68 Cal.App.4th 1166, B125965, County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court

Docket Nº:B125965
Citation:68 Cal.App.4th 1166, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 860
Opinion Judge:[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vogel (c.s.), P.j.
Party Name:County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court
Attorney:[7] Franscell, Strickland, Roberts & Lawrence, Scott D. MacLatchie, and Ann M. Maurer for Petitioner. No appearance for Respondent. Don Lindo for Real Party in Interest.
Case Date:December 29, 1998
Court:California Court of Appeals
 
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Page 1166

68 Cal.App.4th 1166

80 Cal.Rptr.2d 860

COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, Petitioner,

v.

THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Respondent;

REBECCA PETERS, Real Party in Interest.

No. B125965

California Court of Appeal, Second District, Fourth Division

December 29, 1998

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Franscell, Strickland, Roberts & Lawrence, Scott D. MacLatchie and Ann M. Maurer for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Don Lindo for Real Party in Interest.

OPINION

VOGEL (C. S.), P. J.—

Introduction

Plaintiff Rebecca Peters alleges that after plaintiff posted bail, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County and his deputies nevertheless detained plaintiff in the Los Angeles County jail for an additional 10 days, in reliance on a warrant which they reasonably should have known did not relate to her. Plaintiff seeks damages from the County of Los Angeles under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 United States Code section 1983 (hereinafter section 1983). A local entity such as the county can be liable under section 1983 only if the deprivation of rights was caused by an official policy or custom of the county, set by the county's lawmakers or by an official who speaks with final policymaking authority for the county. We hold plaintiff fails to plead a valid cause of action because, in setting the policies governing release of prisoners from the Los Angeles County jail, the Los Angeles County Sheriff acts as a state official rather than a policymaking official for the County of

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Los Angeles. (See McMillian v. Monroe County (1997) 520 U.S. 781 [117 S.Ct. 1734, 138 L.Ed.2d 1] (McMillian) [county sheriff in Alabama held to be a state official when acting in his law enforcement capacity]; Pitts v. County of Kern (1998) 17 Cal.4th 340 [70 Cal.Rptr.2d 823] (Pitts) [county district attorney held to be a state official when preparing to prosecute and when prosecuting crimes and when making policy or training employees in these areas].) We grant the county's petition for a writ of mandate to compel the superior court to sustain a demurrer to plaintiff's third cause of action against the county under section 1983.

Factual and Procedural Background

In a first amended complaint filed June 17, 1998, plaintiff sued the County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block (who has since died), and Does 1-40. Plaintiff asserted four causes of action, the only one of which concerns us here is the third, which attempts to plead a cause of action for damages under section 1983 against the County of Los Angeles. It is described as plaintiff's Monell cause of action, based on Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658 [98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611] (Monell), which holds that a local entity may be sued directly under section 1983 only when the alleged deprivation of rights "implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers," or when the injury is in "execution of a [local] government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy." (436 U.S. at pp. 690, 694 [98 S.Ct. at pp. 2035-2036, 2037-2038].)

Plaintiff alleged factually that between June 18, 1997, and June 28, 1997, plaintiff was imprisoned "without lawful justification, as plaintiff had posted bail to be released on or about June 18, 1997, but said defendants continued to detain plaintiff, in purported reliance on a warrant that they each knew or reasonably should have known did not apply to plaintiff." Plaintiff alleged, on information and belief, that Sheriff Block "was responsible for the development, establishment and/or implementation of the procedures, policies, regulations, practices and/or customs of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department ('LASD') with respect to its detention and release of prisoners." Plaintiff alleged there was an official policy of detaining, arresting, imprisoning, searching and harassing persons based on warrants for the arrest of other people; of failing to properly investigate claims of persons that they are not the person named in the warrant; and of failing to properly train, supervise, control, and discipline officers to prevent violations of the rights of persons wrongly arrested.

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The county demurred to the third cause of action on the ground that, by analogy to McMillian and Pitts, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County acted as a state official rather than a policymaking county official, therefore Los Angeles County cannot be liable for damages under section 1983. Plaintiff opposed the demurrer, attempting to distinguish McMillian and Pitts and contending that the sheriff acted as a county official in setting policies governing the county jail.

The trial court overruled the demurrer. The court stated, "[o]n balance, ... it appears that in operating the county jail system and setting up policies for the release of prisoners who have posted bail, the sheriff is acting as a local policy maker rather than as a state official who is immune from liability."

The county petitioned to this court for a writ of mandate to compel the trial court to sustain the demurrer. We issued an order to show cause why the writ should not issue. Having considered plaintiff's return to the order to show cause, and oral argument, we grant the writ.

Discussion

Propriety of Writ

Appellate courts are reluctant to intervene by extraordinary pretrial writ in matters of pleading. Occasionally an issue of great public importance prompts the court to depart from this policy. (Babb v. Superior Court (1971) 3 Cal.3d 841, 851 [92 Cal.Rptr. 179].) The recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court in McMillian and the California Supreme Court in Pitts raise important legal issues concerning the liability of local public entities for alleged violations of the Federal Civil Rights Act. If, as contended, the County of Los Angeles cannot be liable for policies of the Los Angeles County Sheriff because the sheriff acted as a state official, the county should not be compelled to defend this claim, or other similar cases. We issued an order to show cause so as to promptly resolve this important question of law.

Legal Background Regarding Potential Liability Under Section 1983

State courts have concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts to entertain suits brought under section 1983. (Williams v. Horvath (1976) 16 Cal.3d 834, 837 [129 Cal.Rptr. 453].) That statute provides in pertinent part, "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be

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subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other...

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