McDougal v. County of Imperial

Decision Date20 August 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-55774,90-55774
PartiesDonald C. McDOUGAL, Joyce R. McDougal, Donald C. McDougal, Jr., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. COUNTY OF IMPERIAL, John Kennerson, James Bucher, Tunney Williams, Herman Sperber, David Stump, David E. Pierson and Does 1 through 50, inclusive, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Susan J. Boyle, McDougal and Associates, La Jolla, Cal., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Michael T. Gibbs, David E. Czelusniak, Amy B. Vandeveld, Gibbs, Eppsteiner & Stagg, San Diego, Cal., for defendants-appellees.

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

Before CANBY and RYMER, Circuit Judges, and WARE, * District Judge.

RYMER, Circuit Judge:

This case involves a long-standing dispute over rights to use property and the right to regulate its use.

Donald C. McDougal, Joyce R. McDougal, and Donald C. McDougal, Jr. have sued the County of Imperial for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 & 1985(3) and for inverse condemnation. The district court dismissed their complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), holding that the § 1983 and § 1985(3) claims were barred by a one-year statute of limitations and that the McDougals failed to state a claim for inverse condemnation because the County's regulatory purpose was legitimate and therefore it could have no obligation to compensate for the denial of all use of their property.

We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm dismissal of the § 1983 and § 1985(3) claims. California's one-year general statute of limitations for personal injury actions, Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 340(3), applies to both. We reverse dismissal of the takings claim because the existence of a legitimate purpose does not automatically insulate a municipality from a claim for just compensation; a court must balance the substantiality of the public interest against the severity of the private interference.


The McDougals own real property in Imperial County on which they operate a commercial water business. As a result of their operation of this water business, they have been embroiled in litigation with the County for most of the last twenty years. The McDougals' troubles began in 1972, when they purchased property containing a water well from W. Erle Simpson (the "Simpson Well" property). This well was subject to a conditional use permit which restricted Simpson and subsequent owners to selling water derived from the well only for use within the County. Like Simpson, the McDougals pumped and commercially sold water from the well.

In June 1972, the McDougals entered into a contract with water brokers from Mexicali, Mexico to supply water for sale in Mexico. This deal resulted in intensified water operations which involved loading noisy, "unsightly" trucks with water, both day and night. The McDougals' neighbors grew irritated and complained to the County. In October 1972, the County sued the McDougals to enforce zoning restrictions and eliminate a nonconforming use on the property. It also sought to enforce the export restriction in the conditional use permit and to abate what it deemed to be a public nuisance. The trial court found in favor of the County and enjoined the McDougals' trucking operations. On appeal, the California Supreme Court upheld the permit restriction, but reversed the trial court's zoning holdings. County of Imperial v. McDougal, 19 Cal.3d 505, 564 P.2d 14, 138 Cal.Rptr. 472, appeal dismissed, 434 U.S. 944, 98 S.Ct. 469, 54 L.Ed.2d 306 (1977).

After the California Supreme Court decision, the McDougals' Mexican water buyers challenged the export restriction as unconstitutional. The district court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the County from enforcing the export restriction, and we affirmed. Munoz v. County of Imperial, 604 F.2d 1174 (9th Cir.1979). The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, indicating that the Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, barred suit unless the Mexican plaintiffs were "strangers" to the state court litigation. County of Imperial v. Munoz, 449 U.S. 54, 60, 101 S.Ct. 289, 66 L.Ed.2d 258 (1980). On remand, this was found to be the case and in 1983, a permanent injunction restraining enforcement of the restriction was entered.

The County then pursued the public nuisance claim. This action also went through various stages and was expanded to cover a second well which the McDougals drilled on the same property in June 1978. In February 1982, the trial court issued a permanent injunction abating the nuisance. The California Court of Appeal affirmed on March 4, 1988.

In the meantime, while the McDougals and the County were wrangling over the use of the Simpson Well property, the McDougals purchased the "Clifford Well" property in 1977. They extended their water operations to this property. 1 Soon after the McDougals purchased this parcel, the County passed an ordinance providing that the right to appropriate water should be denied or limited when there is evidence of an "overdraft." This happens when more water is taken out than supplied. In December 1978, the County denied the McDougals' request for an appropriation permit.

In 1980, the County passed an ordinance requiring a "reasonable amortization period" for nonconforming uses. The County determined that the commercial water operation on the Clifford Well property was a nonconforming use and, specifically considering the value of the property for use as a residential subdivision, determined that six years was a reasonable amortization period. The California Court of Appeal upheld this decision June 12, 1987.

Despite the six years the McDougals were given to eliminate the nonconforming use, the County designated their property a "floodway" in March 1984. According to the McDougals' complaint, this rendered the property valueless because it could no longer be used for residential purposes. They therefore applied for a conditional use permit to continue water operations. The County said it would not consider their application unless they submitted an Environmental Impact Report including a "verified ground water model" for that particular water basin. The McDougals were unable to comply with this request because the data necessary to produce such a model did not exist. They complained that obtaining the desired "verified" model was impossible, but the County refused to waive or modify the requirement. The County also refused to consider an alternative model the McDougals proffered.

In October 1989, the McDougals brought this action, alleging that the County passed various ordinances, denied permit applications and otherwise conspired to deprive them of their rights to operate their water business. They also allege that the County has deprived them of the total value of their land by designating it a "floodway" and requiring an impossible environmental impact report as a condition of continuing commercial water operations.

The County moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), arguing that the district court should abstain from hearing the action and, alternatively, that the allegations failed to state a claim for inverse condemnation and that the remaining claims are either barred by the statute of limitations or are not ripe. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the McDougals' complaint with prejudice. The McDougals appeal.


Relying on Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S.Ct. 1938, 85 L.Ed.2d 254 (1985), and Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235, 109 S.Ct. 573, 102 L.Ed.2d 594 (1989), the district court concluded that the applicable statute of limitations for the § 1983 and § 1985(3) claims was California's one-year statute applicable to personal injury actions Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 340(3). Because the McDougals filed suit on October 3, 1989, more than a year after the tolling period ended with the conclusion of the state court litigation March 4, 1988, the district court held the claims were barred.

The McDougals contend that the proper statute of limitations for their § 1983 and § 1985(3) claims is the four-year period in the "catchall" statute, Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 343. They also maintain that a one-year period of limitations is too restrictive to accommodate the important federal interests at stake in a civil rights action. We disagree.

A. Section 1983 Claim

Even though Congress provided no federal statute of limitations for claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Supreme Court has held that because § 1983 actions are best characterized as actions for injuries to personal rights, courts should borrow the state statute of limitations that applies to personal injury actions. Wilson, 471 U.S. at 279-80, 105 S.Ct. at 1948-49. After Wilson, we held that the proper statute of limitations for § 1983 actions in California is Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 340(3), which provides a one-year period for an "action for libel, slander, assault, battery, false imprisonment, seduction of a person below the age of legal consent, or for injury to or for the death of one caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another." Usher v. City of Los Angeles, 828 F.2d 556, 558 (9th Cir.1987); see also Donoghue v. County of Orange, 848 F.2d 926, 929 n. 2 (9th Cir.1988) ("the statute of limitations for section 1983 claims is one year, Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 340(3)"). Prior to Wilson, we had held that the proper statute of limitations was three years, the period for causes of actions created by statute, Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 338(1). See Usher, 828 F.2d at 558-59. Wilson thus "had the effect of reducing from three years to one year the statute of limitations applicable to section 1983 actions filed in federal courts sitting in California." Karim-Panahi v. Los Angeles Police Dep't, 839 F.2d 621, 627 (9th Cir.1988).

In Owens v. Okure, the Supreme Court addressed the question of which state s...

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