Branson v. Nott

Decision Date14 November 1994
Docket NumberNo. 94-55332,94-55332
Citation62 F.3d 287
Parties95 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 5994, 95 Daily Journal D.A.R. 10,312 Ronald BRANSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Michael G. NOTT; Morio L. Fukuto; Ray L. Hart; Jerry K. Fields; Estella Guevara; Zahava Stroud; and Morris, Polich & Purdy, P.C., a licensed law firm, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Page 287

62 F.3d 287
95 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 5994, 95 Daily Journal
D.A.R. 10,312
Ronald BRANSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Michael G. NOTT; Morio L. Fukuto; Ray L. Hart; Jerry K.
Fields; Estella Guevara; Zahava Stroud; and
Morris, Polich & Purdy, P.C., a licensed
law firm, Defendants-Appellees.
No. 94-55332.
United States Court of Appeals,
Ninth Circuit.
Submitted Nov. 14, 1994 *.
Decided Aug. 1, 1995.

Page 289

Ronald Branson, Granada Hills, CA, in pro. per.

Douglas J. Collodel, Morris, Polich & Purdy, Los Angeles, CA; Christopher C. Foley, Deputy Atty. Gen., Los Angeles, CA, for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before: CHOY, SKOPIL, and FERGUSON, Circuit Judges.

CHOY, Circuit Judge:

Ronald Branson appeals pro se the district court's dismissal of his pro se 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 civil rights action and award of attorney's fees to defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988. We affirm the district court's dismissal of Branson's claim, but vacate the grant of attorney's fees.

I.

Branson's Sec. 1983 claim arises out of a purported tort suit that he filed in propria persona in California state court over eight years ago. Branson alleges that in adjudicating his state claim, the defendant attorneys, superior court clerk, state trial judge and appellate justices, individually and through a conspiracy, deprived him of his right to procedural due process secured by the Fourteenth Amendment. In essence, Branson alleged that the defendants impeded his access to certain perceived statutory rights, including a "right to entry of default" and the right to voluntarily dismiss his suit.

In his underlying state action, filed on April 7, 1987, Branson sought damages from the County of Los Angeles and several law enforcement officers for allegedly falsely arresting and imprisoning him. 1 Branson v.

Page 290

County of Los Angeles, No. C643013 (Cal.Super.Ct. filed Apr. 7, 1987). On May 1, 1990, after finally being served with the complaint nearly three years after its filing, the County of Los Angeles and two of the defendant law enforcement officers jointly filed a demurrer to Branson's complaint and a motion to dismiss the action for lack of prosecution. One of the defendants, Sergeant Smith, failed to respond to the complaint. On May 14, 1990, Branson requested that a default judgment be entered against Sergeant Smith. However, a Los Angeles County Superior Court deputy clerk, Estella Guevara, did not enter the default. On May 25, 1990, Sergeant Smith filed a motion to quash the service of process, stating in his motion that he was never served with the complaint. California Superior Court Judge Jerry K. Fields, a defendant in the case at bar, found that Sergeant Smith had not been properly served, granted Smith's motion to quash the purported service of process, and dismissed Smith from the case.

On June 11, 1990, Judge Fields sustained in part and overruled in part the remaining defendants' demurrer and provided Branson with the opportunity to amend his complaint. Rather than avail himself of this opportunity, Branson filed a motion to vacate the demurrer ruling and moved to dismiss his case. On August 22, 1990, Judge Fields granted the defendants' motion to dismiss Branson's action for failure to prosecute.

Branson appealed to the California Court of Appeal, claiming that the trial court improperly quashed service of process on Sergeant Smith and that he was entitled to have a default judgment entered against Sergeant Smith. Branson also appealed the trial court's ruling on defendants' demurrer, its dismissal of Branson's claim for failure to prosecute, and claimed that Judge Fields should be "disqualified." In an unpublished opinion authored by Justice Michael G. Nott, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment against Branson. Branson v. County of Los Angeles, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 210, 121 L.Ed.2d 150 (Cal.Ct.App.1992). The California Supreme Court denied his petition for review and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Branson v. County of Los Angeles, No. S025746 (Cal.S.Ct. Apr. 29, 1992) (in bank), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 210, 121 L.Ed.2d 150 (1992).

Branson then filed this action in federal district court for the Central District of California under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. In this purported Sec. 1983 action, Branson alleges that his right to procedural due process was violated by (1) the superior court clerk's failure to enter a default judgment against Sergeant Smith; (2) the California appellate justices' alleged failure to review the default issue, the ruling on demurrer, and the denial of his motion for a voluntary dismissal; 2 (3) the judge and attorney defendants' conspiracy to have his case dismissed for lack of prosecution; and (4) as part of the conspiracy, the appellate justices' failure to review Branson's argument for a voluntary dismissal and request for review of the demurrer ruling.

The defendant California appellate justices moved to dismiss Branson's complaint pursuant

Page 291

to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on the grounds that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Branson's claims and that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The remaining defendants filed a separate memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss, arguing, among other things, 3 that Branson's complaint is barred by the applicable statute of limitation. The latter defendants also requested that the court impose both monetary and injunctive Rule 11 sanctions against Branson. In particular, the defendants requested that the court fine Branson in the amount of the attorney's fees they incurred in defending against his lawsuit, and require Branson to submit with any future pleadings or complaints an affidavit, swearing under oath the truth of the facts supporting the claims made in the pleading. In response, Branson maintained that his complaint should not be dismissed, that it was not frivolous, and sought sanctions against defendants' counsel, whose competence and integrity he repeatedly attacked. 4

In a terse Order dated February 28, 1994, the district court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss Branson's Sec. 1983 action on the ground that it was barred by the applicable one-year statute of limitation. 5 Branson v. Nott, No. CV 93-5967 ER (GHKx) (C.D.Cal. Feb. 28, 1994). Pursuant to the civil rights attorney's fee provision, 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1988, the district court further ordered Branson to pay to the defendants the $3465.00 in attorney's fees and costs they incurred in defending against Branson's action which it found to be "frivolous and an abuse of the judicial process." Id. at 1. The district court did not mention the propriety of Rule 11 sanctions at the hearing on the motion or in its dismissal Order.

Branson timely appealed the district court's Order.

II.

We may affirm the decision of the district court on any basis which the record supports. United States v. Washington, 969 F.2d 752, 755 (9th Cir.1992), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 1945, 123 L.Ed.2d 651 (1993). We find that dismissal of Branson's complaint was required because the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his purported Sec. 1983 claim.

Whether subject matter jurisdiction exists is a question of law. Nike, Inc. v. Comercial Iberica de Exclusivas Deportivas, S.A., 20 F.3d 987, 990 (9th Cir.1994). As courts of original jurisdiction, federal district courts have no authority to review the final determinations of a state court in judicial proceedings. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 1314, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983); Worldwide Church of God v. McNair, 805 F.2d 888, 890 (9th Cir.1986). This is true even when the challenge to a state court decision involves federal constitutional issues. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 484-86, 103 S.Ct. at 1316; Worldwide Church of...

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