Jacobs v. Winkleblack et al, No. 5:2017cv06790 - Document 30 (N.D. Cal. 2018)

Court Description: ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS. Re: ECF 8 . The amended complaint, should Jacobs choose to file one, is due 3/5/2018. Signed by Judge Nathanael Cousins. (lhS, COURT STAFF) (Filed on 2/12/2018)
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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 8 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 9 10 ROBERT JACOBS, Plaintiff, United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 v. 13 BENJAMIN WINKLEBLACK, et al., 14 Defendants. Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS Re: ECF 8 15 16 Even at the pleading stage, properly stating a due process claim is no nap in the sun. 17 It requires a plaintiff to claw through Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence littered with 18 multiplicative, shifting, and overlapping legal theories. Still, Federal Rule of Civil 19 Procedure 8 requires a plain statement of the plaintiff’s claim, so the constitutional ball of 20 yarn must be untangled and delineated before the case can move on. 21 Here, plaintiff Robert Jacobs does not identify a cognizable legal theory for his 22 claim that defendants Benjamin Winkleblack, Melanie Sobel, and the Santa Cruz County 23 Animal Services Authority (SCCASA) violated his constitutional due process rights when 24 they allowed a third party to adopt a cat that Jacobs claims he owned. The Court therefore 25 GRANTS Defendants’ motion to dismiss as to Jacobs’ Fourteenth Amendment due 26 process claims, with leave to amend. The remaining claims depend on the federal claims 27 for supplemental subject matter jurisdiction, so the Court declines to reach Defendants’ 28 motion on these claims, unless and until Jacobs amends the complaint. 1 2 I. BACKGROUND The following factual allegations pled in the complaint are taken as true and 3 construed in the light most favorable to Jacobs. See Manzarek v. St. Paul Fire & Marine 4 Ins. Co., 519 F.3d 1025, 1031 (9th Cir. 2008). 5 On June 24, 2015, Jacobs took a trip from his home in Simi Valley, California to 6 Watsonville, California and brought along his cat. Third Amended Compl. (TAC) ¶ 13 7 (ECF 1-6). The cat was an orange, black, and white short-haired calico named Carli. Id. On 8 July 4, 2015, while still in Watsonville, Carli escaped from Jacobs’ hotel room. Id. ¶ 14. 9 Jacobs tried for several days, unsuccessfully, to find Carli by putting up flyers, driving around Watsonville looking for her, and talking to people and rescue groups in the area. Id. 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 ¶ 15. The complaint does not allege that Jacobs looked for Carli at the animal shelter 12 during this quest for the runaway feline. See id. 13 On August 8, 2015, after Jacobs returned to his home in Simi Valley, he received an 14 anonymous phone call informing him that there was a cat at the Santa Cruz County Animal 15 Shelter matching the photo and physical description on the flyers Jacobs had posted. Id. ¶ 16 16. Two days later, on August 10, 2015, Jacobs went to the shelter and found Carli there, 17 with her name and other information written on the outside of the cage. Id. ¶ 17. When 18 Jacobs opened the cage to pet Carli, a shelter employee told Jacobs he could not pet the cat 19 without first filling out adoption paperwork. Id. Jacobs asserted that he did not need to fill 20 out adoption forms because he was Carli’s owner. Id. As evidence of ownership, he 21 showed the shelter employees his driver’s license and a photo of himself with Carli that 22 had been taken in May of 2015. Id. Carli did not have a microchip or license. Id. When the 23 shelter employee noticed from the driver’s license that Jacobs lived in Simi Valley, she 24 refused to allow Jacobs to take the cat, citing a shelter rule restricting the distance adopted 25 cats could travel. Id. ¶ 18. At Jacobs’ behest, the employee confirmed the policy with her 26 managers, defendants Winkleblack and Sobel. Id. After the travel restriction policy was 27 confirmed, Jacobs argued the point “for some time” but eventually gave up and left. Id. 28 Over a period of several days, Jacobs went back to the shelter five or six times Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 2 1 trying to reclaim Carli, but each time was denied. Id. ¶ 19. On the final visit, on August 21, 2 2015, Winkleblack confronted Jacobs, saying he heard Jacobs tried to steal Carli on his 3 previous attempts to reclaim her and allegedly physically pushing Jacobs away from 4 Carli’s cage and toward the exit. Id. Winkleblack then yelled at Jacobs, threatened to call 5 the sheriff and have Jacobs arrested for trespassing, and said, “I would rather kill the cat, 6 than return her to you.” Id. Jacobs responded, “God forbid,” and immediately left the 7 shelter. Id. 8 At Jacobs’ request, Jacobs’ friend Carol Thomas came from her home in Sacramento and tried on August 25, 2015, to adopt Carli. Id. ¶ 20. The shelter employee 10 working at the front desk told Thomas she lived too far away and could not adopt the cat. 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 9 Id. Thwarted, Jacobs returned home, where he “tried other [unspecified] avenues to obtain 12 the return of his cat.” Id. ¶ 21. 13 Jacobs filed a civil action on July 26, 2016, in California Superior Court, County of 14 Santa Cruz. See Notice of Removal (ECF 1); Complaint (ECF 1-1). The original complaint 15 contained only state law causes of action, but Jacobs amended the complaint three times, 16 eventually adding claims for violations of federal civil rights under the Fourteenth 17 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See Notice of Removal ¶¶ 2–6; see generally TAC. 18 With the federal civil rights claims as a jurisdictional basis, Defendants removed the action 19 to federal court. See Notice of Removal ¶¶ 7–10. 20 21 The third amended complaint lists three causes of action against Winkleblack, Sobel, and SCCASA: 22 Declaratory Judgment of Ownership (referring to California Government 23 Code § 910 et. seq., California Food and Agricultural Code § 31752, and 24 Santa Cruz County Ordinances §§ 6.20.090, 6.20.100); 25 26 27 28 Trespass to Chattel (referring to California Food and Agricultural Code §§ 31752, 31754 and California Government Code §§ 815.2, 910 et. seq.); and Violation of Civil Rights (referring to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; Article 1, § 7(a) of the California Constitution; Santa Cruz Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 3 1 County Code §§ 6.20.090, 6.20.010; California Food and Agricultural Code 2 §§ 31752, 31752.2, 31754; and California Civil Code §§ 654, 655, 663, 669, 3 679). Defendants now move under Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss the operative third amended 4 5 complaint for failure to state a claim. See Mot. to Dismiss (ECF 8). All parties have 6 consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See ECF 9, 17. 7 II. 8 9 LEGAL STANDARD Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). “Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is 12 appropriate only where the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to 13 support a cognizable legal theory.” Mendiondo v. Centinela Hosp. Med. Ctr., 521 F.3d 14 1097, 1104 (9th Cir. 2008). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff must plead 15 “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. 16 Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when a plaintiff pleads 17 “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is 18 liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). 19 In reviewing the plausibility of a complaint, courts “accept factual allegations in the 20 complaint as true and construe the pleadings in the light most favorable to the nonmoving 21 party.” Manzarek, 519 F.3d at 1031. Nonetheless, Courts do not “accept as true allegations 22 that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences.” In 23 re Gilead Scis. Sec. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1055 (9th Cir. 2008). 24 If dismissal is appropriate under Rule 12(b)(6), a court “should grant leave to 25 amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the 26 pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts.” Lopez v. Smith, 203 27 F.3d 1122, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). 28 Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 4 1 III. DISCUSSION A. 2 Federal Claims The Court begins its analysis with Jacobs’ Fourteenth Amendment claims, as these 3 4 are the hook for federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.1 Fundamentally, the 5 Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from “depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty, or 6 property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. Amend. XIV. The complaint alleges 7 that Defendants violated Jacobs’ right to both substantive and procedural due process 8 under the Fourteenth Amendment by refusing to allow Jacobs to take Carli home and 9 instead allowing a third party to adopt Carli. TAC ¶¶ 65, 67. Before delving into the complaint’s numerous and intertwined assertions about the 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 Fourteenth Amendment claims, it is helpful to step back. Guiding this analysis is the 12 important recognition that procedural and substantive due process violations are distinct 13 legal claims, each with their own set of elements and facts that must be pled in a 14 complaint. A § 1983 claim based on procedural due process has three elements: “(1) a 15 liberty or property interest protected by the Constitution; (2) a deprivation of the interest 16 by the government; [and] (3) lack of process.” Portman v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 995 F.2d 17 898, 904 (9th Cir. 1993). In contrast, a substantive due claim process involves showing 18 that the government engaged in conduct that is so arbitrary it “shocks the conscience.” Cty. 19 of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 845-46 (1998). Equally important is the recognition that a due process claim—procedural or 20 21 substantive—varies depending on who or what did the depriving. With substantive due 22 process, for example, the “criteria to identify what is fatally arbitrary differ depending on 23 whether it is legislation or a specific act of a governmental officer that is at issue.” Cty. of 24 Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846 (1998). And in the latter case where a government 25 officer’s action caused the deprivation, then a government entity like SCCASA “may not 26 27 28 1 Although the complaint does not cite or reference it, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides the statutory cause of action for constitutional claims like the ones Jacobs brings here. Jacobs acknowledges this in his opposition brief. See Opp. at 15 (ECF 23). Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 5 1 be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, unless a policy, practice, or custom of the entity can 2 be shown to be a moving force behind [the] violation of constitutional rights.” Dougherty 3 v. City of Covina, 654 F.3d 892, 900 (9th Cir. 2011) (citing Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. 4 of N.Y.C., 436 U.S. 658, 690–91 (1978)). A similar point—that the nature of the alleged 5 deprivation colors the constitutional analysis—can be made for procedural due process. 6 For example, the existence of post-deprivation state law remedies can nullify a procedural 7 due process claim, but only when the deprivation was caused by random and unauthorized 8 conduct; such a claim is not barred where the deprivation is foreseeable and the state can 9 therefore be reasonably expected to make a pre-deprivation process available. See Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 136–39 (1990); Swenson v. Siskiyou Cty., 498 F. App’x 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 719, 720 (9th Cir. 2012). Clearly, constitutional law can get a little hairy. This kind of 12 nuance demands precision in the pleadings. 13 Jacobs’ complaint is inadequate under Rule 8 and subject to dismissal under Rule 14 12(b)(6), because it muddles the distinctions articulated above in a way that makes it 15 impossible to discern Jacobs’ legal theory of liability. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 16 U.S. 544, 562 (2007) (noting that a complaint must allege “all the material elements 17 necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory”); Mendiondo v. Centinela 18 Hosp. Med. Ctr., 521 F.3d 1097, 1104 (9th Cir. 2008) (“Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is 19 appropriate only where the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to 20 support a cognizable legal theory.”). The complaint alleges that the Food and Agricultural 21 Code and Santa Cruz County Code required “Defendants, and each of them” to allow 22 Jacobs “the right to redeem his cat prior to any disposition of the animal” and to give 23 Jacobs notice and “an opportunity to contest” before allowing Carli to be adopted by a 24 third party. TAC ¶ 58. The complaint continues by asserting that Defendants’ “refusal to 25 return the cat to [Jacobs], under the guise of enforcing an arbitrary, unreasonable and 26 unconstitutional travel ban, violated [Jacobs’] rights” under the Fourteenth Amendment 27 and the California Constitution. TAC ¶ 63. 28 Peering even slightly past the surface of these allegations reveals an unwieldly Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 6 1 number of potential due process claims waiting to pounce, with little guidance on which 2 version Jacobs is actually claiming. Is Jacobs challenging the facial constitutionality of the 3 shelter’s “travel ban,” for example, or the individual defendants’ application of it, or both, 4 or neither? Or perhaps the claim is for the shelter employees’ failure to follow the relevant 5 state and county law. In that case, the complaint must make eminently clear which 6 employees allegedly committed the violation, and who is responsible for that behavior. Is 7 it, for example, a respondeat superior claim against Winkleblack and Sobel for an 8 unnamed shelter employees’ behavior, and/or a Monell claim against SCCASA? With only 9 a little imagination, countless other variations of potential due process claims could be 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 massaged from these broad assertions. Jacobs’ explanations of his claims in paragraphs 65–69 of the complaint only 12 further confuse. Regarding substantive due process, Jacobs claims that Winkleblack’s 13 behavior toward Jacobs on August 21, 2015—physically and verbally confronting him and 14 threatening to kill Carli rather than giving her to Jacobs— was “the type of capricious 15 government conduct that violates substantive due process” and is “exactly what 16 substantive due process is intended to prevent.” TAC ¶ 66. If this is the extent of Jacobs’ 17 substantive due process claim, then the complaint falls flat in explaining how Sobel or 18 SCCASA violated Jacobs’ substantive due process rights. It is also doubtful that these 19 allegations could sustain a substantive due process claim, as “substantive due process does 20 not guarantee a pleasant tone of voice or courteous manner,” and “assertions of hostile 21 tone of voice do not otherwise transform” a state agent’s action “into conscience shocking 22 conduct.” Brittain v. Hansen, 451 F.3d 982, 998 (9th Cir. 2006). Furthermore, this 23 substantive due process theory neglects and strays from Jacob’s apparent facial challenge 24 to the shelter’s “travel ban.” 25 On procedural due process, Jacobs asserts that “Defendants had no appropriate 26 procedures to prevent an unconstitutional deprivation of property” and “provided no 27 mechanism for [Jacobs] to challenge the decision or to seek review of their determination 28 that the photographic evidence of ownership he provided was not sufficient.” TAC ¶¶ 67– Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 7 1 68. Framed in this way, Jacobs appears to be making a facial challenge to the adequacy of 2 the relevant state and county policies. If so, this claim does not implicate the individual 3 defendants, and it chafes at Jacobs’ assertion that the Food and Agricultural Code § 31752 4 did afford him a right to claim Carli before she was adopted. See TAC ¶ 60. 5 Muddled indeed. To comply with Rule 8, Jacobs’ complaint must at a minimum lay 6 out each substantive due process claim and procedural due process claim he asserts and, 7 for each one: Identify what the precise property deprivation was and when it happened 8 (e.g. refusing to allow Jacobs to claim the cat versus allowing a third party 9 to adopt the cat without an opportunity for Jacobs to be heard); 10 Identify what caused the deprivation (e.g. Winkleblack’s confrontation of United States District Court Northern District of California 11 Jacobs or the government statutes and regulations on their face); and 12 Spell out the theory of liability that applies to the defendant or defendants 13 (e.g. direct liability, Monell). 14 15 Without these delineations, the complaint’s coarse strokes do not fulfill Rule 8’s 16 most basic requirement to plainly state a plausible claim for relief. However, with 17 amendment, the claims may yet land on their feet. Thus, Jacobs’ Fourteenth Amendment 18 claims are DISMISSED, with leave to amend. 19 20 B. State Law Claims The remaining claims in the complaint are within the Court’s discretionary 21 supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367, but do not have an independent basis for 22 federal subject matter jurisdiction. The Court may decline to exercise supplemental 23 jurisdiction if it has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction. See 24 Sanford v. MemberWorks, Inc., 625 F.3d 550, 561 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 25 1367(c)(3)). And the Court has “discretion to remand when the exercise of pendent 26 jurisdiction is inappropriate.” Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 351 (1988). 27 Because the federal claims are subject to dismissal, the Court does not reach 28 Defendants’ motion to dismiss Jacobs’ state law claims. If Jacobs does not amend the Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 8 1 complaint to properly state a federal claim for relief, the Court will remand the state law 2 claims to Santa Cruz County Superior Court. 3 IV. CONCLUSION 4 Jacobs’ third amended complaint fails to state a claim for relief under federal law, 5 because it does not reasonably identify a cognizable legal theory for procedural or 6 substantive due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment. These constitutional 7 claims are DISMISSED, with leave to amend. 8 9 Without viable federal claims, there is no independent basis for subject matter jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims. Thus, the Court does not reach Defendants’ motion to dismiss the state law claims, but anticipates remanding them to state 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 court unless Jacobs amends the complaint to state a federal claim. 12 The amended complaint, should Jacobs choose to file one, is due March 5, 2018. 13 IT IS SO ORDERED. 14 15 Dated: February 12, 2018 16 _____________________________________ NATHANAEL M. COUSINS United States Magistrate Judge 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 Case No. 17-cv-06790-NC 9