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Walters v. County of Contra Costa

United States District Court, N.D. California

October 15, 2019

COUNTY OF CONTRA COSTA, et al., Defendants.


          Donna M. Ryu United States Magistrate Judge

         Defendants Contra Costa County (“the County”), Brian Cain, Felicia I. Tornabene, and Angela Prasad move pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss Plaintiff Walter L. Walters's second amended complaint (“SAC”). [Docket No. 33.] The court held a hearing on September 26, 2019. For the following reasons, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff makes the following allegations in the SAC, all of which are taken as true for purposes of this motion.[1] Plaintiff, who is African American, is a licensed physician practicing in the field of anesthesiology. [Docket No. 28 (SAC) ¶¶ 1, 11.] ¶ 2017, he contracted with a temporary staffing agency for placement at health care facilities needing temporary physicians. In October 2017, the agency assigned Plaintiff to work at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center (“CCRMC” or “the hospital”), a public hospital owned and operated by the County. Plaintiff notified the agency that he would accept the assignment on the condition that he work only eight-hour shifts, Monday through Friday, from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. Plaintiff had recently suffered an illness causing him to lose 30 pounds in one month, and did not want to work long, exhausting shifts while trying to learn the cause of his illness. The agency agreed “and replied it would inform he hospital to schedule his shifts accordingly.” Id. at ¶¶ 5, 11.

         Plaintiff began orientation and training at CCRMC on October 31, 2017. His first two scheduled shifts were for 12 hours, contrary to his agreement with his agency. Plaintiff alleges that he complained to Defendant Felicia I. Tornabene, the hospital's medical director, telling her “of his prior request to the agency to work only 8-hour shifts because of his extreme weight loss and exhaustion during longer shifts.” He informed Tornabene that he suffers from inflammatory bowel disease (“IBD”), and told her that due to psoriasis on his leg and “a painful ankle due to surgery” he “had some difficulty walking, particularly if he had to walk or stand during long shifts.” Id. at ¶ 12. “Plaintiff explained that working long shifts weakened him and caused him pain.” He alleges that Tornabene “acknowledged [his] concerns, apologized, and informed him she would look into the matter.” Id. Plaintiff later learned that the anesthesia department did not have 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shifts; it had only 10.5-hour, 12-hour, and 24-hour shifts. Id. at ¶ 13.

         During the following weeks, Plaintiff's IBD improved to the extent that he was able to work longer shifts, and he alleges he “provided competent care to hospital patients without incident or complaints during the entire term of his assignment.” However, despite his conversation with Tornabene, Plaintiff learned that he was scheduled to work a 24-hour shift on December 28, 2017 and a 12-hour shift on December 29, 2017, which was the last day of his contract. Plaintiff complained to two doctors at the hospital but his schedule did not change. Plaintiff worked the 24-hour shift on December 28, 2017 and appeared for his final shift on December 29, 2017 “out of a sense of duty because the hospital needed anesthesia coverage on that day.” Id. at ¶¶ 13-15.

         During breaks in between cases on his December 29 shift, Plaintiff “retired to his private call room where he would rest or sleep.” After performing one procedure, a nurse told Plaintiff that “a patient said his eyes were red” and informed him that “his speech sounded slurred.” Id. at ¶ 15. He did not respond “because he was tired and did not believe it was necessary to explain his private medical conditions, ” including the fact that he wears a partial denture that can affect his speech. Id. at ¶¶ 15, 23.

         Later that day, while Plaintiff was taking a break, he heard a knock on the door to his private room. When he opened it, Tornabene and two nurses were waiting. One nurse asked, “Do you know who I am?” to which Plaintiff responded yes. Another “asked if he was feeling okay, ” and Plaintiff answered yes. After they left, Plaintiff went back to sleep. Id. at ¶ 16.

         Plaintiff alleges that Tornabene then “made a determination that plaintiff was under the influence of either drugs or alcohol even though she did not physically examine [him] or give him a blood test.” Id. at ¶ 17. Tornabene contacted the County Sheriff's Department “to provide security to remove plaintiff from the hospital.” When Deputy Sheriff Brian Cain arrived, Tornabene told Cain “that although she believed plaintiff was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, she did not want him to arrest or prosecute plaintiff, ” and that “instead of arresting plaintiff, [Cain] should escort him out of the hospital and put him in a taxi, ” and that Plaintiff “should not be permitted to drive himself home.” Id. “Tornabene told Cain she also desired his presence as security if plaintiff became ‘confrontational' when she told him he was being removed.” Id.

         Cain requested assistance, and then-Sergeant Angela D. Prasad (now Lieutenant) arrived as Cain's supervisor. Cain and Prasad “agreed with Tornabene that they would follow her directions in handling this matter.” Id. at ¶ 18. Cain knocked on Plaintiff's door, waking him. When Plaintiff opened the door he saw only Cain in his uniform. Cain closed the door slightly so that only Cain and Plaintiff could see each other, and “[i]n a firm tone of voice” said “‘come out here' because he wished to speak with [Plaintiff].” Id. at ¶ 19. As Plaintiff was tired “and had been sleeping partially undressed, ” he “asked Cain to enter the room and talk there while he got dressed.” Cain said, “‘[n]o, you come out' because Tornabene wished to speak with” Plaintiff. Plaintiff then closed the door and started to dress. Id. After a few minutes, Cain became impatient and pounded his fist on the door, yelling “with an angry tone of voice . . . ‘Come on, let's go!'” Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff, who was “fearful of any potential encounters with law enforcement” and did not want to give Cain “any reason to suspect he was disobeying his command, being uncooperative, or hiding something, ” immediately complied and opened the door, even though he was still getting dressed. Id.

         When Plaintiff exited the room, he saw Cain, Prasad, Tornabene, at least one nurse, and a person who appeared to be a private security guard. Tornabene told Plaintiff that “his services were no longer needed and another physician was assigned to finish his shift. She also told plaintiff he would not be allowed to drive himself home, ” and “said the deputies would put him in a taxi and she would give him a prepaid voucher to pay the driver.” Id. at ¶ 21. At some point during this encounter Plaintiff “realized he was suspected of being under the influence of drugs” and “stated he did not use drugs.” Id. at ¶ 22. He also asked why his services were being terminated. “Tornabene stated he did not appear as if he could work, ” and “stated that his speech appeared to be slurred.” Id. at ¶ 23. Plaintiff explained that he has a partial denture to replace some of his upper teeth, and that he uses his tongue to keep it in place when he is resting or sleeping. He explained that in those situations, his speech appears to be slurred, and he took out his partial denture to show it to Tornabene and the others. Id.

         Tornabene also stated that Plaintiff “appeared to have difficulty walking.” He then “pulled up his pant leg and revealed the psoriasis on his right leg” and the “surgery scar on his right ankle.” Id. at ¶ 24. Plaintiff “explained that he had screws surgically installed in his ankle to repair a fracture and that the pain caused him to limp when he was required to stand or walk for long periods.” Id. Despite Plaintiff's explanations, “Tornabene stated plaintiff still had to leave and take a taxi.” Id. In response, Plaintiff stated that he did not want to take a taxi and would drive himself home. “One of the deputies told plaintiff they would not permit him to drive home, ” and that Plaintiff “would be escorted out of the hospital and put into a taxi pursuant to Tornabene's request.” Id. at ¶ 25.

         Plaintiff continued to “proclaim his innocence, ” to no avail. He then asked Tornabene to give him a drug test in the hospital's laboratory, pursuant to the hospital's “protocol requiring the testing for substance abuse of any physician who is suspected of being under the influence while on duty.” Tornabene refused. Id. at ¶ 26. Plaintiff then asked the deputies to give him a drug, alcohol, or sobriety test, which they refused. Id. at ¶ 27. Neither deputy performed any investigation, such as asking Plaintiff if he had consumed any alcohol or drugs, examining his eyes, attempting to smell his breath, or search Plaintiff's person, property, or room for drugs or alcohol. Defendants Cain and Prasad “had a duty to conduct an adequate investigation and establish independent probable cause because plaintiff gave plausible explanations for his perceived behavior and he demanded a drug test multiple times, ” but instead “impermissibly substituted Tornabene's judgment for their own.” Id.

         Accompanied by Cain, Plaintiff went to the locker room to get dressed. He packed his luggage in front of Cain and displayed to him the contents, which did not include any contraband. He also showed Cain his swollen hands and explained that he had rheumatoid arthritis. Id. at ¶ 28.

         Plaintiff was unable to find his car keys or his cell phone and returned to his room to search for them. He alleges that Prasad, who had been “rushing Cain and plaintiff to leave because she had ‘somewhere to go, '” became “irritated and more forceful, ” rushing Plaintiff. Id. at ¶ 29. After being escorted to the lobby with Cain and the guard, Plaintiff and Cain exited the building to search Plaintiff's vehicle for his car keys. The guard remained in the lobby with his luggage and Prasad remained in the building. Id. at ¶ 32.

         Plaintiff and Cain searched Plaintiff's car for the keys without success. Plaintiff then “informed Cain he was going to sit in the driver's seat and press the ignition button to see if the keys were in the vehicle. If the vehicle started, the keys were somewhere inside the vehicle.” Id. at ¶ 33. According to Plaintiff, “Cain said nothing and walked to the driver's side” of the car next to Plaintiff, who was sitting in the driver's seat. Plaintiff pushed the ignition button and the vehicle started. “Cain suddenly lunged at plaintiff, twisting his hand and wrist into a martial arts submission hold.” Cain then “dragged plaintiff out of the vehicle by his hand and wrist and forced his arm behind his back.” Id. Plaintiff, who suffered “extreme physical pain throughout his hands, wrist, elbow, arm, and shoulder . . . screamed in pain and yelled ‘What are you doing?!!'” Id. at ¶ 34. Cain replied that Plaintiff “was trying to get away and that his keys were in his pocket.” Plaintiff replied that they were not, and Cain instructed Plaintiff to move away from the car. Plaintiff complied, and Cain sat in the driver's seat and started the car. He then found Plaintiff's keys underneath the car seat. Id. Plaintiff and Cain then returned to the hospital lobby, and Prasad gave Plaintiff his cell phone. Plaintiff traveled to his hotel by taxi. He later returned to the hospital and retrieved his car without incident. Id. at ¶ 34.

         Plaintiff took a substance abuse panel drug test on January 25, 2018, which tested for signs of drug use for the previous 90 days. The test results were negative. Id. at ¶ 35.

         He later learned that “certain physicians and nurses in the hospital's anesthesia department harbored racial animus towards him as an African American.” Id. at ¶ 36. Another doctor informed Plaintiff that Dr. Jeffrey Saadi, the Chief of Anesthesia, and hospital nurses used a racial slur to refer to Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff alleges that “Tornabene, in conjunction with Saadi and some nurses, conspired to set up plaintiff to be terminated at the end of his shift, ” and that Tornabene “retaliated against plaintiff for complaining about his assigned shifts and because she and others in the hospital harbored racial animus against him as an African American.” Id. at ¶ 37. He further alleges that Tornabene caused Plaintiff to be assigned the 36-hour shift on his final two days despite his complaints, knowing that “such a demanding shift would weaken him and make it appear as if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, especially in light of his medical conditions which she had knowledge of.” Id. She “intentionally gave Cain and the deputies false and misleading information regarding plaintiff's sobriety, ” even though she knew the reasons for his slurred speech and difficulty walking. Id. Following the incident, Tornabene prepared the hospital's report of Plaintiff to the state medical board for physician misconduct but made no mention of drugs or alcohol. Id. at ¶ 41.

         The amended complaint alleges the following five claims for relief: 1) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violation of the Fourth Amendment against Cain, Prasad, and Tornabene based on Cain and Prasad's seizure of Plaintiff and Cain's use of force on Plaintiff; 2) a section 1983 claim for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment against Cain, Prasad, and Tornabene based on the seizure and use of force; 3) assault and battery against Cain, Prasad, and the County; 4) intentional infliction of emotional distress against Cain, Prasad, and the County; and 5) negligence against Cain, Prasad, and the County.

         Defendants now move to dismiss.


         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the claims alleged in the complaint. See Parks Sch. of Bus., Inc. v. Symington, 51 F.3d 1480, 1484 (9th Cir. 1995). When reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court must “accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, ” Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 (2007) (citation omitted), and may dismiss a claim “only where there is no cognizable legal theory” or there is an absence of “sufficient factual matter to state a facially plausible claim to relief.” Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Servs., Inc., 622 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009); Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001)) (quotation marks omitted). A claim has facial plausibility when a plaintiff “pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted). In other words, the facts alleged must demonstrate “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007) (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)); see Lee v. City of L.A., 250 F.3d 668, 679 (9th Cir. 2001), overruled on other grounds by Galbraith v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 307 F.3d 1119 (9th Cir. 2002).

         III. ...

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