Thomas v. Cnty. of Sonoma

Decision Date25 May 2017
Docket NumberCase No. 17-cv-00245-LB
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of California
PartiesGARY PRICE THOMAS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. COUNTY OF SONOMA, et al., Defendants.

This case arises from Sonoma County Superior Court divorce and child-custody proceedings.1 Those proceedings began in May 2010, when Gary Price Thomas petitioned for divorce from Monica Thomas, his former wife, and for full custody of M.N. Thomas, his daughter.2 Mr. Thomas now challenges the results of those cases — and officials' decisions and conduct during them — by asserting constitutional and state-law claims against several Sonoma County and court-affiliated defendants. The defendants move to dismiss the case (and for summary judgment) because, among other things, Mr. Thomas's claims are barred by the doctrines of Rooker-Feldman and issue preclusion, the statute of limitations, and immunity.

The court can decide the matters without oral argument and so it vacated the May 25, 2017 hearing.3 The court grants the defendants' motions because Rooker-Feldman precludes federal subject-matter jurisdiction over Mr. Thomas's claims. The court therefore dismisses the case.

1. State Court Proceedings

After Mr. Thomas petitioned for divorce and child custody, but before his first court hearing, he met with Family Court Services mediator Beth Wanamaker.4 He alleges that Ms. Wanamaker discriminated against him, attacked his character and his relationship with M.N., and falsely reported that he had seen M.N. only twice since she was born in 2009.5 (Mr. Thomas asserts that he "spent months at Kaiser Hospital with [M.N.] and support[ed] her from the day she was born."6)

Mr. Thomas's first court hearing was on July 21, 2010.7 During that hearing, he "was handed a restraining order that was granted by James G. Bertoli."8 It listed Monica Thomas (his wife) as the "protected person," along with two additional family members (including M.N.).9 He did not get notice of the restraining-order hearing.10 He also alleges that, at the July 21 hearing, he "received a court order dated June 28, 2010[,] and authored by Beth Wannamaker [sic] (a mediator not a judge) ordering [him] to destroy his parental rights for his child M.N."11 He also alleges — and appears to take issue with — the defendants' varying use of the words "Defendant," "Petitioner," and "Father" to refer to him at the hearing.12

Judge Shaffer issued an order after the hearing.13 In that order, Judge Shaffer granted temporary sole legal and physical custody to Monica Thomas, M.N.'s mother, and concluded that Mr. Thomas "shall have no visits, pending next court date and completion of anger management."14

Mr. Thomas was also ordered to pay child support.15 The Superior Court's minute entries (which Mr. Thomas attaches to his complaint) reflect that, on July 13, 2010, the parties (Mr. and Ms. Thomas) agreed that he would pay $622 in monthly child support.16 Those records reflect several additional entries, including a March 2013 hearing (leaving child support at $622 per month) and a September 2015 hearing (increasing child support to $924 per month).17 Mr. Thomas apparently challenges the 2015 increase, which he says was "based on the fact that [he] does not have a relationship with his kidnapped child in the conditions of fraud on the court."18 He appears to allege that such payments constitute extortion.19

Mr. Thomas also takes issue with several other procedural steps related to the state-court proceedings. For example, he appears to contest a clerk's filing of his dissolution petition (and related filing fees) as an answer in the County's case against him, and a clerk's August 2011 letter returning certain of his filings.20 Mr. Thomas also asserts that he had a court date set for January 10, 2013, but that it was cancelled by Louise Bayles-Fightmaster (because a judgment had been entered in his case).21 He challenges the decision to drop the hearing (which was done underSonoma County Local Rule 9.4) as a due process violation under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.22

2. Federal District Court Proceedings

In 2012, Mr. Thomas filed a complaint in the Northern District of California.23 In that case, he asserted two claims against Sonoma County, Beth Wanamaker, Veronica Pineda, Daniel Chester, and Judge Shaffer: (1) "deprivation of rights by government employees" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (2) deprivation of rights and racial bias under Cal. Civ. Code § 52.24 There, Judge Illston dismissed the claims asserted against the County as barred by the statute of limitations and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.25 Judge Illston dismissed the claims against the individual defendants because Mr. Thomas did not serve them.26

Over three years later, Mr. Thomas filed this case. This time he sued Jennifer Obergfell, Sonoma County, and Sonoma County Department of Child Support Services (the "County Defendants"), and Louise Bayles-Fightmaster, James Bertoli, Judge Shaffer, Jose Guillen, Beth Wanamaker, "Clerk of the Superior Court," and Sonoma County Family Services (the "Judicial Defendants"). He asserts five claims against all defendants: (1) deprivation of rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) "[b]reach of [f]iduciary [d]uties by conditions of discrimination, extortion[,] and kidnapping"; (3) conspiracy; (4) "[f]raud upon the court"; and (5) "[m]odern day slavery based on race and sex of Plaintiffs as outlawed by 18 U.S.C. Section 245(b)(2)(B) as well as Title 111 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act."27

The County Defendants move to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) and for summary judgment under Rule 56.28 The Judicial Defendants move to dismiss the complaint, too, underRules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).29 Mr. Thomas opposed the motions30 and filed two of his own summary-judgment motions.31

1. Rule 12(b)(1) Standard

A complaint must contain a short and plain statement of the ground for the court's jurisdiction (unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support). Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(1). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing jurisdiction. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Portage La Prairie Mut. Ins. Co., 907 F.2d 911, 912 (9th Cir. 1990). A defendant's Rule 12(b)(1) jurisdictional attack can be either facial or factual. White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214, 1242 (9th Cir. 2000). "A 'facial' attack asserts that a complaint's allegations are themselves insufficient to invoke jurisdiction, while a 'factual' attack asserts that the complaint's allegations, though adequate on their face to invoke jurisdiction, are untrue." Courthouse News Serv. v. Planet, 750 F.3d 776, 780 n.3 (9th Cir. 2014). Under a facial attack, the court "accept[s] all allegations of fact in the complaint as true and construe[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs." Warren v. Fox Family Worldwide, Inc., 328 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir. 2003). In a factual attack, the court "need not presume the truthfulness of the plaintiff's allegations" and "may review evidence beyond the complaint without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment." Safe Air for Everyone v. Meyer, 373 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2004).

2. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a claim may be dismissed because of a "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." A dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or on the absence of sufficient facts alleged undera cognizable legal theory. Johnson v. Riverside Healthcare Sys., 534 F.3d 1116, 1121 (9th Cir. 2008); Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001).

A complaint must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief to give the defendant "fair notice" of what the claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, but "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a claim for relief above the speculative level . . . ." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations omitted).

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations, accepted as true, "'to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 'entitlement to relief.''" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

3. Leave to Amend

If a court dismisses a complaint, it should give leave to amend unless the "the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts." Cook, Perkiss and Liehe, Inc. v. Northern California Collection Serv. Inc., 911 F.2d 242, 247 (9th Cir. 1990).

1. The Court Dismisses M.N. Thomas as an Improper Party

The first issue is the status of M.N., Mr. Thomas's daughter, who is named as a plaintiff. The court previously warned Mr....

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