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Williams v. County of Monterey

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

October 17, 2019

MONIA WILLIAMS, individually and as Guardian ad Litem for L.S. and Q.S, minors, Plaintiffs,
COUNTY OF MONTEREY, et al., Defendants.



         Monia Williams (“Williams”) filed this suit on behalf of herself and her minor children, daughter L.S. and son Q.S., following removal of the children from the home based on suspected abuse of L.S. by an uncle. The children remained out of the home for approximately three months, at which time juvenile dependency proceedings were dismissed after a contested trial. The complaint alleges violations of federal and state law by law enforcement officers and social workers involved in the removal of the children and the dependency proceedings.

         Defendants Josefina Duran and Marcos Estrada (“Moving Parties”), both social workers, seek dismissal of the only two claims asserted against them, Claim 6 for substantive due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment and Claim 7 for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Moving Parties contend that they are entitled to immunity under the California Government Code, absolute immunity, and qualified immunity, and they seek dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Following completion of the briefing on the motion, the Court vacated the scheduled hearing date of October 17, 2019 and advised the parties that the motion would be submitted for decision without oral argument. See Order, ECF 40.

         For the reasons discussed below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART, and Claims 6 and 7 are DISMISSED WITH LEAVE TO AMEND.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Williams adopted L.S. (a girl) and Q.S. (a boy), who are twins, when they were three years old. Compl. ¶ 8, ECF 1. The children were nine years old at the time of the events giving rise to this lawsuit. Id. At that time, Williams and the children resided in Monterey, California, in a household that also included the children's grandmother and Williams' twenty-two year old nephew. Compl. ¶¶ 58-60.

         The children's biological parents lost custody of the children due to mental health issues and use of illegal drugs. Compl. ¶ 62. The children likely were exposed to illegal drugs and alcohol in utero, and they received neglectful parenting in their early years. Compl. ¶ 63. When they were enrolled in school, it became apparent that both children suffered from developmental delays. Compl. ¶ 64. Neither child was performing at or near grade level, and Q.S. had difficulties with speech and language comprehension. Id.

         On May 4, 2018, a teacher at the Oasis School attended by Q.S. and L.S. made a report to the Monterey County Child Abuse Hotline. Compl. ¶ 72. The report stated that Q.S. said he gets “sad” when his uncle tells Q.S. to stay downstairs and watch television while taking L.S. upstairs for special time. Compl. ¶ 73. Q.S. reportedly said that when he would go upstairs to try the door to the room where Pat and his sister L.S. were, the uncle would yell at Q.S. to go watch television. Id. The uncle, Williams' brother Lapatrick (“Pat”), was sixty-three years old at the time of the report. Compl. ¶¶ 73-76.

         Defendant Linda Castillo, a Monterey County social worker, was assigned the case and she went to the school on May 4 to begin an investigation. Compl. ¶ 79. Castillo spoke with Q.S. alone and then spoke with L.S. alone. Compl. ¶¶ 80-153. Castillo did not attempt to contact Williams before speaking with the children. Compl. ¶ 81. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Castillo's investigation was “wholly inadequate and unreasonable, ” as she did not ask school personnel about the children's possible cognitive issues, misconstrued the children's responses to her questions, and formed an opinion that sexual abuse had occurred but did not ask follow-up questions regarding the frequency or circumstances of the suspected abuse. Compl. ¶¶ 84, 86, 101-03, 113-16, 127-30, 145-51. Castillo was unable to “qualify” either Q.S. or L.S. Compl. ¶¶ 87-88, 121. The complaint defines the term “qualify” to mean asking children “a series of questions to ascertain their ability to understand the truth from a lie, fantasy from reality, and help assess their understanding of the difference between a truth and a lie, and the importance of telling the truth.” Compl. ¶ 57. The children's “responses may be used as a prerequisite to allowing their testimony under oath or in a legal proceeding, and as a means of evaluating their credibility.” Id.

         Castillo called in a request for law enforcement to report to the school regarding suspected child sexual abuse. Compl. ¶ 154. In response, several City of Salinas police officers traveled to the Oasis School, including Defendants Guadalupe Gonzalez, Blake Ziebell, Dana Cornelison, and Mario Reyes, Jr. Compl. ¶ 155. The defendant officers did not start their body cams at the beginning of their investigation, but turned them on randomly. Compl. ¶ 158. Castillo told the officers that: Pat and L.S. played a game called “secret special time” in an upstairs bedroom, when Q.S. would go upstairs the bedroom door was locked, and Pat was no longer allowed to go to the house. Compl. ¶ 161. Plaintiffs allege that the children never told Castillo any of those things. Id.

         The police officers questioned Q.S. and then L.S. without attempting to contact Williams first. Compl. ¶¶ 165-276. Plaintiffs characterize the interview of L.S. as “horribly inappropriate, leading, unprofessional.” Compl. ¶ 268. Plaintiffs claim that the officers asked repeated questions in an attempt to elicit confirmation of sexual abuse, and that the officers' reports of the interviews contained lies, misrepresentations, and omissions. Compl. ¶¶ 269-276.

         At some point after the police arrived, another Monterey County social worker, Defendant Justin Ricks, arrived at the school and took over from Castillo. Compl. ¶¶ 83, 86, 277. Once Ricks received the police officers' information regarding their interviews of the children, the school principal, and the teacher's aide, Ricks called Monterey County supervisory personnel. Compl. ¶ 280. The supervisors included Defendants Christine Lerable, Rebecca Baron, and Charlene Lord. Compl. ¶¶ 17-19, 280. Plaintiffs allege that “despite the glaring inconsistencies in the children's statements, ” the decision was made to remove the children. Compl. ¶ 280.

         Williams had arrived at the school while police officers were questioning the children, but she was not told what was occurring, only that she should “wait.” Compl. ¶ 281. The first Williams was told about the investigation was when Ricks informed her that she had two options: propose a relative who would take the children during the investigation or allow the children to be taken into protective custody. Compl. ¶ 283. The decision had been made to remove the children before anyone interviewed Williams. Compl. ¶ 284. Williams proposed placement with her sister, Regina Mason, who previously had worked for Monterey County as a social worker supervisor. Compl. ¶¶ 285, 299. Mason was called on the telephone and stated that she was willing to take the children. Compl. ¶¶ 290-91. However, Ricks became upset with Mason when she questioned his experience and knowledge, and asked him among other things why the children could not return home when the alleged perpetrator did not live in the home. Compl. ¶ 325-26. Plaintiffs allege that Ricks vindictively acted on his personal feelings by deciding that the children would not be placed with Mason, even though she offered to come pick them up. Compl. ¶¶ 327, 332. Ricks took the children to his car without allowing Williams to speak to them or comfort them. Compl. ¶¶ 334-337. Williams tried to approach to calm the children down, which conduct Ricks mischaracterized by later reporting that Williams was out of control, physically aggressive, and had to be restrained. Compl. ¶¶ 337-39.

         Ricks placed the children with the school teacher's aide, Whitney Lopez, over Williams' objection. Compl. ¶¶ 341-42. Ricks also asked Defendants Blake Ziebell and Eduardo Bejarano, both City of Salinas police officers, to arrange for a videotaped interview of the children by another social worker. Compl. ¶ 340. The interview took place on May 5, 2018, the day after the children were taken into custody. Compl. ¶¶ 343-44. Neither child could be “qualified.” Compl. ¶ 350.

         Because Williams' sister, Mason, was a former employee of Monterey County, the decision was made to have the case handled by Santa Cruz County social workers. Compl. ¶ 355. Defendants Marcos Estrada and Josefina Duran, both Santa Cruz County social workers, became involved at that point and were tasked with conducting an independent investigation. Id. Estrada was given more than twelve body cam videos that were taken at the school on May 4, 2018, as well of transcripts of the videos. Compl. ¶ 296. However, after Estrada had watched only one video, Duran directed him to stop watching, and he complied. Compl. ¶¶ 296-97. Estrada was to make recommendations to the juvenile court about what should happen with the family. Compl. ¶ 296. Estrada prepared a Jurisdiction Report for the court which failed to advise that the children had not been qualified during the interviews. Compl. ¶ 352. Estrada “recommended further court and agency involvement in the Williams family and forced the matter to a contested trial, prolonging the time the mother and children were separated, and, the time the children continued to live outside of their home.” Compl. ¶ 357. Plaintiffs allege that Estrada and Duran conspired with other officials to make “stick” Defendants' allegations that L.S. was sexually abused and Williams failed to protect her children. Compl. ¶ 358.

         Defendant Chelsea Chacon, a Monterey County social worker, signed the Petition pursuant to Welfare & Institutions Code Section 300, alleging among other things that L.S. had been a victim of sexual abuse or was at risk for sexual abuse, and that Williams had failed to protect L.S. adequately. Compl. ¶¶ 21, 46-49. Plaintiffs allege that it is unclear why Chacon signed the Petition, if Santa Cruz County was supposed to handling the case. Compl. ¶ 359. Plaintiffs claim that all of the allegations in the Petition were false. Compl. ¶ 50. The children remained out of Williams' custody for approximately three months, at which time juvenile proceedings were dismissed after a contested trial. Compl. ¶ 294. Plaintiffs allege that the Petition was “replete with lies, misrepresentations, and omissions of wholly exculpatory and/or mitigating, clarifying, explanatory facts and circumstances known to the Defendant Social Workers.” Compl. ¶ 23.

         Williams filed this action on April 4, 2019, on behalf of herself and as guardian ad litem for L.S. and Q.S., asserting claims against Monterey County and its employees Ricks, Castillo, Lerable, Baron, Lord, and Chacon; the City of Salinas and City police officers Ziebell, Gonzalez, Cornelison, Reyes, and Bejarano; and Santa Cruz County social workers Estrada and Duran. The complaint contains six federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress: (1) Violation of 4th Amendment - Seizure by Interrogation; (2) Violation of 14th Amendment - Interrogation of Minors; (3) Violation of 4th Amendment - Removal; (4) 14th Amendment Violation (Procedural); (5) 14th Amendment Violation (Substantive) - Interference Familial Association; (6) 14th Amendment Violation (Substantive) - Continuing Detention - Fraud; and ...

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