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Matthews v. San Diego County Board of Supervisors

United States District Court, S.D. California

August 26, 2019

THOMAS MATTHEWS, Plaintiff,
v.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, et al., CODE ENFORCEMENT AGENTS TERESA WILLIS & MICHAEL MURPHY; SAN DIEGO COUNTY TREASURE'S OFFICE, all defendants sued in their individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS [ECF NO. 49];

          Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel, United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is an ongoing dispute between pro se Plaintiff Thomas Matthews (“Plaintiff”) and Defendants, the County of San Diego (“County”), the County of San Diego Board of Directors, and a number of their employees (“the employee defendants”) (collectively, “Defendants”) arising from nuisance abatement actions brought against Plaintiff's property.

         At issue is Defendants' June 6, 2019 motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”). (ECF No. 49.) The parties have fully briefed this motion. (ECF Nos. 49-1, 52, 53, 55, 56.) Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7.1(d)(1), the Court finds the pending motion suitable for adjudication without oral argument. For the reasons explained below, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The instant litigation ensues from the County's long-beleaguered efforts to abate a nuisance found at the property located at 5602 Trafalgar Road, El Cajon, CA 92109 (the “property”).

         In 2004, the County received complaints that solid waste was being stored on the property in violation of several sections of the San Diego County Code of Regulatory Ordinances and the San Diego County Zoning Ordinance. The solid waste included “scrap wood, scrap metal, wood pallets, metal racking, cages, automotive parts/equipment, inoperative vehicles, trailer coaches, construction materials/equipment/vehicles/debris, broken/discarded appliances/furnishings, wiring/cables, plastic buckets/bins/containers, tarps, tubing, cardboard boxes, old machinery and parts, outside stored items, and debris strewn about.” (ECF No. 49-2, at 5.) Defendants issued several administrative warnings concerning the property. Site inspections in later years further revealed storage of sixteen commercial vehicles, fourteen inoperative vehicles, large tractor-trailers, trailer coaches, and old machinery and construction, and trash and debris. (Id. at 6.)

         Despite these notices, the waste and hazardous materials on the property remained on site. On May 13, 2014, Defendants posted a Notice and Order to Abate on the property and mailed a copy to the property owner of record, a John M. Smith. (Id. at 10.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff, Mr. Smith's nephew, filed an administrative appeal of that abatement order. A hearing was held on May 13, 2014. At the hearing, the presiding County Hearing Officer questioned Plaintiff's standing to bring the appeal, noting that he was not the property owner of record. (Id. at 13.) In response, Plaintiff represented that “he is a long term tenant of the property, having lived at the Trafalgar Road address for 21 years, and that he was appearing in place and stead of Mr. Smith, and had full legal authority to appear for and to bind the record property owner to the rulings of th[e] administrative tribunal.” (Id.). After the appeal, the County Hearing Officer upheld the Notice and Order to Abate. (Id.)

         After losing the administrative appeal, Plaintiff proceeded to file two actions in San Diego Superior Court contesting the abatement enforcement proceedings. (Id. at 21- 32.) Both actions were filed in July of 2014 and claimed violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Plaintiff's request for preliminary injunction contains a signature line for John M. Smith, and a handwritten signature appears above it. (Id. at 28.) The Superior Court sustained the County's demurrer as to the initial complaint and denied the request for a preliminary injunction. (Id. at 34-43.)

         On March 4, 2015, the County obtained an abatement warrant for the property which authorized any Code Enforcement Officer to enter “for the purpose of abating and removing any and all trash, junk, and broken/discarded appliances/furnishings . . . outside stored items and debris strewn about the property.” (Id. at 15-16.) The abatement warrant was executed starting on March 4, 2015. (Id. at 18.) Defendants retained Advance Demolition for clean-up services. As a result of this abatement, Code Enforcement Officer Teresa Willis discovered approximately 200 containers of unknown substances which required HazMat personnel to investigate. Testing confirmed that some containers held hazardous material. (Id.) In light of the extensive scope of the nuisance, Officer Willis requested and was granted a seven-day extension of the existing abatement warrant to March 21, 2015. (Id. at 19.) The record demonstrates that at the end of abatement, the County removed 195 tons of solid waste from the property. (ECF No. 1-5, at 1.)

         On April 7, 2015, Officer Willis issued a document titled “Schedule of Costs for Public Nuisance Abatement” which calculated the cost of abatement due as $114, 835.10. (Id. at 56.) Thereafter, the County assessed the cost of abatement as a lien against the property subject to San Diego Code of Regulatory Ordinance sections 16.212-215 (permitting unpaid abatement expenses due to the County to be applied against the property as a lien, and for the amount of the costs to be added to the property tax bill).

         Plaintiff filed an administrative appeal challenging the assessment of the abatement costs. On June 4, 2015, a San Diego County hearing officer held a hearing and denied Plaintiff's appeal. (ECF No. 49-2, at 48-49.) The hearing officer's order advised that “Appellant has a right to file a lawsuit challenging this decision within 90 days after this decision becomes final.” (Id. at. 49.)

         Plaintiff filed the present action on April 10, 2018. On April 27, 2018, Plaintiff recorded the grant deeds giving him ownership of the property. (Id. at 75-82.) Before then, John M. Smith was the owner of record, though it appears that Plaintiff has been in receipt of the County's tax bill for the property since approximately 2009. (See ECF No. 48, at 36-60.)

         Plaintiff's tax receipts demonstrate an early history of making tax payments for the property. However, after Defendants issued the abatement costs as a lien on the property and added it to Plaintiff's property taxes, Plaintiff fell behind on his taxes. To collect, the San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector's Office scheduled a tax sale of the property for May 4, 2018. That sale was canceled after Plaintiff filed for bankruptcy on April 30, 2018. (ECF No. 45, at 4, 6.) On September 10, 2018, Plaintiff's bankruptcy petition was dismissed pursuant to Plaintiff's request. (ECF No. 45, at 4.) Thereafter, a notice was mailed out on March 11, 2019, informing Plaintiff that the property would be listed for sale at public auction on April 26, 2019. (Id. at 6.)

         B. Procedural Background

         After filing the original complaint in April of 2018, Plaintiff submitted a first amended complaint (“FAC”) on December 17, 2018. In that complaint, Plaintiff pursued claims against the County, the County Board of Supervisors, several employee defendants, and Advance Demolition. Plaintiff asserted a deluge of causes of action, maintaining, inter alia, allegations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, denial of due process and the equal protection of the laws, civil RICO (for wire and mail fraud), and state law claims of perjury, quiet title, perjury, “accounting, ” “fraud and swindle, ” among others. Defendants moved to dismiss, and on April 24, 2019, the Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's FAC. (ECF No. 46.) As relevant to the second iteration of Plaintiff's complaint, the Court denied dismissal pursuant to Defendants' state law immunity and res judicata / collateral estoppel arguments. The Court granted dismissal as to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims for being untimely, but granted leave to amend in case he could point to any more recent injury resulting from Defendants' alleged conduct which would clear the statute of limitations.

         Plaintiff submitted his second amended complaint on May 22, 2019. (ECF No. 48.) The SAC largely repeats the same factual allegations and causes of action as his first. Like the FAC, the SAC is prolix and difficult to comprehend. Notwithstanding the laundry list of causes of action ascribed to Defendants' conduct, all of the claims in the SAC are predicated on Plaintiff's theory that the Defendants contravened Constitutional due process and property right guarantees by engaging in a nefarious conspiracy to institute abatement proceedings against a deceased individual, Mr. Smith.

         Plaintiff's theory is that Defendants had full knowledge that Mr. Smith (the property owner of record until 2018), passed away in 2003, but nonetheless instituted and executed the abatement proceedings against the property under Mr. Smith's name. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants had notice that Plaintiff was the true owner because he had been paying property taxes on the property. Naming Mr. Smith, then, evinced Defendants' fraudulent plot to “collect an illegal debt by writing false claims against Plaintiff's real property by using a deceased person.” (ECF No. 48, at 19.)

         On June 6, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the SAC, asserting qualified immunity, statute of limitations, state-law immunity, and res judicata and collateral estoppel. (ECF No. 49). Plaintiff opposed the motion (ECF No. 53) and Defendants filed a reply. (ECF No. 53.)

         On July 2, 2019, Plaintiff filed an untimely second response brief. (ECF No. 55.) The Court noted the discrepancy but allowed the filing as a supplement to the original response since it did not prejudice the Defendants nor assert any new legal theories to counter Defendants motion to dismiss. Indeed, this supplementary document was merely a cosmetic correction of Plaintiff's original response. On July 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed another untimely document with respect to Defendants' motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 57.) As this document did not prejudice the Defendants, and in light of Plaintiff's pro se status, the Court construed the filing as sur-reply.

         II. Defendants' motion to dismiss

         A. Legal Standard for Rule 12(b)(6)

         A complaint must contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), not “detailed factual allegations, ” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). But this rule demands more than unadorned accusations; “sufficient factual matter” must make a claim at least plausible. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A party may thus move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The motion may be granted 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).

         In making this context-specific evaluation, this court “must presume all factual allegations of the complaint to be true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Usher v. City of Los Angeles, 828 F.2d 556, 561 (9th Cir. 1987). This rule does not apply to “‘a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, '” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), nor to “allegations that contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice” or to material attached to or incorporated by reference into the complaint. Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988-89 (9th Cir. 2001). In addition, Rule 12(b)(6) does not immunize from scrutiny assertions that are “merely conclusory, ...


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