17 Cal.4th 340, S057270, Pitts v. County of Kern

Docket Nº:S057270
Citation:17 Cal.4th 340, 70 Cal.Rptr.2d 823, 949 P.2d 920
Opinion Judge:[11] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brown
Party Name:Pitts v. County of Kern
Attorney:[7] Attorneys for Appellant: Stanley M. Becker for Plaintiffs and Appellants. [8] Attorneys for Respondent: B. C. Barmann, Sr., County Counsel, Mark L. Nations, Chief Deputy County Counsel, Lynda M. Taylor, Deputy County Counsel, Robinson, Palmer & Stanton, Robinson, Palmer & Logan and William D....
Case Date:January 29, 1998
Court:Supreme Court of California
 
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Page 340

17 Cal.4th 340

70 Cal.Rptr.2d 823, 949 P.2d 920

RICKY LYNN PITTS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

COUNTY OF KERN et al., Defendants and Respondents.

COLLEEN DILL FORSYTHE et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,

v.

COUNTY OF KERN et al., Defendants and Respondents.

S057270.

Supreme Court of California

January 29, 1998

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COUNSEL

Stanley M. Becker for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

B. C. Barmann, Sr., County Counsel, Mark L. Nations, Chief Deputy County Counsel, Lynda M. Taylor, Deputy County Counsel, Robinson, Palmer & Stanton, Robinson, Palmer & Logan and William D. Palmer for Defendants and Respondents.

John J. Sansone, County Counsel (San Diego), Diane Bardsley, Chief Deputy County Counsel, Morris G. Hill, Deputy County Counsel, Paul J. Pfingst, District Attorney (San Diego), Edward J. Mantyla, Brian E. Michaels and Thomas F. McArdle, Deputy District Attorneys, and Ruth Sorensen as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

BROWN, J.—

A local government, such as a county, is a "person" within the meaning of 42 United States Code section 1983 (section 1983); hence a

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local government may be found liable for damages under this section. In contrast, neither a state nor state officials sued in their official capacity are "person[s]" within the meaning of section 1983 when sued for damages; hence neither may be found liable under the statute. Here we address whether, for purposes of local government damages liability, a California district attorney acts on behalf of the state or the county when preparing to prosecute and while prosecuting criminal violations of state law, and when establishing policy and training employees in these areas. If we conclude the district attorney acts on behalf of the state, our inquiry is over. If, however, we conclude a district attorney acts on behalf of the county, we must also consider whether the absolute immunity afforded the district attorney in this case under section 1983 also immunizes the county.

The Court of Appeal concluded there was a triable issue of fact as to the first issue, and that a county is not immune merely because its district attorney is immune. We conclude that the issue of whether a district attorney is a policymaker for the county is one of law, not fact, and that the district attorney represents the state, not the county, when preparing to prosecute and when prosecuting crimes, and when establishing policy and training employees in these areas. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

In 1985, Ricky Lynn Pitts, Marcella Pitts, Colleen Dill Forsythe, Grace Dill, Wayne Dill, Jr., Gina Miller, and Wayne Forsythe were convicted of numerous sex offenses committed against several children.1 Those individuals were either related to the children or acquaintances of the relatives. (People v. Pitts, supra, 223 Cal.App.3d 606, 634, 636.) In 1990, the convictions were reversed on appeal because of prosecutorial misconduct. (223 Cal.App.3d at pp. 690, 915.) In December 1990, the defendants in the

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criminal action were released from state prison. According to the Court of Appeal, and undisputed by the parties, in 1991 the district attorney dismissed the charges, and by 1994 all of the child witnesses had recanted and claimed their testimony was coerced.

On March 31, 1992, Ricky Lynn Pitts and Marcella Pitts filed a third amended complaint against Kern County (County), Edward Jagels, individually and as District Attorney of Kern County (Jagels), Michael Vendrasco, a deputy district attorney and chief prosecutor in the Pitts criminal case (Vendrasco), Carol Darling, sex abuse program coordinator of the Kern County District Attorney's office (Darling), Andrew Gindes, a deputy district attorney and a prosecutor in the Pitts criminal case, Kern County Department of Human Services, Child Protective Services, Larry Kleier, individually and as Sheriff of Kern County, Deputy Sheriff Jesse Sneed of the Kern County Sheriff's Department, and Kern County Sheriff's Department Sergeants Bob Fields, Brad Darling, and Jack Rutledge, and other defendants, alleging in part civil rights violations based on alleged misconduct during the criminal prosecution. (People v. Pitts, supra, 223 Cal.App.3d at pp. 638, 640, 641.) The Pittses sought compensatory and punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.

On December 3, 1992, Colleen Dill Forsythe, Grace Dill, and Gina Miller filed a fourth amended complaint, which, as relevant here, made similar allegations against the same parties, and sought similar damages. The trial court consolidated the two cases. (Ricky Lynn Pitts, Marcella Pitts, Colleen Dill Forsythe, Grace Dill, and Gina Miller are hereafter referred to as plaintiffs.)

The County, Jagels, individually and as district attorney, Vendrasco, and Darling filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that plaintiffs' allegations were barred by absolute prosecutorial immunity, and that the County was immune for any acts for which these individual defendants were immune. Summary judgment was entered for Jagels (both as an individual and as district attorney), Vendrasco, and Darling.

The trial court entered summary judgment for the County on two grounds. First, it concluded the County was absolutely immune from liability for any act for which Jagels, Vendrasco, and Darling had immunity. Second, it concluded the County had no ability to hire, fire, or discipline Jagels, who was an elected public official, "or suggest how he should run his department."

Following this ruling, the County successfully moved to sever and for separate trial on the claims against the County based on the conduct of the

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remaining defendants. At the remaining defendants' trial, the court granted motions for nonsuit on behalf of Gindes and Kleier, and dismissed the action as to Sneed. The jury returned special verdicts finding that none of the other defendants—Rutledge, Fields, and Brad Darling—had violated any constitutional right of the plaintiffs. The court thereafter granted the County's motion to dismiss, and entered judgment in its favor.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the entry of summary judgment for Jagels, Vendrasco, and Darling. It reversed summary judgment as to the County. In reversing the trial court's first basis for entering summary judgment for the County, the Court of Appeal concluded a county is not automatically immune from liability for any act for which its employees or elected officials have absolute immunity.

In rejecting the second basis, the Court of Appeal stated that a California district attorney has attributes of both a state and local officer. "Lacking some persuasive authority, we cannot hold as a matter of law that Jagels was not a county policymaker for section 1983 purposes." "Here, the plaintiffs presented evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could find coercive and threatening conduct on the part of members of the district attorney's office. The alleged conduct exceeded the clearly established legal norms for preparing witnesses for trial. [Citation.] County is not entitled to summary judgment unless it established that the conduct did not result from a policy or custom to procure false statements and/or testimony and/or that County did not have a deliberate indifference towards its obligation to supervise or train the employees of the district attorney's office adequately. County did not do so. Instead, it merely denied the plaintiffs' allegations. It produced no evidence establishing that County policies did not promote the unlawful conduct in question, or that the policies of the district attorney's office did not constitute official county policy." The court concluded several triable issues of material fact remained: Was Jagels a policymaker for the County for purposes of section 1983; did any of the alleged prosecutorial conduct result from a county policy or custom; and did plaintiffs suffer any constitutional injury as a result of that conduct.

We granted the County's petition for review.

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II. Discussion

A. Background on Section 1983

Section 1983,2 a long-dormant Reconstruction-era civil rights statute, gained modern vitality in Monroe v. Pape (1961) 365 U.S. 167 [81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492], overruled in part by Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658, 663 [98 S.Ct. 2018, 2022, 56 L.Ed.2d 611]. (Schwartz, Litigating Section 1983 Claims: Civil Rights and Official Misconduct Cases in Federal and State Courts (Cont.Ed.Bar 1985) p. 1.) Its primary purposes are compensation and deterrence "for violations of federal rights committed by persons acting under color of state law." (Howlett v. Rose (1990) 496 U.S. 356, 358 [110 S.Ct. 2430, 2433, 110 L.Ed.2d 332], fn. omitted; Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc. (1981) 453 U.S. 247, 267-268 [101 S.Ct. 2748, 2759-2760, 69 L.Ed.2d 616].) Section 1983 claims may be brought in either state or federal court. (Howlett v. Rose, supra, 496 U.S. at p. 358 [110 S.Ct. at p. 2433].)

1. Which entities are " person [s]" (and hence potentially liable) under section 1983

Neither states nor state officials acting in their official capacities are "person[s]" within the meaning of section 1983 when sued for damages. (Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police (1989) 491 U.S. 58, 71, fn. 10 [109 S.Ct. 2304, 2312, 105 L.Ed.2d 45]; Howlett v. Rose, supra, 496 U.S. at p. 365 [110 S.Ct. at p. 2437] ["[T]he State and arms of the State ... are not subject to suit under § 1983 in either federal court or state court."].) Hence, neither can be...

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