. Joinder of Carmen's Mother

         1. Contentions

         Defendants urge this Court to find that Plaintiffs failed to join a necessary party-Carmen's mother-under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19 and that, as a result, this case must be stayed until she is joined. ECF Nos. 9-1 at 1-2, 13 at 3-4. Defendants base their assertion on the fact that Carmen's mother is a successor-in-interest of Carmen's estate, together with Carmen's father, as Carmen was a minor at the time of his death. Id.

         Plaintiffs respond that Defendants' objection fails for two procedural reasons: Defendants have failed to parse which claims they believe require joinder of Carmen's mother, and Defendants' objection was waived when Defendants failed to raise the issue in their first responsive pleading. ECF No. 11 at 2. Plaintiffs also contend, substantively, that Carmen's mother is not a necessary party because Carmen's mother can bring a claim against Carmen's estate should Carmen's father, as successor-in-interest, prevail in this action. Id. at 2-3. As a final matter, Plaintiffs argue that, should the Court find Carmen's mother a necessary party, the cure is to name her as a nominal defendant. Id. at 3.

         2. Law and Analysis

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19 requires joinder of necessary parties, with certain exceptions. Fed.R.Civ.P. 19. “A Rule 19 motion poses three successive inquiries, ” E.E.O.C. v. Peabody W. Coal Co., 610 F.3d 1070, 1078 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations and citation removed), which were not briefed or analyzed fully by the parties here. The first inquiry requires determining whether a party is necessary pursuant to the rule. Id. That inquiry involves a two-pronged analysis, pursuant to which the Court examines first “whether complete relief can be afforded if the action is limited to the existing parties, ” and second, “whether the absent party has a legally protected interest in the subject of the action, and if so, whether the party's absence will impair or impede the party's ability to protect that interest or will leave an existing party subject to multiple, inconsistent legal obligations with respect to that interest.” White v. Univ. of Cal., 765 F.3d 1010, 1026 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotations omitted). Either a negative answer to the first prong or an affirmative answer to the second prong means a party is necessary. If a party is not necessary, the inquiry stops. If a party is necessary, the Court engages, in order, the successive steps of the Rule 19 inquiry to determine if the necessary party is indispensable and whether, in fact, the action cannot proceed without that party. Peabody, 610 F.3d at 1078.

         a. The Wrongful Death Claim

         The analysis of how Rule 19 applies to the wrongful death claim brought under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 377.60 is relatively straightforward, as the case of Ruttenberg v. Ruttenberg, 53 Cal.App.4th 801, 808 (1997), instructs that heirs for such claims “have a mandatory duty to join all known omitted heirs in the ‘single action' for wrongful death” because “wrongful death actions are considered to be ‘joint, single and indivisible.' ” Indeed, “only one action for wrongful death may be brought whether, in fact, it is instituted by all or only one of the heirs.” Ruttenberg, 53 Cal.App.4th at 807. Notwithstanding this, “a non-joined heir is not an ‘indispensable party' to a wrongful death action” under California law. Id. at 807.[4]

         “In federal procedure, failure to join necessary parties is waived if objection is not made in defendant's first responsive pleading; it is only the absence of an indispensable party which may (possibly) be raised later.”[5] Citibank, N.A. v. Oxford Properties & Fin. Ltd., 688 F.2d 1259, 1262 n.4 (9th Cir. 1982). Because a non-joined heir is not indispensable for purposes of a wrongful death claim, the Court concludes that Defendants waived their argument for joinder, as it relates to this claim, by failing to object in their first responsive pleading.

         The Court, however, may raise sua sponte joinder under Rule 19. CP Nat. Corp. v. Bonneville Power Admin., 928 F.2d 905, 911 (9th Cir. 1991) (“The absence of ‘necessary' parties may be raised by reviewing courts sua sponte …”). The issue of joinder may be raised to protect the interests of an absent party. McCowen v. Jamieson, 724 F.2d 1421, 1424 (9th Cir. 1984) (raising joinder under Rule 19 sua sponte, the court stated: “We are acting to protect the [absent party's] interest …”). Consideration of judicial economy is also appropriate, although judicial economy is not a factor specified in Rule 19. Shimkus v. Gersten Companies, 816 F.2d 1318, 1322 (9th Cir. 1987). Here, Carmen's mother is a necessary party, and her interest in the wrongful death claim will be impaired by the complete foreclosure of her ability to bring her own such claim in a separate suit under California law. Nonjoinder of Carmen's mother also presents a substantial probability of one or more suits concerning the same claims and issues being brought subsequent to final adjudication of this case. That burdens the courts, and new controversies among the parties might be invited. Therefore, the Court finds that joinder of a necessary party, Carmen's mother, is required in order to protect her interest and for reasons of judicial economy, including the possibility of a separate suit or suits related to the wrongful death claim in this matter.[6]

         Defendants' motion to stay pending joinder is DENIED; however, the Court orders, sua sponte, joinder of Carmen's mother as a Plaintiff to the wrongful death claim.

         b. The Remaining Claims Under § 1983, and California's State Law and Constitution

         (1) Complete Relief

         Regarding the remaining claims, the Court finds that complete relief can be afforded to those already party to the action, as the first portion of Rule 19 “is concerned only with ‘relief as between the persons already parties, not as between a party and the absent person whose joinder is sought.' ” Eldredge v. Carpenters 46 N. Cal. Ctys. Joint Apprenticeship & Training Comm., 662 F.2d 534, 537 (9th Cir. 1981) (quoting 3A Moore's Federal Practice P 19.07-1(1), at 19-128 (2d ed. 1980)). Plaintiffs and Defendants make no argument that current parties cannot be provided complete relief in relation to the present parties, and the Court finds nothing to support a determination otherwise. Relief available to current Plaintiffs vis-à-vis Defendants is in no way limited by the absence of Carmen's mother, and the same is true of Defendants vis-à-vis current Plaintiffs.

         (2) Legally Protected Interest

         Evaluating the second prong of ‘necessity' as it relates to the remaining claims, the Court starts with Defendants' incompletely developed suggestion that the decedent's mother is a necessary party because she is a successor-in-interest to Carmen's estate. ECF No. 9-1 at 1-2. Defendants do not explain why, as a successor-in-interest, Carmen's mother is necessary, but the Court will begin by assuming that Defendants are suggesting that she has a legally protected interest in the proceedings. A successor-in-interest would be deemed necessary if both of the following are true: 1) the person has a legally protected interest in the subject of that action; and 2) either protection of that interest will be impaired by absence, or the person's absence will subject an existing party to multiple, inconsistent legal obligations with respect to that interest. Fed.R.Civ.P. 19.

         (a) Successor-in-Interest

         The Court notes that Defendants do not cite any authority suggesting that all successors-in-interest must be party to § 1983 claims, and the Court has found nothing to support that proposition. Indeed, as to the first claim for unreasonable force under § 1983 and the fifth claim for unreasonable force under California's Bane Act (the only claims brought on behalf of Carmen's estate by a successor-in-interest), should Carmen's father recover on behalf of the estate, Carmen's mother in turn may recover from the estate as an additional successor-in-interest. The simple reason that Carmen's mother is a successor-in-interest does not require her joinder. The Court's analysis, however, would be incomplete if it rested here.

         (b) Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

         The issue of joinder becomes murkier when the Court evaluates the necessity of Carmen's mother as it relates to the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata. The Supreme Court has long recognized the applicability of both doctrines to claims brought under § 1983. See, e.g., Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 497 (1973) (noting with approval the application of res judicata to § 1983 cases by federal courts). In Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 96-97 (1980), the Court noted that it had previously given “implicit approval” to the finding of lower courts “that § 1983 presents no categorical bar to the application of res judicata and collateral estoppel concepts.” The Allen Court only solidified that position and made it explicit. 449 U.S. at 94-105.

         The Ninth Circuit also has recognized that California's application of res judicata and collateral estoppel may extend to family members in actions such as the one before this Court because the concept of privity in California “has been expanded [ ] to a relationship between the party to be estopped and the unsuccessful party in the prior litigation which is ‘sufficiently close' so as to justify the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel.” Aguilar v. Los Angeles County, 751 F.2d 1089, 1093 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing federal district court and state appellate court cases). Under this formulation of privity, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the finding of a son as his parents' privy in a medical negligence action for the son's injuries, and the court upheld dismissal of the parents' action for failure to join a necessary party-their son. Id. at 1093-94. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal because a California state court might apply, though not certainly, collateral estoppel principles to the son's suit if his parents' action proceeded separately in federal court. Id. at 1093 (“a California court could well apply the collateral estoppel doctrine to bar [son's] suit if his parents' suit is allowed to proceed and proves unsuccessful, since the underlying issue of the County's negligence is identical in both suits”). That risk, even though not definite, was sufficient under the joinder inquiry, according to the court. Id. at 1094. The Ninth Circuit also considered other applications of res judicata and collateral estoppel against family members by California courts in reaching its decision. Id. at 1093-94.

         Yet, “later decisions have dulled Aguilar's sharp edge.” Blumberg v. Gates, 204 F.R.D. 453, 455 (C.D. Cal. 2001). Under these cases, the Ninth Circuit changed the calculus for determining whether an absent party's legally protected interest will be impaired or impeded if litigation proceeds in the party's absence. Under the new calculus, the court recognized that “[i]mpairment may be minimized if the absent party is adequately represented in the suit.” Makah Indian Tribe v. Verity, 910 F.2d 555, 558 (9th Cir. 1990). The Ninth Circuit has stated:

the question whether that party is adequately represented parallels the question whether a party's interests are so inadequately represented by existing parties as to permit intervention of right under Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(a). Consequently, we will consider three factors in determining whether existing parties adequately represent the interests of the [absent parties]: whether “the interests of a present party to the suit are such that it will undoubtedly make all” of the absent party's arguments; whether the party is “capable of and willing to make such arguments”; and whether the absent party would “offer any necessary element to the proceedings” that the present parties would neglect.

Shermoen v. United States, 982 F.2d 1312, 1318 (9th Cir. 1992); see also Sw. Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. Babbitt, 150 F.3d 1152, 1153-54 (9th Cir. 1998).

         Here, the Court need not decide whether the interests of Carmen's mother would be represented adequately by an existing party, such as Carmen's father. Carmen's mother clearly has an interest in this litigation, and the Court has ordered that she be joined for purposes of the wrongful death claim. See § A(2)(a) above. Given similar considerations as those above, concerning judicial economy and possible impairment of the mother's interests should this suit go forward without her, the Court finds that Carmen's mother should be joined to all claims in which she has an interest either in her personal capacity or as successor-in-interest.

         For the foregoing reasons, the Court ORDERS that Carmen's mother, Stephanie Beidleman, be joined to this action.

         (3) Waiver

         Had the Court not ordered joinder of Carmen's mother sua sponte, Defendants' request for joinder would face an additional problem to their successor-in-interest argument. As noted previously, “[i]n federal procedure, failure to join necessary parties is waived if objection is not made in defendant's first responsive pleading; it is only the absence of an indispensable party which may (possibly) be raised later.” Oxford Properties, 688 F.2d at 1262 n.4. Here, Defendants' belated objection would fail at the second and third stages of the three successive inquiries for necessary joinder: whether joinder is feasible and whether in equity and good conscience the suit should be dismissed. Neither party fully briefed these issues, and Defendants point to no authority at all to support their position that Carmen's mother is indispensable. In that critical omission, Defendants fail in their burden of persuasion. Because Defendants do not carry their burden, the Court need not delve deeper into this issue. Shermoen, 982 F.2d at 1317 (“The moving party has the burden of persuasion in arguing for dismissal.”). Accordingly, the Court declines to find Carmen's mother indispensable even if she is necessary, and thus, Defendants waived their objection when they did not include it in their first responsive pleading.

         For all of the foregoing reasons stated in § A, Defendants motion to stay the proceedings and join Carmen's mother is DENIED, but as noted above, the Court orders joinder sua sponte.

         B. Request to Dismiss Ceres Police Department

         1. Contentions

         Defendants move to dismiss the Ceres Police Department (“Police Department”) from the action, arguing that naming the Police Department as a defendant is duplicative of naming the City of Ceres (“the City”), which is also a defendant in the action. ECF Nos. 9-1 at 4, 13 at 4-5. Plaintiffs counter that the Police Department is a separately suable entity under California law, which means they may be named as a defendant. ECF No. 11 at 4-5. Plaintiffs do not specify separate facts or theories of liability for the Police Department as compared to the City, and neither Plaintiffs nor Defendants parse their arguments separately for claims brought under § 1983 versus those brought under state law.

         2. Law and Analysis

         The capacity to be sued is determined “by the law of the state where the court is located.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17. California law, in turn, provides that a “public entity may sue and be sued.” Cal. Gov. Code § 945. The Ninth Circuit has found that, in the absence of a state court decision indicating otherwise, the definition of “public entity” includes a police department. Shaw v. Cal. Dep't of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 788 F.2d 600, 605 (9th Cir. 1986). Thus, in California, a police department “may be sued in Federal court.” Id.; see also Streit v. County of Los Angeles, 236 F.3d 552, 565-67 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding, in the context of a § 1983 action, that local law enforcement agencies may be sued in federal court). The pronouncement from the Ninth Circuit is clear: “Municipal police departments … can be sued in federal court for alleged civil rights violations.” Karim-Panahi v. Los Angeles, 839 F.2d 621, 624 n. 2 (9th Cir. 1988).

         Without discussion of the cases cited above, Defendants point to United States v. Kama, 394 F.3d 1236 (9th Cir. 2005), and district court cases that rely on Kama, in support of their position that the police department must be dismissed from this suit. ECF No. 13 at 5. But Kama is distinguishable from this case in important ways that render it unpersuasive. First, it is the concurring opinion, signed by one judge, that states as dictum, “municipal police departments and bureaus are generally not considered ‘persons' within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Kama, 394 F.3d at 1239-40 (emphasis added). Second, Kama concerned a suit for return of seized property under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g), brought against law enforcement in Oregon, not California-which facts are not relevant to the matter currently before this Court. Id. at 1236-39. The context of Kama renders it inapposite. The Court joins other district courts that have found the same.[7]

         Plaintiffs may name the Ceres Police Department as a defendant under California law, even if the City is ultimately liable. What Plaintiffs would have to allege (and prove) in order to establish that a police department acted as a “person” under the color of law for purposes of § 1983 liability is an entirely different matter not before the Court on this motion.

         Having addressed whether the Police Department can be named as a Defendant under California law, a few words are warranted on whether naming it is duplicative of naming the City. Defendants argue that the Police Department should be dismissed as a redundant defendant, citing Abeytia v. Fresno Police Dep't, No. 1:08-cv-01528 OWW GSA, 2009 WL 1674568 (E.D. Cal. June 12, 2009). ECF Nos. 9-1 at 4, 13 at 4-5. The somewhat cursory reasoning provided in Abeytia is premised on the assumption, rejected above, that a municipal police department is not a “person” under § 1983. No. 1:08-cv-01528 OWW GSA, 2009 WL 1674568, at *9. The court in Abeytia cited other district court cases to support its conclusion; the Ninth Circuit cases Shaw, Streit, and Karam-Panahi, cited above, were not assessed. Id.

         This Court adopts now the reasoning of Payne v. County of Calaveras, No. 1:17-cv-00906-DAD-SKO, 2018 WL 6593347, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 14, 2018). In Payne, the court was faced with similar arguments from litigants:

[D]efendants … argu[e] that the issue is not whether a sheriff's department is suable in federal court, but rather, “[t]he question is whether a department of a municipality can be sued separately in addition to the municipality for the same alleged wrongs.” [ ] If that is indeed the question, it must be also be answered in the affirmative. Defendants have not directed the court to any legal authority requiring the court to dismiss a municipal entity as a redundant defendant where the municipality itself is also named as a defendant. On the contrary, in Streit, the Ninth Circuit explicitly held that because the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department “acts for the County in its capacity as the administrator of the Los Angeles County jails, ... both the LASD and the County are subject to liability under section 1983.” 236 F.3d at 555- 56 (emphasis added).

No. 1:17-cv-00906-DAD-SKO, 2018 WL 6593347, at *3-4.

         In the absence of authority showing that the Ninth Circuit subsequently reaching a different conclusion from that reached in Streit, this Court, like the court in Payne, finds that both a municipality and the municipality's police department may be named in an action under California law if both are amenable to suit. Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss the Ceres Police Department from this suit is DENIED.

         C. Fourth Amendment Unreasonable Force Claims: ...


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