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Teen Rescue v. Becerra

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 18, 2019

TEEN RESCUE, CARLTON WILLIAMS as an individual and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
XAVIER BECERRA, Attorney General of the State of California, in his official capacity, WILLIAM LIGHTBOURNE, Director of the State Department of Social Services, in his official capacity, Butte County Department of Children’s Services Division and DOES 1-50, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS

          JOHN A MENDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case stems from a dispute concerning the California Community Care Facilities Act (“CCFA”) and its implications on the freedom of religion and the rights of parents to raise their kids in the way they see fit. Plaintiff Carlton Williams (“Plaintiff”) brings this suit in his capacity as class representative of the parents and guardians of the students currently attending River View Christian Academy (“RVCA”) and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. First Amended Comp. (“FAC”), ECF No. 8. Defendants move to dismiss. Mot., ECF No. 24.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendants’ motion.[1]

         I. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Teen Rescue is a California-based religious organization. FAC ¶ 7. As part of its ministry, Teen Rescue established and operates a Christian boarding school, River View Christian Academy. FAC ¶¶ 7, 23. Plaintiff Carlton Williams is the custodial parent of a child enrolled at RVCA. FAC ¶ 8. Williams is the representative for a class of similarly situated parents and guardians of RVCA students (“Parent Class”). FAC ¶ 8.

         The CCFA was enacted with the primary purpose of establishing “a coordinated and comprehensive statewide service system of quality community care for mentally ill, developmentally and physically disabled, and children and adults who require care or services by a facility or organization issued a license or special permit.” Cal. Health & Safety Code § 1501(a). Until 2016, RVCA was exempt from licensure as a community care facility and thereby exempt from the CCFA’s regulations. FAC ¶ 57. When the CCFA was amended in 2016 by Senate Bill 524, the legislature changed the definition of private alternative boarding school to mean “a group home licensed by the [D]epartment [of Social Services] to operate a program . . . to provide youth with 24-hour residential care and supervision, which, in addition to providing educational services to youth, provides, or holds itself out as providing, behavior-based services to youth with social, emotional, or behavior issues.” Cal. Health & Safety Code § 1502(A)(19). FAC ¶ 58. Thus, since 2016, the California Department of Social Services has categorized RVCA as a private alternative boarding school, subject to the CCFA, the jurisdiction of the California Department of Social Services, and enforcement by the California Attorney General. FAC ¶¶ 45, 72. Teen Rescue disputes this categorization, alleging it does not provide therapeutic activities or engage in behavior modification other than providing students with a combination of a structured environment and spiritual guidance. FAC ¶¶ 39, 42.

         RVCA also alleges the CCFA impermissibly requires private alternative boarding schools to allow students full autonomy on matters of religion and sexual identity. FAC ¶ 1. RVCA admits that its religious practices violate those portions of the CCFA. FAC ¶ 62. Williams alleges he specifically sends his child to RVCA for the spiritual guidance it provides. FAC ¶ 64. Thus, Williams alleges it would be a profound interference with the Parent Class’ free exercise of religion and parental rights to place RVCA under the CCFA. FAC ¶¶ 65, 80.

         On March 13, 2019, Plaintiffs Carlton Williams and Teen Rescue filed the Complaint. Compl., ECF No. 1. Less than one month later, Plaintiffs filed the operative First Amended Complaint, alleging violations of (1) the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, and (2) the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to parent. FAC, ECF No. 8.

         On April 5, 2019, Plaintiffs filed an Emergency Application and Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order. ECF No. 10. This Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion and dismissed Teen Rescue’s claim with prejudice based on Younger abstention, leaving Carlton Williams as the sole plaintiff. TRO Order, ECF No. 21, at 5.

         Defendants now move to dismiss the FAC, arguing Plaintiff lacks standing and failed to state a cognizable claim under either the First or Fourteenth Amendment. Mot., ECF No. 24. Williams opposes the motion. Opp’n, ECF No. 36.

         II. OPINION

         A. Standing

         “[S]tanding is an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III.” Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Standing is therefore a “threshold question” in “determining the power of the court to entertain the suit.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975). Moreover, “federal courts are required sua sponte to examine jurisdictional issues such as standing.” Bernhardt v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 279 F.3d 862, 868 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         To establish standing, a “plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins,136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016), as revised (May 24, 2016). At the pleading stage “[i]t is the responsibility of the complainant clearly to allege facts demonstrating that he is a proper party to invoke ...


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