A.H. v. Sacramento Cnty. Dept. Child, Family & Adult Servs.

Decision Date22 March 2022
Docket Number2:21-cv-00690-KJM-JDP
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of California
PartiesAH., et al., Plaintiffs, v. Sacramento County Dept. Child, Family and Adult Services, et al., Defendants.
ORDER

Cynthia Martin and her three minor children, A.H., E.H., and C.G through their guardian ad litem Mary E. James, bring this action after defendants temporarily took custody of the minors. Defendants Sacramento County Department of Child Family and Adult Services and Brenda Bryant move to dismiss the claims against them. For the reasons below, the court grants the motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Cynthia Martin (Martin) and nonparty Jeffrey Martin are the parents of minor plaintiffs: A.H., E.H., and C.G. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 24, 31, ECF No. 1. In February 2019, A.H. fell at school and staff members inspected him for injury. Id. ¶¶ 23, 77(d). As part of the inspection the staff had A.H. strip naked without the consent and presence of Martin. Id. ¶ 23. The inspection uncovered a burn on A.H.'s leg, which the staff believed Martin caused based on A.H.'s description of how the burn occurred. Id. at 23-24. A mandated reporter informed Child Protective Services (CPS). Id. ¶ 23.

As a result, Martin was listed on the Child Abuse Central Index (CACI), id. ¶ 36, and Brenda Bryant, a social worker with the Sacramento County Department of Child, Family and Adult Services (DCFAS) went to the plaintiffs' home to investigate, id. ¶¶ 6, 31. On her first visit after this incident, Bryant told Jeffrey Martin he should seek full custody of the children but following that meeting he moved to another state. Id. ¶ 31. When Bryant returned to the plaintiffs' home, she had a protective custody warrant for the minor plaintiffs. Id. ¶¶ 33-34. Bryant removed A.H. from the home and left instructions for E.H., and C.G. to be dropped off at the Children's Receiving Home. Id. Eventually Martin regained custody of her children and the court dismissed the case against her, but Martin's name remains on the CACI list. Id. ¶ 38. Plaintiffs maintain there was no reason for defendants to remove the children because any reports of abuse were false. Id. ¶ 35.

Plaintiffs bring this action against DCFAS by and through CPS, Elk Grove Unified School District, Bryant, Maas, and Does 1-25.[1] See generally Compl. The plaintiffs sue the individual defendants in their individual and official capacities. Id. ¶¶ 6 & 9. Plaintiffs bring five claims. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 the plaintiffs allege: 1) unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment against all defendants; 2) retaliation in violation of the First Amendment against all defendants; 3) procedural and substantive due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment against Bryant and Maas and Does 1-25; and, 4) Monell liability against DCFAS, CPS, and Elk Grove Unified School District. Under state law the plaintiffs allege intentional infliction of emotional distress against all defendants.

Previously, Elk Grove Unified School District and Susanna Maas moved to dismiss, Mot. ECF No. 7; Mem., ECF No. 7-1. The court granted the motion and dismissed Elk Grove Unified School District and Maas over the plaintiffs' opposition. Prev. Order (Sept. 20, 2021), ECF No. 20; Opp'n, ECF No. 9.

The remaining defendants now move to dismiss. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 30. The motion is fully briefed and submitted without oral argument. Opp'n, ECF No. 33; Reply, ECF No. 34; Min Order, ECF No. 35.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A party may move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The motion may be granted only if the complaint lacks a “cognizable legal theory” or if its factual allegations do not support a cognizable legal theory. Hartmann v. Cal. Dep't of Corr. & Rehab., 707 F.3d 1114, 1122 (9th Cir. 2013). The court assumes all factual allegations are true and construes “them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Steinle v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 919 F.3d 1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2019). If the complaint's allegations do not “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief, ” the motion must be granted. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).

A complaint need contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), not “detailed factual allegations, ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). But this rule demands more than unadorned accusations; “sufficient factual matter” must make the claim at least plausible. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. In the same vein, conclusory or formulaic recitations of elements do not alone suffice. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). This evaluation of plausibility is a context-specific task drawing on “judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679.

III. ANALYSIS
A. Official Capacity

The plaintiffs sue Bryant in both her official and individual capacity. Compl. ¶ 6. The defendants move to dismiss the claims against Bryant in her official capacity as redundant of the suit against DCFAS. Mot. at 4. Plaintiffs oppose, relying on case law addressing supervisory liability and qualified immunity. Opp'n at 5. However, neither body of case law addresses the issue here. Because [a]n official capacity suit against a municipal officer is equivalent to a suit against the entity. . . . the court may dismiss the officer as a redundant defendant when the officer is sued in her official capacity. Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Los Angeles Cnty. Sheriff Dep't, 533 F.3d 780, 799 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). Thus, to the extent Bryant is sued in her official capacity, the claims are redundant, and the court dismisses them without leave to amend. However, plaintiffs may still be able to allege claims against Bryant in her individual or personal capacity to the extent consistent with the discussion below.

B. Fourth Amendment

Next, the defendants move to dismiss the plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim for unreasonable search and seizure. Mot. at 4.

Regarding Martin, defendants argue she may not allege a Fourth Amendment violation because she was not subject to search or seizure. Id. In response, the plaintiffs cite Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding (Safford), 557 U.S. 364 (2009), a case in which a mother sued a school alleging that the strip search the school subjected her daughter to was in violation of the [Fourth] Amendment . . . .” Opp'n at 6. While it was the mother who filed the suit, the relevant claim was an alleged violation of the minor daughter's Fourth Amendment rights. Safford, 557 U.S. at 369. The court does not read Safford as allowing a mother to assert her own Fourth Amendment claim based on the defendant's search of her child. To the extent the mother was involved in asserting her daughter's claim, it was likely in her capacity as guardian ad litem, a role Martin is not filling here. See Prev. Order at 4. There is no basis for finding Martin can assert her children's rights vicariously given the personal nature of Fourth Amendment rights. See Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 133-34 (1978) (citation omitted). As an unreasonable search or seizure is an essential element of a § 1983 claim alleging a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from search, see Karam v. City of Burbank, 352 F.3d 1188, 1193 (9th Cir. 2003), Martin's Fourth Amendment claim is dismissed with leave to amend, if possible, within the confines of Rule 11. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b); Sonoma Cnty. Ass'n of Retired Emps. v. Sonoma Cnty., 708 F.3d 1109, 1117 (9th Cir. 2013) (Courts may decline to grant leave to amend only if there is strong evidence of ‘undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, [or] futility of amendment, etc.' (citation omitted)).

Regarding the minor plaintiffs, defendants argue that although the minor plaintiffs were taken into protective custody, the seizure was pursuant to a valid warrant. Mot. at 5. [T]he Fourth Amendment safeguards children's ‘right . . . to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable . . . seizures' without a warrant.” Kirkpatrick v. Cnty. of Washoe, 843 F.3d 784, 789 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV). It “protects a child's right to be free from unreasonable seizure by a social worker.” Dees v. Cnty. of San Diego, 960 F.3d 1145, 1154 (9th Cir. 2020) (citation omitted), cert. denied sub nom., 141 S.Ct. 1501 (2021). “Under the Fourth Amendment, government officials are ordinarily required to obtain prior judicial authorization before removing a child from the custody of her parent.” Kirkpatrick, 843 F.3d at 790. A warrantless seizure is only permissible if done based on a reasonable belief “the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury and that the scope of the intrusion is reasonably necessary to avert that specific injury.” Wallis v. Spencer, 202 F.3d 1126, 1138 (9th Cir. 2000).

Here as the complaint itself alleges, Bryant obtained a warrant before taking custody of the children. Compl. ¶ 33. Warrants--and the affidavits supporting them--are entitled to “a presumption of validity.” Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171 (1978) (discussing search warrants). A warrant may be invalidated if the defendant engaged in judicial deception to obtain it. See Keates v. Koile, 883 F.3d 1228, 1240 (9th Cir. 2018). A judicial deception claim requires a showing that (1) the defendant official deliberately fabricated evidence and (2) the deliberate fabrication caused the plaintiff's deprivation of liberty.” Id. The plaintiffs allege the defendants' conduct lacked “any sufficient factual...

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