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Belvins v. San Bernardino County Sheriffs Dept.

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

July 19, 2019

KEN R. BELVINS, Plaintiff,



         On July 5, 2019, plaintiff filed a Complaint in this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff subsequently was granted leave to proceed without prepayment of the filing fee. (ECF No. 4.) The Complaint arises from incidents that occurred at the West Valley Detention Center (“WVDC”) in Rancho Cucamonga, California. (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Plaintiff names as defendants the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department (“SBCSD”) (id. at 1) and Deputy Sheriffs Banuelos, Jackson, Dorsett, Ortega, and Whitt (id. at 3-4). All individual defendants are named in both their individual and official capacities. (Id.) The Complaint lists two incident dates, May 7, 2019, and May 18, 2019. (Id. at 3.)

         Plaintiff's Complaint appears to allege only one claim. (Id. at 5.) That “claim” appears to arise from an accident on May 7, 2019, that occurred when plaintiff dropped a “stack of milk crates” on his foot while he was working on the “back dock.” (Id. at 6.) Plaintiff “was in pain, ” and he thought that a toe was broken. Plaintiff told Deputy Banuelos about the incident, stating he thought the toe was broken and repeatedly asking for “medical attention.” Deputy Banuelos denied plaintiff's requests. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that he was cuffed by Deputy Banuelos and taken to his housing unit without receiving medical attention. At his housing unit, plaintiff “placed a request for medical attention via inmate kiosk, ” and he also filed a grievance. (Id.) Plaintiff “contacted” Deputy Jackson the next day about “receiving medical attention, ” and Deputy Jackson “gave [him] a disciplinary write-up for allegedly lying to staff.” (Id.)

         At some unspecified time, plaintiff was fired from his work position and moved to a different cell. (Id.) On May 18, 2019, plaintiff told Deputy Dorsett that plaintiff's “cellmate was a rapeist [sic] and that [plaintiff] did not want to be in the same cell.” Plaintiff asked to be “moved in order to avoid a life-threatening circumstance between [his] cellmate and [plaintiff].” (Id.) Deputy Dorsett “ignored” the request. (Id.) Plaintiff also “informed” Deputy Dorsett and Deputy Ortega that he “did not want to go into the same cell as a rapeist [sic], ” but plaintiff was handcuffed and forced into the cell by Dorsett and Ortega. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that his cellmate “physically assaulted” plaintiff at an unspecified time and that plaintiff suffered “great bodily injury while [he] was handcuffed.” (Id.) Deputy Dorsett and Deputy Ortega allegedly “were aware of the assault.” Deputy Whitt was also “aware of the ongoing refusal to enter” the cell, but he “opened the cell door.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief including the restoration of his “previous release date, ” as well as monetary damages. (Id. at 7.)

         In accordance with the terms of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”), the Court has screened the Complaint prior to ordering service for purpose of determining whether the action is frivolous or malicious; or fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c)(1). The Court's screening of the pleading under the foregoing statutes is governed by the following standards. A complaint may be dismissed as a matter of law for failure to state a claim for two reasons: (1) “lack of a cognizable legal theory;” or (2) insufficient “facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory.” See, e.g., Kwan v. SanMedica Int'l, 854 F.3d 1088, 1093 (9th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Rosati v. Igbinoso, 791 F.3d 1037, 1039 (9th Cir. 2015) (when determining whether a complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim under the PLRA, the court applies the same standard as applied in a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)). In determining whether the pleading states a claim on which relief may be granted, its allegations of material fact must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See Love v. United States, 915 F.2d 1242, 1245 (9th Cir. 1989). However, the “tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rather, a court first “discounts conclusory statements, which are not entitled to the presumption of truth, before determining whether a claim is plausible.” Salameh v. Tarsadia Hotel, 726 F.3d 1124, 1129 (9th Cir. 2013); see also Chavez v. United States, 683 F.3d 1102, 1108 (9th Cir. 2012). Nor is the Court “bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation or an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Keates v. Koile, 883 F.3d 1228, 1243 (9th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Further, since plaintiff is a prisoner appearing pro se, the Court must construe the allegations of the pleading liberally and must afford plaintiff the benefit of any doubt. See Hebbe v. Pliler, 627 F.3d 338, 342 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Alvarez v. Hill, 518 F.3d 1152, 1158 (9th Cir. 2008) (because plaintiff was proceeding pro se, “the district court was required to ‘afford [him] the benefit of any doubt' in ascertaining what claims he ‘raised in his complaint'”) (alteration in original). Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has held that “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted, alteration in original); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' . . . A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” (internal citation omitted)).

         In addition, Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a) (“Rule 8”) states:

A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain: (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction . . .; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.

         (Emphasis added). Further, Rule 8(d)(1) provides: “Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. No. technical form is required.” Although the Court must construe a pro se plaintiff's pleadings liberally, a plaintiff nonetheless must allege a minimum factual and legal basis for each claim that is sufficient to give each defendant fair notice of what plaintiff's claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. See, e.g., Brazil v. United States Dep't of the Navy, 66 F.3d 193, 199 (9th Cir. 1995); McKeever v. Block, 932 F.2d 795, 798 (9th Cir. 1991) (a complaint must give defendants fair notice of the claims against them). If a plaintiff fails to clearly and concisely set forth factual allegations sufficient to provide defendants with notice of which defendant is being sued on which theory and what relief is being sought against them, the pleading fails to comply with Rule 8. See, e.g., McHenry v. Renne, 84 F.3d 1172, 1177-79 (9th Cir. 1996); Nevijel v. North Coast Life Ins. Co., 651 F.2d 671, 674 (9th Cir. 1981). A claim has “substantive plausibility” if a plaintiff alleges “simply, concisely, and directly [the] events” that entitle him to damages. Johnson v. City of Shelby, 574 U.S. 10, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). Failure to comply with Rule 8 constitutes an independent basis for dismissal of a pleading that applies even if the claims are not found to be wholly without merit. See McHenry, 84 F.3d at 1179; Nevijel, 651 F.2d at 673.

         Following careful review of the Complaint, the Court finds that it fails to comply with Rule 8 because it fails to state a short and plain statement of each claim that is sufficient to give each defendant fair notice of what plaintiff's claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. In addition, its allegations appear insufficient to state any claim upon which relief may be granted, and the allegations are insufficient to state any claim against any defendant in his or her official capacity. Accordingly, the Complaint is dismissed with leave to amend. See Rosati, 791 F.3d at 1039 (“A district court should not dismiss a pro se complaint without leave to amend unless it is absolutely clear that the deficiencies of the complaint could not be cured by amendment.”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         If plaintiff desires to pursue this action, he is ORDERED to file a First Amended Complaint no later than thirty (30) days after the date of this Order, remedying the deficiencies discussed below. Further, plaintiff is admonished that, if he fails to timely file a First Amended Complaint or fails to remedy the deficiencies of this pleading as discussed herein, the Court will recommend that this action be dismissed without leave to amend and with prejudice.[1]

         A. Monell Claims

         The Complaint names all the deputy defendants, who are alleged to be employed by the SBCSD, in their official capacities. (ECF No. 1 at 3-4.) However, the Supreme Court has held that an “official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985). Such a suit “is not a suit against the official personally, for the real party in interest is the entity.” Graham, 473 U.S. at 166. Accordingly, any claim against a defendant who is alleged to be employed by the SBCSD in his or her official capacity is treated as a claim against the SBCSD.

         A local government entity such as the SDCSD “may not be sued under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents. Instead, it is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983.” Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978); see also Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60 (2011) (“local governments are responsible only for their own illegal acts”).

         Here, the Complaint fails to set forth any factual allegations giving rise to a reasonable inference that a specific policy or custom promulgated by the SBCSD was the “actionable cause” of any alleged constitutional violation. See Tsao v. Desert Palace, Inc., 698 F.3d 1128, 1146 (9th Cir. 2012) (“Under Monell, a plaintiff must also show that the policy at issue was the ‘actionable cause' of the constitutional violation, which requires showing both but for and proximate causation.”). In addition, liability against the SBCSD arising from an improper custom or policy may not be premised on an isolated incident such as referenced in plaintiff's factual allegations in the Complaint. See, e.g., Trevino v. Gates, 99 F.3d 911, 918 (9th Cir. 1996) (“Liability for improper custom may not be predicated on isolated or sporadic incidents; it must be founded upon practices of sufficient duration, frequency and consistency that the conduct has become a traditional method of carrying out policy.”); Thompson v. City of Los Angeles, 885 F.2d 1439, 1443-44 (9th Cir. 1989) (“Consistent with the commonly understood meaning of custom, proof of random acts or isolated events are insufficient to establish custom.”), overruled on other grounds, Bull ...

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