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Valdez v. Leeds

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 29, 2019

MICHAEL VALDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
HANFORD POLICE OFFICER LARRY LEEDS, in his individual capacity; et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF 107, 108, 109)

          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 January 1, 2016, plaintiff Michael Valdez (“Plaintiff”) was stopped while riding his bicycle by Hanford Police Department Officer Larry Leeds (“Leeds”), who used his patrol car to effectuate the stop. ECF No. 109 at 7. As a result of that stop, Plaintiff filed this action, alleging various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) and state law. See generally ECF No. 77. Plaintiff later amended his action to include further § 1983 claims, based on subsequent actions allegedly taken by Hanford Police Department (“Hanford PD”) officers and its purported agents after the initial filing of this case. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 47-72, 111-147. Before the Court are three motions for summary judgment, one from Plaintiff and two from Defendants. ECF Nos. 107, 108, 109. The Court finds it appropriate to rule on the motions without oral argument. See Local Rule 230(g). For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motions.

         III. BACKGROUND

         On January 1, 2016, Plaintiff was stopped while riding his bicycle by Defendant Leeds following a pursuit. ECF Nos.108-6 at 2; 109 at 7. Leeds used his patrol car to effectuate the stop, with the exact physics of the stop disputed between Plaintiff and Leeds, though undisputed that, one way or another, Plaintiff ended up off his bicycle. Id. Also contested is whether Plaintiff physically resisted Leeds' efforts to arrest him once Plaintiff was off his bicycle. ECF Nos. 77 at ¶¶ 27-29; 108-6 at 2. Neither side disagrees that Leeds imparted strikes to Plaintiff's head and body-to gain Plaintiff's compliance according to Leeds. ECF No. 108-6 at 2. Plaintiff, however, casts those strikes as excessive force. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 83, 94. Plaintiff brings a § 1983 claim against Leeds for excessive force for both the bicycle stop and the body strikes, as well as a claim of battery. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 80-87, 93-99. Plaintiff also brings a Monell claim against Hanford Police Department, Leeds' employer, for the bicycle stop. Id. at ¶¶ 104-110.

         Plaintiff received a medical evaluation and treatment following his interaction with Leeds, and he was released to be booked into Kings County Jail with discharge instructions to see an ophthalmologist approximately three days later. ECF Nos. 107 at 4-5; 115 at 5-6. Plaintiff contends that the jail's private entity medical provider, NaphCare, was deficient in its rendering of care once Plaintiff was booked because NaphCare did not send Plaintiff to see a specialist until two weeks after his admission to the jail and because Plaintiff was sent to an optometrist instead of an ophthalmologist. ECF No. 77 at ¶ 42. Neither Plaintiff nor NaphCare disputes that Plaintiff had a preexisting eye injury at the time of his interaction with Leeds. ECF Nos. 107 at 2-4; 115 at 3-5. At issue is whether that interaction or NaphCare's allegedly deficient care, or both or neither, exacerbated the injury. ECF Nos. 107 at 1-2; 115 at 9-10. Plaintiff brings a Monell claim against NaphCare. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 88-92.

         Finally, Plaintiff alleges that once he filed his original § 1983 complaint in this case, he experienced an uptick in police surveillance of himself and his home, and increased interaction with police officers that he characterizes as retaliatory harassment. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 47-72, 111-147. Plaintiff contends that this behavior culminated with police obtaining a search warrant for his home, motivated solely by animus towards Plaintiff. Id. at ¶¶ 70, 114; 114 at 20. Police allegedly found drugs at Plaintiff's home, and he was arrested, which Plaintiff characterizes as a retaliatory arrest. ECF Nos. 77 at ¶ 70; 114 at 20. Plaintiff was later arrested on additional charges of witness intimidation, which police allege are related to the drug case and Plaintiff alleges are, again, retaliatory. ECF Nos. 77 at ¶ 72; 108-6 at 2; 114 at 20. The drugs and witness intimidation charges are still pending. ECF No. 77 at ¶ 71.

         Plaintiff brings a § 1983 claim against various officers and Hanford PD, alleging retaliatory violation of his First Amendment rights. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 111-122. Plaintiff also brings a Bane Act claim and claims under the California Constitution. Id. at ¶¶ 123-147.

         Additional details and facts will be supplied as needed.

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that a “court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). At summary judgment, a court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. See Id. at 255; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). But if the evidence of the nonmoving party is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 249-50.

         A fact is “material” if its proof or disproof is essential to an element of a plaintiff's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A factual dispute is “genuine” “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (internal citation omitted).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis for its motion, and of identifying those portions of the pleadings and discovery responses that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party meets its initial burden, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and, by its own affidavits or discovery, set forth specific facts showing that there is some genuine issue for trial in order to defeat the motion. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 250.

         V. ANALYSIS

         As mentioned, due to its extraordinary caseload, this Court will not dissect and discuss exhaustively the pending cross motions. With few exceptions, only the arguments raised by the parties are addressed, and the Court's analysis and explanations are limited to those issues and facts necessary for decision.

         A. Police Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

         The individually named police officers (Leeds, Patrick Jurdon, Dale Williams, Christifer Barker, Jared Cotta) and Hanford PD (collectively, “Defendants”) contend that they should be granted summary judgment on all of Plaintiff s Fourth Amendment claims under the Heck doctrine[1] and that they should be granted summary judgment on all First Amendment claims based on a lack of evidence. See ECF No. 108. The Court begins with the claims potentially affected by the Heck doctrine.

         1. The Fourth Amendment Claims

         Plaintiff pled guilty to two counts of violating California Penal Code § 148(a)(1) (“§ 148(a)(1)”) on February 27, 2019, related to his interaction with Leeds and another officer, Chad Allen (“Allen”), who is not named as a defendant in this suit. ECF No. 108-2 at Ex. 101. Section 148(a)(1) prohibits obstructing, delaying, or resisting a police officer in the lawful discharge of her duties. Cal. Penal Code § 148. Plaintiffs plea came after a jury had been seated and seemingly heard testimony in Plaintiffs criminal trial on the counts involved in his plea, as well as other counts related to the events of January 1, 2016.[2] ECF No. 108-2 at Ex. 101. Specifically, Plaintiff pled guilty to willfully and unlawfully resisting, delaying, and obstructing Leeds, and separately to willfully and unlawfully resisting, delaying and obstructing Allen. Id. Neither the plea colloquy nor any other document in the present record specifies the exact conduct associated with each of those pleas. Id.

         Under the Heck doctrine, a plaintiff is barred from bringing suit under § 1983 if “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994). California applies a similar doctrine, and “[t]he California Supreme Court has not distinguished between the application of Heck to § 1983 claims and the application of analogous California law to state-law claims.” Hooper v. County of San Diego, 629 F.3d 1127, 1134 (9th Cir. 2011). Thus, Plaintiff's two guilty pleas bar § 1983 and state law claims if prevailing on those civil claims would undermine the integrity of his convictions, by, for example, negating an element of the crime. Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87 n.6.

         A conviction under § 148(a)(1) requires, as a necessary element, that “the police officer was acting lawfully in the discharge or attempted discharge of her duties at the time the defendant resisted, delayed, or obstructed the officer.” Rodriguez v. City of Modesto, No. 1:10-CV-01370-LJO-MJS, 2013 WL 6415620, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2013). “A police officer is not lawfully performing her duties if she arrests an individual without probable cause [ ] or uses unreasonable or excessive force on the individual at the time the defendant's unlawful resistance, delay or obstruction is occurring.” Id. (omitting internal citation). Thus, an officer may use reasonable force in response to a defendant's § 148(a)(1) violation, but if the officer responds with excessive force, the claim will not be barred by Heck. Rodriguez, 2013 WL 6415620, *4-5; see also Hooper, 629 F.3d at 1130, 1133-34.

         Defendants' argument is straightforward: they contend that Plaintiff's plea bars absolutely all Fourth Amendment claims related to his stop and arrest in their entirety because Plaintiff's plea necessarily dictates that Leeds was acting lawfully throughout the course of events in response to Plaintiff's unlawful behavior. ECF No. 108-6 at 8-10. Defendants cast Plaintiff's actions on January 1, 2016, as one continuous course of conduct. Id. at 2, 8-10.

         Plaintiff counters in his opposition that his actions should be parsed moment by moment, and that when so parsed, any of fourteen separate actions could support Plaintiff's plea to violating § 148(a)(1). ECF No. 114 at 12-15. Plaintiff argues that his plea did not include a factual recitation of which of the fourteen actions constituted the basis of his plea; therefore, his specific claims are not Heck barred, and no claims could be, in what can only be described as a legal theory of “hide the ball” turned on its head. Id. at 14-15. Further, Plaintiff's complaint denies all resistive actions, which clearly stands at odds and is incompatible with his guilty plea. ECF No. 77 at ¶¶ 27-29.

         Both Plaintiff and Defendants devote valuable resources to arguing over the meaning of Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689 (9th Cir. 2005), but the rule from Smith was modified in later cases that are directly relevant to the question at hand. In 2008, the California Supreme Court decided Yount v. City of Sacramento, in which a criminal defendant engaged in a continuous chain of violative actions; subsequently pled guilty to violating § 148(a)(1); and afterwards brought § 1983 claims against a police officer involved with his arrest. 43 Cal.4th 885 (2008). Despite the continuous course of events and despite the defendant's plea, the California Supreme Court sustained the defendant's § 148(a)(1) conviction while finding the police officer's conduct was both lawful and unlawful when broken down in a timeline. Id. at 900. This Court discussed Yount and the Ninth Circuit's acknowledgment of it:

The California Supreme Court distinguished the facts in Smith from those in Yount, finding that “unlike in Smith, Yount's acts of resistance were part of one continuous transaction involving the officers' efforts to effect his arrest and cannot be segregated into an investigative phase and an independent arrest phase.” Heck barred Yount's § 1983 claim to “the extent that [it] alleges that he offered no resistance, that he posed no reasonable threat of obstruction to the officers, and that the officers had no justification to employ any force against him at the time he was shot [.]” However, Yount's § 1983 claims were not entirely barred by Heck, even though the allegedly excessive force was used during “one continuous transaction.” Rather, even if events transpired in a “continuous chain of events, ” multiple “factual contexts” could exist. One might “giv[e] rise to criminal liability on the part of the criminal defendant, and the second [might] giv[e] rise to civil liability on the part of the arresting officer.”
. . .
The Ninth Circuit applied the lessons of Yount in Hooper, 629 F.3d 1127. In that case, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff on a motion to dismiss, plaintiff struggled briefly with an arresting K9 officer, but stopped resisting after the officer secured her hands behind her back. Shortly thereafter, concerned because spectators had gathered near his patrol vehicle, the K9 officer called his dog to “come here.” The dog then ran toward plaintiff and bit her several times. Hooper alleged that the dog bites constituted excessive force. Because the conviction and the § 1983 claim were “based on different actions during ‘one continuous transaction' ” the Ninth Circuit permitted the excessive force claim to proceed.

Rodriguez, 2013 WL 6415620, at *7 (citations omitted).

         Defendants are incorrect that Plaintiff's plea absolutely bars all claims related to his stop and arrest. Plaintiff's plea dictates that Leeds and Allen engaged in some lawful police conduct that was resisted, delayed, or obstructed. However, under Yount and Hooper, that does not necessarily entail that Leeds was engaged in lawful police conduct throughout the course of events.

         Plaintiff is similarly incorrect that his actions must be analyzed as fourteen discrete actus rei. To do so would lead to absurd outcomes, e.g., requiring a prosecutor to charge fourteen counts of § 148(a)(1), one for each action. Likewise, to find that there is no factual predicate in the record for Plaintiff's plea in relation to Leeds, and thus that no civil claims implicate the Heck doctrine, completely eviscerates that doctrine. California misdemeanor pleas do not require a specific factual recitation for the record, In re Gross, 33 Cal.3d 561 (1983), but that does not mean no evidence as to the conduct underlying the plea exists or that a defendant may avoid the Heck bar by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor rather than standing trial-such would be a perverse incentive to plead, if one could avoid Heck, and a reward to those engaging in multiple acts of wrongdoing.

         In Hooper, the Ninth Circuit stated “a conviction under California Penal Code § 148(a)(1) does not bar a § 1983 claim for excessive force under Heck when the conviction and the § 1983 claim are based on different actions during ‘one continuous transaction.' ” 629 F.3d at 1134. As in Hooper (and Yount), the chain of events constituting Plaintiff's arrest was “one continuous transaction, ” in that they derive from Leeds' attempt to stop and arrest Plaintiff, and Plaintiff's flight from and physical resistance to the same. See Hooper, 629 F.3d at 1133. Accordingly, Plaintiff only has viable claims under Heck to the extent that different actions during the one continuous transaction give rise to Plaintiff's convictions and Plaintiff's civil claims.

         While Plaintiff contends that his plea to § 148(a)(1) in relation to Allen is irrelevant to his civil action since he did not name Allen as a defendant, Plaintiff is incorrect. His plea in relation to Allen is both relevant and necessary to the Court's analysis, in light of Hooper. See also Yount, 43 Cal.4th at 896-97 (“Otherwise, a section 1983 plaintiff could routinely circumvent the Heck bar through artful pleading-e.g., by filing suit against fewer than all of the potential defendants or by defining the civil cause of action to encompass fewer than all of the criminal acts of resistance.”). According to the record, Allen arrived to assist Leeds when Leeds was struggling physically with Plaintiff to gain Plaintiff's compliance and place Plaintiff under arrest. ECF Nos. 109-3 at Ex. 4; 109-4 at Exs. 1, 2, 16; 114 at 14; 114-3 at Ex. 36. Allen physically assisted Leeds with Plaintiff's arrest. Id. Thus, Plaintiff's plea in relation to Allen dictates that Plaintiff's arrest was lawful and that his physical resistance was unlawful. In other words, Allen was engaged in lawful police conduct when he assisted with placing Plaintiff under arrest.

         The plea colloquy and related records do not specifically identify the factual basis for Plaintiff's plea in relation to resisting Leeds. Hypothetically, this charge (and the plea) could have stemmed from a number of “factual contexts” or “different actions” in the one continuous transaction. Was Plaintiff resisting/obstructing/delaying while he was riding his bicycle? Or, was the charge premised on the struggle that ensued after Plaintiff was no longer on his bicycle? Plaintiff's plea to resisting Allen helps narrow the field of possibilities, at least for purposes of Heck. That Leeds was engaged in lawful police conduct during the struggle with Plaintiff is implied because, ipso facto, Allen was engaged in lawful police conduct when assisting Leeds with arresting Plaintiff. It is not possible to assume otherwise and simultaneously uphold the essential purpose of Heck: to ensure that the outcome of a civil lawsuit would not undermine a criminal conviction. In other words, a finding that Leeds was engaged in unlawful conduct while Allen assisted Leeds would necessarily undermine the lawfulness of Allen's conduct as well, which is not permitted under Heck. Moreover, Plaintiff's plea in relation to Leeds entails Plaintiff's concession that, at some point, Leeds employed reasonable force in response to Plaintiff's unlawful resistance, delay, or obstruction. Rodriguez, 2013 WL 6415620, at *4. Plaintiff cannot avoid the implications of his plea, and artful pleading, including the omission of certain defendants, will not allow Plaintiff to avoid Heck. Yount, 43 Cal.4th at 896-97.

         The Court's conclusion is bolstered further by Plaintiff's complaint. As relates to the time when Leeds physically struggled with Plaintiff and Allen arrived on scene, “Plaintiff[ ] did not allege facts showing how the force at issue differed from or exceeded the reasonable force Defendants lawfully could have employed to arrest Plaintiff[ ] for [his] § 148(a)(1) violations.” ...


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