Chao v. County of Shasta et al

Filing 23

MEMORANDUM and ORDER signed by Senior Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. on 09/14/22 GRANTING 12 Motion to Dismiss with 20 days LEAVE TO AMEND. Failure to timely file an amended pleading will result in dismissal of the claims already dismissed by this Order, with prejudice and without further notice to the parties. (Benson, A.)

Download PDF
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 8 EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 9 10 SEING CHAO, 11 12 13 14 15 16 No. 2:21-cv-01819-MCE-DMC Plaintiff, v. MEMORANDUM AND ORDER COUNTY OF SHASTA, a municipal corporation; Agent TYLER FINCH, of the Shasta County Interagency Narcotics Task Force; and DOES 1 to 10, inclusive, Defendants. 17 18 Through the present lawsuit, Plaintiff Seing Chao (“Plaintiff”) alleges that she 19 sustained injuries and damages because of a faulty search warrant obtained by the 20 Shasta Interagency Narcotics Task Force (“SINTF”), a collaborative effort to reduce 21 narcotics within Defendant Shasta County (“County”). According to the currently 22 operative First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), ECF No. 9, SINTF is headed by the 23 County’s Sheriff’s Office and is comprised of representatives from that office, the Shasta 24 County Probation Department, the police departments of the cities of Redding and 25 Anderson, and the California Highway Patrol. FAC, ¶ 6. Plaintiff avers that SINTF 26 “functions as an informal association of these component members setting joint policies 27 and practices for conducting drug investigations and raids.” Id. at ¶ 7. 28 1 1 The FAC asserts nine separate claims for relief, including six causes of action for 2 violations of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution under 42 U.S.C. 3 § 1983 as well as state common law claims for battery and for negligent use of force. 4 Federal jurisdiction is premised on 28 U.S.C. § 1331 given Plaintiff’s assertion of § 1983 5 claims. 6 Presently before the Court is Defendant County’s Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 12) 7 the three causes of action asserted against it under § 1983, brought pursuant to Federal 8 Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), on grounds that Plaintiff’s FAC fails to state viable 9 claims. As set forth below, Defendant’s Motion is GRANTED. 10 11 BACKGROUND1 12 13 On or about August 19, 2020, a judge of the Shasta County Superior Court issued 14 a search warrant for four properties located at 22350 Old Alturas Road, 10508 Hobbie 15 Acres Drive, 10493/10491 Daysha Way in Redding, California, and 4741 Fowl Lane in 16 Anderson, California. Search Warrant and Affidavit, attached to Pl.’s FAC at ECF 9-2. 17 The warrant was premised on a probable cause affidavit prepared by Defendant Todd 18 Finch, a peace officer with the City of Anderson and an agent with SINTF. 19 Plaintiff and her husband, Yoon Chao, own the Old Alturas Road property and 20 lived there. The Chaos further owned a limited liability company that held title to the 21 other three properties encompassed by the search warrant, which are rentals. 22 According to Defendant Finch’s probable cause affidavit, during an August 14, 2020, 23 aerial surveillance flight he “observed active marijuana grows” on three of the four 24 properties enumerated in the affidavit. FAC, ¶ 15, citing Warrant, at 1. With respect to 25 the Old Alturas Road property where the Chaos resided, Finch stated that he “could see 26 one large greenhouse that contained numerous green bush plants,” and that based on 27 28 1 Unless otherwise indicated, the facts set forth in this section are taken, at times verbatim, from the allegations contained in Plaintiff’s FAC, ECF No. 9. 2 1 his “training and experience” he recognized those plants as marijuana well over any 2 legal amount. Id. at ¶ 16, citing Warrant at 16. 3 While not disputing that tenants at their rental properties could have been growing 4 marijuana in violation of County ordinances, the Chaos claimed they never grew any 5 marijuana at their Old Alturas Road residence and instead cultivated exotic plants and 6 trees that Finch negligently misidentified as marijuana even though their greenhouse 7 was constructed of clear plastic unlike those employed by clandestine growers of illegal 8 marijuana. Nonetheless, based on Finch’s errors in both ground and aerial surveillance 9 of the property, he obtained a search warrant for the Chaos’ home which was executed 10 on August 20, 2020. 11 Upon arrival at the Old Alturas Road property, SINTF personnel, including 12 Defendant Finch, immediately handcuffed Plaintiff, her husband, and three other 13 individuals. Although Plaintiff warned agents that due to a disability, she could not walk 14 quickly or move backwards, an unidentified SINTF agent, named in the complaint as 15 Doe 1, nonetheless demanded she walk backwards when moving her to a central 16 location on the property. Doe 1 allegedly “yanked [Plaintiff] with great force” when she 17 was unable to keep up with his pace, causing Plaintiff to fall, land on her buttocks, and 18 break her spine in two locations. FAC, ¶ 23. Although Defendant Finch witnessed the 19 fall along with other SINTF agents, no one checked on her condition or summoned 20 medical help. To the contrary, Doe 1 allegedly proceeded to kick Plaintiff in the lower 21 back in an effort to make her get up. 22 The search of the greenhouse revealed it was indeed stocked only with well- 23 established exotic plants and trees, with no evidence of marijuana being found despite 24 Finch’s probable cause affidavit that it was “full” of the substance. 25 Plaintiff asserts that as a result of the spinal fractures she suffered she had to 26 remain in orthopedic braces for months and still cannot sit for more than short lengths of 27 time because of ongoing pain. 28 /// 3 As pleaded against Defendant Shasta County, Plaintiff’s FAC contains three 1 2 causes of action brought under the auspices of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Fourth Amendment 3 violations. Those claims stem from theories of public entity liability recognized by the 4 Supreme Court in Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), and in 5 subsequent decisions interpreting and extending Monell. Under Monell and its progeny, 6 a public entity can be directly liable to an injured plaintiff for constitutional deprivations 7 caused by the entity’s policies, practices and customs. More specifically, the Second 8 Claim for Relief alleges that SINTF agents acted “pursuant to Shasta County’s 9 widespread and longstanding policy, practices, and customs of using excessive force 10 against search warrant detainees.” FAC, ¶ 80. That cause of action alternatively claims 11 that Shasta County’s training policies were inadequate to prevent the excessive force 12 inflicted upon Plaintiff. The Fourth Claim for Relief similarly asserts that in the face of the 13 excessive force facilitated by Shasta County, the County was deliberately indifferent to 14 the injuries and damages sustained by Plaintiff. Finally, by way of the Sixth Claim, 15 Plaintiff asserts that the County’s policies, practices and customs in seeking warrants not 16 supported by probable cause also contributed to Plaintiff’s injuries and damages. In now moving to dismiss, the County argues that to prevail on Plaintiff’s so-called 17 18 Monell claims, Plaintiff must show not only facts tending to establish the alleged custom 19 and practice, but also demonstrate that said practices were the “moving force” behind 20 the alleged violations. The County claims that Plaintiff’s allegations as presently 21 constituted fail to meet those prerequisites. Plaintiff further asserts that because 22 Defendant Finch was employed by the Anderson Police Department, to the extent 23 Finch’s actions were shaped by the training policies, and customs of his employer, that 24 employer was not Shasta County in any event. 25 /// 26 /// 27 /// 28 /// 4 1 STANDARD 2 3 On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil 4 Procedure 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact must be accepted as true and 5 construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. 6 Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996). Rule 8(a)(2) “requires only ‘a short and plain 7 statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief’ in order to ‘give the 8 defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’” Bell 9 Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 10 47 (1957)). A complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not require 11 detailed factual allegations. However, “a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of 12 his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic 13 recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (internal citations and 14 quotations omitted). A court is not required to accept as true a “legal conclusion 15 couched as a factual allegation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting 16 Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief 17 above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing 5 Charles Alan Wright & 18 Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216 (3d ed. 2004) (stating that the 19 pleading must contain something more than “a statement of facts that merely creates a 20 suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action”)). 21 Furthermore, “Rule 8(a)(2) . . . requires a showing, rather than a blanket 22 assertion, of entitlement to relief.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 (internal citations and 23 quotations omitted). Thus, “[w]ithout some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard 24 to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirement of providing not only ‘fair notice’ of 25 the nature of the claim, but also ‘grounds’ on which the claim rests.” Id. (citing Wright & 26 Miller, supra, at 94, 95). A pleading must contain “only enough facts to state a claim to 27 relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. If the “plaintiffs . . . have not nudged their 28 claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed.” 5 1 Id. However, “a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that 2 actual proof of those facts is improbable, and ‘that a recovery is very remote and 3 unlikely.’” Id. at 556 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). 4 A court granting a motion to dismiss a complaint must then decide whether to 5 \grant leave to amend. Leave to amend should be “freely given” where there is no 6 “undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, . . . undue prejudice 7 to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [or] futility of [the] 8 amendment . . . .” Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962); Eminence Capital, LLC v. 9 Aspeon, Inc., 316 F.3d 1048, 1052 (9th Cir. 2003) (listing the Foman factors as those to 10 be considered when deciding whether to grant leave to amend). Not all of these factors 11 merit equal weight. Rather, “the consideration of prejudice to the opposing party . . . 12 carries the greatest weight.” Id. (citing DCD Programs, Ltd. v. Leighton, 833 F.2d 183, 13 185 (9th Cir. 1987)). Dismissal without leave to amend is proper only if it is clear that 14 “the complaint could not be saved by any amendment.” Intri-Plex Techs., Inc. v. Crest 15 Group, Inc., 499 F.3d 1048, 1056 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing In re Daou Sys., Inc., 411 F.3d 16 1006, 1013 (9th Cir. 2005); Ascon Props., Inc. v. Mobil Oil Co., 866 F.2d 1149, 1160 (9th 17 Cir. 1989) (“Leave need not be granted where the amendment of the complaint . . . 18 constitutes an exercise in futility . . . .”)). 19 20 ANALYSIS 21 22 A. 23 With respect to Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims against the County of Shasta, a public Section 1983 Claims 24 entity like the County is subject to liability for the violation of a federally-protected right 25 that can be attributed to 1) an express municipal policy like an ordinance, regulation or 26 policy statement (Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. at 691; 2) a 27 “widespread practice that, although not authorized by written law or express municipal 28 policy, is ‘so permanent and well settled as to constitute a ‘custom or usage’ with the 6 1 force of law” (City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 127 (1988); 3) the decision of 2 a person with “final policymaking authority” (id. at 123); or 4) inadequate training that is 3 deliberately indifferent to an individual’s constitutional rights (City of Canton v. Harris, 4 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989)). 5 In pleading a § 1983 claim against a public entity under one or more of the above 6 theories, the Ninth Circuit has made it clear that the standards articulated by the 7 Supreme Court in Twombly and Iqbal apply. AE ex rel. Hernandez v. County of Tulare, 8 666 F.3d 631, 636 (9th Cir. 2012). As Iqbal noted, threadbare allegations of a cause of 9 action’s requirements, supported by mere conclusory statements, must be ignored, with 10 only “well pleaded factual allegations” being sufficient to withstand pleading inquiry. 11 Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79. Iqbal’s directive has been extended in the context 12 of municipal liability claims to require specific factual averments, including both 13 identifying the challenged policy/custom, delineating how the policy/custom at issue was 14 deficient, and identifying how any deliberate indifference occasioned thereby harmed the 15 plaintiff. See Young v. City of Visalia, 687 F. Supp. 2d 1141, 1149 (E.D. Cal. 2009). 16 As indicated above, Plaintiff’s claims here are predicated both upon the County’s 17 alleged customs and practices, and its purported failure to properly train its staff. The 18 factual support for those allegations, however, is amorphous. Plaintiff contends that the 19 County has “a policy of discouraging the cultivation of marijuana. . . through the use of 20 heavy-handed tactics, including abusive search warrants that are not supported by 21 probable cause and searches, seizures, and detentions that violate the Fourth 22 Amendment and other law.” FAC, ¶ 52. Plaintiff further alleges that “Shasta County . . . 23 failed to train, failed to supervise, failed to discipline, and failed to adequately screen the 24 agents who participate in SINTF so that they were aware of the limits of actions they 25 could take when investigating marijuana cultivation, would not make false statements in 26 affidavits of probable cause in support of search warrants, and would not use force that 27 is excessive in light of the circumstances.” Id. at ¶ 58. 28 In the Second and Fourth Claims in particular, Plaintiff alleges that the County 7 1 had “widespread and longstanding policy, practices and customs of using excessive 2 force against search warrant detainees” and that the County’s “training policies were 3 inadequate with respect to the use of such excessive force as to detainees.” FAC, 4 ¶¶ 80-81, 100-01. In the Sixth Count, Plaintiff further contends that the County’s training 5 policies “were not adequate to prevent violation of law” with respect to “the identification 6 of marijuana and the preparation of related warrant affidavits.” Id. at ¶ 124. In all three 7 claims asserted against the County, Plaintiff alleges that “Shasta County took no steps to 8 appropriately discipline, remediate, counsel, retrain or otherwise correct its employees 9 and servants with respect to the safe and appropriate use of law enforcement 10 procedures regarding the remote and onsite investigation of and entry upon a person’s 11 property and the detention of persons on the property.” Id. at ¶¶ 84, 104, 127. 12 As the County notes, the “policy, practices and customs” set forth in the FAC are 13 vague, unsupported by factual specifics, and largely simply track the elements for stating 14 a Monell claim. Nor is there any further specificity as to the lack of training: for the most 15 part, Plaintiff’s allegations can be reduced to the claim that because Finch and the other 16 officers allegedly violated Plaintiff’s rights, inadequate training must be the cause. This 17 is insufficient under Iqbal, which as stated above requires specific factual averments that 18 transcend simple legal conclusions. Beyond the contention that the County had a policy 19 of discouraging the cultivation of marijuana through the use of heavy-handed tactics (id. 20 at ¶¶ 82, 102, 125), little else is provided to support the requisite custom and practice. 21 Nor does Plaintiff state what training the agents received, why that training was 22 inadequate, or why the training created obvious risks. 23 In addition, Plaintiff’s attempt to impose liability on the County here rests upon a 24 single specific instance of allegedly unconstitutional behavior in obtaining and executing 25 the search warrant against Plaintiff’s home. An adequately pleaded claim under Monell 26 generally cannot be predicated upon such a single instance. See, e.g., City of 27 Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 823-24 (1985) (“a single incident of 28 unconstitutional activity is not sufficient to impose liability under Monell.”); Christie v. 8 1 Iopa, 176 F.3d 1231, 1235 (9th Cir. 1999); (“A single constitutional deprivation ordinarily 2 is insufficient to establish a longstanding practice or custom.”). While Plaintiff vaguely 3 alleges that SINTF engaged in “repeated misdeeds” (see FAC at ¶ 62), those allegations 4 are factually insufficient in the absence of any information as to what those alleged 5 misdeeds were, how and when they occurred, or how similar they were to the 6 circumstances of the present matter. 7 While the FAC also asserts that the County is liable for Defendant Finch’s conduct 8 because he was somehow the “final policymaker for the County” in obtaining the warrant 9 and executing the search (see id. at ¶ 61), that argument fares no better. Finch was not 10 even an employee of the County, and the fact that the County may have spearheaded 11 SINTF does not convert Finch into the County’s “final policymaker” even if he was, as 12 Plaintiff alleges, the “acting commander” for SINTF. There are no facts suggesting that 13 the County’s affiliation with SINTF anoints SINTF with the County’s last word on drug 14 enforcement policy, as opposed to other responsible officials directly working for the 15 County itself.2 16 17 CONCLUSION 18 19 For all the above reasons, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 12) is 20 GRANTED, with leave to amend.3 If Plaintiff wishes to file a Second Amended 21 Complaint, she is directed to do so not later than twenty (20) days following the date this 22 Memorandum and Order is electronically filed. Failure to timely file an amended 23 pleading will result in dismissal of the claims already dismissed by this Order, with 24 2 25 26 27 28 The County also argues Defendant Finch’s conduct can have no bearing whatsoever on its potential liability under Monell simply because he was employed by the City of Anderson and not by the County of Shasta. That argument is unpersuasive. Given the FAC’s allegation that the County, through its Sheriff’s Department, “heads up” SINTF and presumably exerts some control over its operation, Officer Finch’s conduct could be relevant to the County’s liability under a properly stated set of facts. 3 Having determined that oral argument would not be of material assistance, the Court ordered the Motion submitted on the briefs pursuant to E.D. Cal. Local R. 230(g). 9 1 2 prejudice and without further notice to the parties. IT IS SO ORDERED. 3 4 Dated: September 14, 2022 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 10

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?