Sheriff & Former D.A. Still on the Hook

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A California sheriff and former district attorney must face claims they violated a mother’s civil rights by falsely arresting her on kidnapping charges and putting her twin girls in foster care, a federal judge ruled.
     The ruling stems from a 2013 lawsuit from Jennifer Brown and her father, Barry Brown. They sued the County, its then-District Attorney Jon Alexander and five others, including Sheriff Dean Wilson and sheriff’s Officer Ed Fleshman.
     Jennifer is the mother of two coplaintiff children, Jane Does 1 and 2. Her father is a former investigator for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.
     The Browns claimed the defendants refused to investigate several allegations that Jennifer’s ex-husband Donald Crockett had molested the girls because he had donated to several public officials’ campaigns, including Alexander’s.
     After the Browns took the girls to Humboldt County for sexual assault exams, Alexander issued warrants for their arrest, though Barry had called Alexander’s office and told him what they were doing, the Browns said in their lawsuit.
     After Jennifer was arrested, Child Welfare Service took the girls and put them in foster care, where Crockett allegedly had unfettered access to them while Jennifer was denied visitation.
     U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti found in December 2013 that Alexander was not entitled to absolute or qualified immunity. However, he did grant immunity against state law claims to Wilson and Fleshman.
     In a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings, the defendants argued that claims brought on behalf of the minor children must be dismissed because Barry Brown lacks standing to serve as their guardian ad litem.
     They cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, which they say prohibits anyone but a child’s custodial mother from litigating on the child’s behalf.
     They also said the Browns’ state law claims, including false imprisonment, defamation, civil rights violations and conspiracy, must be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which bars federal courts from directly reviewing state court decisions.
     Conti on Wednesday upheld Barry’s standing to represent his granddaughters, and tossed most, but not all, of the Browns’ First and 14th Amendment claims.
     In siding with the Browns on the issue of representation, he rejected the defendants’ Elk Grove argument because “this motion concerns the children’s standing, while Elk Grove dealt with the father’s standing.”
     Federal courts have authority to appoint a noncustodial guardian to represent minors in cases where their best interests conflict with those of the custodial parents, Conti said. Given the “acrimonious custody dispute” between the girls’ parents, the court was well within its discretion to appoint Barry as the girls’ guardian ad litem, and his appointment thus does not deprive them of standing, Conti wrote.
     The defendants’ Rooker-Feldman claims fail because the plaintiffs are not taking issue with the state court’s decision but are seeking monetary damages for the defendants’ alleged actions.
     But in a victory for defendants, Conti found that collateral estoppel bars the plaintiffs from bringing denial of familial association claims based on the state court’s decision to award primary custody to Crockett in June 2012, the girls’ placement in foster care in February 2013, and their return to Crockett’s custody in March 2013, because these issues have been litigated in state family court.
     However, the plaintiffs’ First and 14th Amendment claims based on allegations that the girls were put in foster care because of Jennifer Brown’s allegedly unlawful arrest can move forward because they have not been previously litigated.
     The Browns argued that collateral estoppel does not apply because the court previously found that it may not take judicial notice of facts from state court proceedings.
     Conti was not persuaded, saying their argument misunderstands the previous order and basic evidentiary rules.
     Declining to take judicial notice of facts from another court proceeding means that the court is not bound by that court’s ruling, not that it will ignore the existence of those proceedings entirely, Conti wrote.
     “In the context of issue preclusion [collateral estoppel], notice of the state court findings is sufficient to establish that the issues litigated are identical, even though this court does not adopt the state court’s actual findings,” Conti wrote.
     “The court finds that all six elements of issue preclusion favor the dismissal of plaintiffs’ First and 14th Amendment claims, except for the claims premised on Ms. Brown’s allegedly unlawful arrest. Defendants’ motion is accordingly denied with respect to the claim that defendants unconstitutionally deprived Ms. Brown of the right to freely associate with her children (and vice-versa) as a result of her arrest. The motion is granted with respect to all of plaintiffs’ other First and 14th Amendment claims.”
     The judge dismissed from the action defendants Julie Cain and Cindy Salatnay with Child Welfare Service because the Browns’ surviving claims do not involve them.
     The Browns are represented by Thomas Neil Petersen with Black, Chapman, Webber & Stevens, of Medford, Ore.
     The defendants are represented by John Michael Vrieze with Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney & Vrieze, of Eureka.
     Neither party’s counsel returned requests for comment before the close of business hours Thursday.

%d bloggers like this: