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Black Lives Matter-Stockton Chapter v. San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 2, 2019



         Black Lives Matter Stockton Chapter (“BLM”) and several of its members bring this civil rights action and putative class action against San Joaquin County, the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, and several individual officers. Defendants have moved to dismiss the first amended complaint. Mot., ECF No. 17. Plaintiffs opposed, ECF No. 26, defendants replied, ECF No. 27, and the court held a hearing on December 7, 2018, ECF No. 29. As explained below, the court GRANTS defendants' motion in part and DENIES it in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 7, 2017, plaintiffs Lareesha Brown, Kenneth Marbley and three others were arrested at a BLM protest in Stockton and eventually charged with state criminal misdemeanor charges of assaulting officers and resisting arrest. First Am. Compl. (FAC), ECF No. 16, ¶ 33. On October 30, 2017, a discovery motion related to the five BLM members' cases was heard before Judge Bernard J. Garber at the San Joaquin County Superior Court. Id. ¶¶ 35, 39. BLM organized “court support” for the October 30 hearing, meaning that it organized BLM members to attend the hearing, dressed in ways that identified them as BLM members. Id. ¶¶ 38-39. When BLM members, including the plaintiffs in this case, attempted to enter the courthouse to attend the hearing, San Joaquin County sheriffs deputies controlled the entrance to the courthouse. See Id. ¶ 42. Allegedly, the officers questioned and denied entrance to individuals who are black and brown, and to BLM members specifically, while allowing white individuals unfettered entrance. Id. ¶ 43. On January 29, 2018, after a hearing on another related motion, a group of sheriff s deputies allegedly followed, insulted, harassed and intimidated BLM members inside the courthouse, implying BLM members were not welcome and would be subjected to violence and arrest if they did not leave. Id. ¶¶ 44-46.

         BLM and its founding member Dionne Smith-Downs sued the County, the sheriff, and several individual sheriffs deputies for violating their civil rights under federal and state law. Compl., ECF No. 1. Defendants moved to dismiss each of the claims in the original complaint, ECF No. 4, plaintiffs opposed, ECF No, 6, and defendants replied, ECF No. 7. After a hearing on May 18, 2018, the court granted defendants' motion and dismissed the complaint with leave to amend. Order, ECF No. 15. Plaintiffs filed their first amended complaint on August 13, 2018, identifying Denise Friday, Lareesha Brown and Kenneth Marbley[1] as plaintiffs, in addition to BLM and Smith-Downs. See generally FAC.

         In the FAC, plaintiffs allege violations of federal constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[2] Specifically, they assert claims under the First Amendment, providing the right to free speech and association (Claim 1); the Sixth Amendment, establishing the right to a public trial (Claim 2); and the Fourteenth Amendment, providing rights of due process (Claim 3). See FAC ¶¶ 70-82. Plaintiffs also assert two state civil rights claims under the Act, California Civil Code § 51.7 (Claim 4), and the Bane Act, California Civil Code § 52.1 (Claim 5).[3] Id. ¶¶ 83-86. Finally, they bring a negligence claim (Claim 6). Id. ¶¶ 87-89. Plaintiffs ask the court to certify as a class the members and supporters of BLM, make findings of fact reflecting defendants' violations of plaintiffs' rights, grant preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, award compensatory damages, and award punitive damages against the individual defendants. Id. at 31-32. All claims are pled against all defendants, without differentiation.


         A party may move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The court may grant the motion only if the complaint lacks a “cognizable legal theory” or if its factual allegations do not support a cognizable legal theory. Hartmann v. Cal. Dep't of Corr. & Rehab., 707 F.3d 1114, 1122 (9th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). A complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), though it need not include “detailed factual allegations, ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007). But “sufficient factual matter” must make the claim at least plausible. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). Conclusory or formulaic recitations of elements do not alone suffice. Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis, the court must accept well-pled factual allegations as true and construe the complaint in plaintiff's favor. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007) (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 555-56).

         If a plaintiff requests leave to amend a claim subject to dismissal, the federal rules mandate that leave “be freely given when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a). Before granting leave, a court considers any potential bad faith, delay, or futility regarding the proposed amendment, and the potential prejudice to the opposing party. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962).


         A. Official-capacity Claims for Damages

         “Under the Eleventh Amendment, agencies of the state are immune from private damage actions or suits for injunctive relief brought in federal court.” Mitchell v. Los Angeles Cty. Coll. Dist, 861 F.2d 198, 201 (9th Cir. 1988) (citing Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984) (Eleventh Amendment proscribes suit against state agencies “regardless of the nature of the relief sought”)). Because the instant suit is against county actors, not state actors, Eleventh Amendment immunity ordinarily would not apply. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690-691 & n.54 (1978). However, when local government units are considered part of the state, they can be entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity as well. See Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997).

         To support their argument that court security officers should be considered state actors for purposes of this case, defendants cite Rojas v. Sonoma Cty., No. C-11-1358 EMC, 2011 WL 5024551, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 21, 2011), in which the court concluded that “sheriffs . . . function as representatives of the state and not the county when providing courtroom security services.” In so concluding, the court relied on the fact that, under California Government Code § 77200, the state had sole responsibility for the funding of court operations and, under then-§ 72115, court-related services formerly provided by marshals were provided by sheriffs. Id. (citing Cal. Gov't Code § 77200 (West, effective 2009-present) (providing “the state shall assume sole responsibility for the funding of court operations, as defined in Section 77003”); Cal. Gov't Code § 77003(a)(3) (West, effective 2008-2012) (defining court operations to include “[t]hose marshals and sheriffs as the court deems necessary for court operations”); Cal. Gov't Code § 72115(a) (West, effective 2003-2017) (repealed by Stats. 2002, c. 784 (S.B.1316) § 370, effective Jan. 1, 2018) (referring to “abolition of the marshal's office and the transfer of court-related services provided by the marshal within the county to the sheriff's department”)).

         Plaintiffs argue Rojas is no longer good law, because the Superior Court Security Act of 2012 shifted the funding of court security from the state to the counties, thereby either repealing or significantly amending the statutes relied upon by the court in Rojas. Opp'n at 4 (citing Cal. Gov't Code §69920 et seq.); see also A.B. 118, 2011-2012 Reg. Sess. Legis. Serv. (Ca. 2011) (amending, inter alia, Cal. Gov't Code § 30025, creating the “Trial Court Security Account” within the Local Revenue Fund 2011, and requiring county treasurer to create a “Trial Court Security Account” to “be used exclusively to fund trial court security provided by county sheriffs”).[4]

         Only one sister court has addressed this issue since the 2012 amendments to the statutes relied upon in Rojas. See Hiramanek v. Clark, No. C-13-0228 EMC, 2013 WL 4734025, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2013) (“Order Re Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint”); Hiramanek v. Clark, No. 13-00228, 2014 WL 2855512, at *6 (N.D. Cal. June 20, 2014) (“Order Granting in Part Motion to Amend”). In both Hiramanek decisions, the court held that court security officers are state actors and cited only to Rojas, without any mention of the statutory changes. Hiramanek, 2013 WL 4734025, at *4; Hiramanek, 2014 WL 2855512, at *6. Because of the statutory changes, this court declines to rely on Rojas, but rather conducts its own analysis, and concludes as explained below, that, in San Joaquin County, sheriffs and sheriff's deputies are state actors when providing court security to the Superior Court.

         1. Supreme Court's McMillian Decision

         In McMillian, the United States Supreme Court directed courts to analyze state law to determine “the actual function of a governmental official, in a particular area.” McMillian v. Monroe Cty., Ala., 520 U.S. 781, 786 (1997). In conducting this functional analysis, the court in that case rejected plaintiff's argument that the sheriffs were county actors because their salaries were paid by the county: “The county's payment of the sheriff's salary does not translate into control over him, since the county neither has the authority to change his salary nor the discretion to refuse payment completely. The county commissions do appear to have the discretion to deny funds to the sheriffs for their operations beyond what is ‘reasonably necessary.' But at most, this discretion would allow the commission to exert an attenuated and indirect influence over the sheriff's operations.” McMillian, 520 U.S. at 791-92 (citation omitted). Instead, the Court held that sheriffs were state actors under Alabama law, because they were controlled primarily by state officials. Id. at 791-93.

         This holding regarding which entity “controlled” the sheriffs turned on several aspects of Alabama state law. First, it relied on the fact that the Alabama Constitution provided for sheriffs as part of the executive department of the state. Id. at 787 (citing Ala. Const. of 1901, Art. V, § 112). The state constitution also made sheriffs impeachable by the State Supreme Court, at the direction of the Governor, meaning sheriffs shared the same impeachment procedures as state legal officers and judges rather than county and municipal officers. Id. at 788 (citing Ala. Const. of 1901, Art. VII, § 174; Ala. Const. of 1875, Art. VII, § 3). Second, by statute, sheriffs were required to carry out orders from state court judges, even those outside the sheriff's county, and the presiding circuit judge exercised general supervision over county sheriffs. Id. at 789-90 (citing Ala. Code §§ 36-22-3(1), (2) (1991); Ala. Code § 12-17-24 (1995)).[5] Most importantly, Alabama law gave sheriffs “complete authority to enforce the state criminal law in their counties, ” a power which the County wholly lacked. Id. at 790 (citing Ala. Code § 36-22-3(4), § 11-3-11 (1989). Thus, the County lacked the authority to tell the sheriff how to carry out his law enforcement duties. McMillian, 520 U.S. at 790. And, ultimately, the sheriff was required to share criminal evidence he obtained with the district attorney, a state official, and not with the County. Id. (citing Hooks v. Hitt, 539 So.2d 157, 159 (Ala. 1988)). Finally, although the sheriff's salary was paid out of the county treasury, the salaries of all sheriffs were set by the state legislature, not the county. Id. at 791 (citing Ala. Code § 36-22-16).

         2. Federal Courts Applying McMillian

         Before the 2012 amendments to the California statutes implicated here, the Central District applied McMillian's reasoning to a sheriff's role in providing court security. Hawkins v. Comparet-Cassani, 33 F.Supp.2d 1244, 1253 (C.D. Cal. 1999), opinion modified on reconsideration (Feb. 5, 1999), rev'd in part on other grounds, 251 F.3d 1230 (9th Cir. 2001). The court did not mention the source of the sheriff's funding, but rather alluded to the fact that district attorneys, who are state actors, and sheriffs are both under the direct supervision of the Attorney General, a state official. Id. (citing Cal. Const. art. V, § 13; Cal. Gov. Code § 12550; Cal. Penal Code § 923; Pitts v. County of Kern, 17 Cal.4th 340 (Cal. 1998)). The Hawkins court also added, “here the Sheriff was providing security to a state court at the time of the incident. . . . [and] municipal and superior courts are instruments of the State and are exempt from suit in federal courts by the Eleventh Amendment.” Id. Therefore, the court found, “in light of Pitts and given the activities in which the Sheriff was engaged at the time of the incident, a California court would find that the Sheriff was acting as a state rather than a county policymaker.” Id. This reasoning, based on the role of the Sheriff as subordinate to the Attorney General and the role of courts as instruments of the State, holds true even after the 2012 amendments to the law governing the Sheriff's funding structure.

         3. California State Law

         The court also looks to California state law for guidance with respect to the functional role of court security officers. See McMillian, 520 U.S. at 786. Plaintiffs emphasize the importance of the Superior Court Security Act of 2012, which provides a framework for sheriffs and courts to work together to plan for court security. See Opp'n at 4 (citing Cal. Gov't Code §69920 et seq.). Under this framework, the sheriff is directed to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Superior Courts, “on behalf of the county” and “with the approval and authorization of the board of supervisors, ” laying out a plan for the provision of court security services for the Superior Courts. Cal. Gov't Code § 69926(b). The statute provides for a process of negotiation in the event the Superior Court and the sheriff are unable to reach a timely agreement. Id. § 69926(c)-(d). “Any recommended resolution” that comes out of this negotiation process, “shall be approved by the board of supervisors, consistent with subdivision (b).” Id. § 69926(d).[6] While this framework primarily dictates collaboration between the sheriff and the courts in planning for court security, it gives the ultimate power to the board of supervisors, which is a County entity. As such, it counsels in favor of treating court security officers as County actors.[7]

         However, with respect to San Joaquin County specifically, a statute tailored to the County ultimately leads to the opposite conclusion. The California Government Code creates a division within the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department to provide security for the Superior Court, named the “court services division.” Cal. Gov't Code §§ 74820.2-3 The sheriff has authority to staff the division, [8] but “the selection, appointment, and removal of the chiefs of the court services division shall be made by a majority vote of the incumbent superior court judges and commissioners from a list of qualified candidates submitted by a committee comprised of the sheriff and an incumbent judge of the superior court.” Id. § 74820.3. In other words, while the sheriff is responsible for the staffing of court security officers, the chief of the court services division is effectively controlled by the superior court judges and commissioners. This puts the court services division in San Joaquin County ultimately under the control of the Superior Court, which is an arm of the state, see Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness, Inc. v. Zolin, 812 F.2d 1103, 1110 (9th Cir. 1987), superseded by statute on other grounds.

         4. Conclusion

         The conclusion reached in Rojas, albeit prior to the 2012 statutory amendments, remains sound when applied to San Joaquin County. When San Joaquin County sheriffs are providing court security to the Superior Court, they are acting as state employees. As state actors, they are immune from suit for damages against them in their official capacities by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment, because such a suit is essentially a suit for damages against the state. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989) (“[A] suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office.”) (citation omitted).

         Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment bars plaintiffs' federal and state law claims[9] for damages against any defendant sued in his or her official capacity; here the defendant protected by immunity is defendant Moore.[10] All claims in the first amended complaint stem from the defendant sheriffs' actions while they were providing security services for the San Joaquin County Superior Courthouse on October 30, 2017 and January 29, 2018. See FAC ¶¶ 39, 42-47. Plaintiffs have not pled any facts to suggest defendants were acting outside the scope of their role as courtroom security during these incidents. Plaintiffs have already amended their complaint once after the court dismissed this claim, inter alia, see Order, ECF No. 15, and they have given no indication this deficiency can be cured by another amendment. Accordingly, plaintiffs' § 1983 claims against Moore are DISMISSED with prejudice. See Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962) (citing “repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed” and “futility of amendment” as reasons to why leave to amend may be denied); Reddy v. Litton Indus., Inc., 912 F.2d 291, 296 (9th Cir. 1990) (dismissal with prejudice not abuse of discretion if amendment would be futile).

         The same reasoning applies to the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department and San Joaquin County, because all claims against them arise out of defendants' conduct as state actors. Boakye-Yiadom v. City, Cty. of San Francisco, No. C-99-0873 VRW, 1999 WL 638260, at *2-3 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 18, 1999) (“If the San Francisco Sheriff's Department was acting as a representative of the State of California, rather than the City and County of San Francisco, in taking the actions plaintiff complains of, then it too is immune from suit under section 1983.”) (citing McMillian, 520 U.S. at 781). Accordingly, the court need not reach the issue of whether plaintiffs have adequately pled Monell liability, which would allow plaintiffs to hold the County liable for the actions of defendants if those actions constitute County “policy.” See Mot. at 15-17 (citing Monell, 436 U.S at 692); see also McMillian, 520 U.S. at 783; Rojas v. Sonoma Cty., 2011 WL 5024551, at *4 (finding that, because defendant deputy “was acting as a representative of the state, and not the County, there are no factual allegations to support a § 1983 claim against the County. The Court therefore dismisses the § 1983 claim against the County on that basis, without entertaining the parties' dispute over . . . municipal liability . . . .”).

         Therefore, all of plaintiffs' claims for damages against the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department and San Joaquin County are DISMISSED with prejudice as barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. at 182; Reddy v. Litton Indus., Inc., 912 F.2d at 296.

         B. Claims for Declaratory Relief

         When a claim against a state for declaratory relief relates “solely to past violations of federal law, ” it is barred by the Eleventh Amendment in the same way as a claim for damages is barred. Green v. Mansour, 474 U.S. 64, 73 (1985) (declaratory relief regarding past violations of federal law prohibited under Eleventh Amendment where it would have essentially same effect as damages award due to its res judicata implications in state court). Therefore, to the extent plaintiffs' claims are for declaratory relief, they are DISMISSED.

         C. Official-capacity § 1983 Claims for Prospective Injunctive Relief

         The Ex parte Young doctrine provides a narrow exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity for “prospective declaratory or injunctive relief against state officers in their official capacities for their alleged violations of federal law.” Coal. to Defend Affirmative Action v. Brown,674 F.3d 1128, 1134 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. at 747; Ex parte Young,209 U.S. 123, 155-56 (1907)). For the exception to apply, it must be clear “that such officer must have some connection with the enforcement of the act, or else it is merely making him a party as a representative of the State, and thereby attempting to make the State a party.” Snoeck v. Brussa,153 F.3d 984, 986 (9th Cir. 1998). ‚ÄúThis connection must be fairly direct; a generalized duty to enforce state ...

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