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A.C. v. Cortez

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 23, 2019

A.C., et al.; Plaintiffs,
v.
Erica Cortez; Kate Jones; The County of San Diego, et al. Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS (DOC. NO. 28)

          HON. ANTHONY J. BATTAGLIA JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss. (Doc. No. 28.) The core question in this case is whether the access of juvenile records by County Counsel, while acting in defense of its client, violates that juvenile's right to privacy and established privacy laws. This remains an underdeveloped area of federal law, although it raises interesting questions seemingly unanticipated by local ordinances. Nevertheless, the Court finds the debatable holding of one case does not establish a current constitutional right to privacy covering juvenile records. The Court also finds the issue, which Courts have wrangled with, was not clearly established when Defendants Cortez and Jones accessed Plaintiffs files. Thus, finding the individual Defendants have qualified immunity, and that Plaintiffs' Monell claim also fails, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion to dismiss. (Doc. No. 28.)

         I. BACKGROUND FACTS

         Plaintiffs bring claims against the County and two attorneys, Jones and Cortez, for accessing juvenile files without prior judicial authorization during a prior case in which the defendant attorneys defended the County on allegations of child abuse by Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs allege they had a constitutional right to privacy with respect to their files, and that Defendants violated those rights when they accessed them without getting permission. Plaintiff brings a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against Defendants and a Monell claim against the County.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a plaintiff's complaint. See Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). “[A] court may dismiss a complaint as a matter of law for (1) lack of cognizable legal theory or (2) insufficient facts under a cognizable legal claim.” SmileCare Dental Grp. v. Delta Dental Plan of Cal., 88 F.3d 780, 783 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). However, a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss if it contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In making this determination, a court reviews the contents of the complaint, accepting all factual allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. See Cedars-Sinai Med. Ctr. v. Nat'l League of Postmasters of U.S., 497 F.3d 972, 975 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Notwithstanding this deference, the reviewing court need not accept legal conclusions as true. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). It is also improper for a court to assume “the [plaintiff] can prove facts that [he or she] has not alleged . . . .” Assoc. Gen. Contractors of Cal., Inc. v. Cal. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). However, “[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants move to dismiss both Plaintiff's causes of action: (1)(a) violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for invasion of privacy and (1)(b) unauthorized access and/or inspection of Plaintiff's records; and (2) Monell related claims. (Doc. No. 1.)

         A. Invasion of Privacy

         Defendants maintain there is no federal right to privacy, thus no § 1983 claim can exist since the statute requires a constitutional deprivation. (Doc. No. 28-1 at 9.) Specifically, Defendants argue the complaint simply “fails to identify any specific constitutional right or federal statute underlying the section 1983 claim.” (Id. at 10.) Defendants refute Plaintiffs' argument that a Ninth Circuit case established such a right. (Id.) Plaintiffs argue that Gonzalez v. Spencer, 336 F.3d 832, 834-35 (9th Cir. 2003) holds that “[a]n attorney representing a county agency in a civil rights lawsuit cannot inspect or access Juvenile Case Files or records in the course of that representation-without prior judicial authorization.” (Doc. No. 18 at 9.) Indeed, it appears Gonzalez does hold as such.

         Defendants counter with a district court case which holds that “the court in Gonzalez did not address the question of whether a federal right of privacy exists regarding juvenile records.” Rigsby v. County of LA, CV 11-02766 SJO (PJWx), 2011 WL 3143544, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 2011). The Rigsby Court determined that Gonzalez was relying on Plaintiff's allegations in that case and taking them as true. Id. The Court goes on hold that there is no right to privacy for juvenile records guaranteed by the Constitution. Id. Another district court case also asserts that Gonzalez did not establish the existence of a constitutional information privacy right. Ismail v. Fulkerson, No. SA CV 10-00901-VBF, 2014 WL 3962488, at *11 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2014). Ismail notes that Gonzalez did not refer to any other authority, outside of state law, in determining its conclusions. Indeed, Gonzalez only states that the attorney's actions violated state law, and do not specifically mention a violation of federal law.

         Plaintiff argues that Gonzalez must have been discussing a privacy right under § 1983 because the Court also included a discussion of qualified immunity-which is a common defense against § 1983 lawsuits. (Doc. No. 18 at 12.) The Court also analyzed whether the Defendant in Gonzalez acted under color of state law, a necessary element of § 1983. Finally, Plaintiff notes the Court's use of the word “also” in the Gonzalez opinion: “[b]ecause Spencer improperly obtained access to Gonzalez's juvenile court file, we need not reach the question whether Spencer's use of Gonzalez's file in depositions also violated his constitutional rights.” (Doc. No. 18 at 11-12.)

         Yet, despite Plaintiff's arguments, the Court finds Gonzalez's analysis unpersuasive insofar as finding a federal right to privacy. Rather, the Court finds the analysis conducted in both Ismail and Rigsby compelling. While the supporting contention from Gonzalez was a conclusory statement, the analysis done by the Central District dig deeply into the Ninth Circuit's previous rulings on constitutional rights to privacy. See Ismail, 2014 WL 3962488, at *6-11. Only after Ismail's discussion of prior Circuit precedents does the Court conclude that “Gonzalez does not discuss, analyze, or cite any United States Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit precedent regarding the constitutional right to ...


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