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Wheeler v. City of Santa Clara

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

July 3, 2018

Leland Wheeler, Individually and as Successor in Interest of Deborah Colbert, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
City of Santa Clara, a municipal corporation; Andrew McGuire; Nicholas Bronte; Alan Wolf; Michael J. Sellers; Does, 2 through 50, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted April 11, 2018 San Francisco, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California Ronald M. Whyte, Senior District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 5:16-cv-01953-RMW

          Sanjay S. Schmidt (argued), Law Office of Sanjay S. Schmidt, San Francisco, California; Joseph S. May, Law Office of Joseph S. May, San Francisco, California; for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jon A. Heaberlin (argued) and Saman N. Khan, Rankin Stock Heaberlin, San Jose, California, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: M. Margaret McKeown and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges, and Gary S. Katzmann, [*] Judge.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel affirmed the district court's dismissal of a complaint brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act by the biological son of Deborah Colbert, who was killed by police officers during a response to a 911 call.

         The district court dismissed the case, finding that plaintiff had no legally cognizable interest in his relationship with Colbert and that he was not a proper successor in interest to her under California law because he had been adopted by other parents as an infant.

         The panel held that California's survival statute was consistent with 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and thus applied to the instant action. The panel held that because plaintiff indisputably did not meet the requirements for standing under California law, he could not assert § 1983 claims on behalf of Colbert. Further, although federal common law applied to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act claims, plaintiff was still not an appropriate plaintiff for a survival action based on those laws. Plaintiff also could not bring a claim for loss of companionship with Colbert because they did not have the kind of parent-child relationship entitled to this type of constitutional protection. Finally, because no proper plaintiff existed at the time of the district court's ruling, denying leave to amend the complaint was not an abuse of discretion.

         Concurring, Judge Wardlaw stated that in holding that plaintiff did not have a protected interest for the Fourteenth Amendment loss of companionship claim, the panel concluded only that he was unable to demonstrate that he had a protected relationship with his biological mother. Judge Wardlaw emphasized that this opinion does not hold that no adopted-out child could prove he had a protected interest in his relationship with his biological parent under the Fourteenth Amendment.

          OPINION

          KATZMANN, Judge:

         This appeal poses questions regarding the interaction of state statutes with various federal civil rights laws, the survival after death of claims brought under those federal laws, and the effect of adoption on Fourteenth Amendment loss of companionship claims. Deborah Colbert died after a confrontation with police. Her biological son, plaintiff Leland Wheeler, seeks to assert claims on her behalf under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), [1] and the Rehabilitation Act ("RA").[2] Wheeler also brings a Fourteenth Amendment claim under § 1983 on his own behalf for loss of companionship resulting from her death. The district court dismissed the case, finding that Wheeler had no legally cognizable interest in his relationship with Colbert and that he was not a proper successor in interest to her under California law because he had been adopted by other parents as an infant. The district court also denied leave to amend the complaint. We affirm.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The complaint in this case alleges as follows: Deborah Colbert called 911 on April 13, 2014, and stated that she had taken pills, drank heavily, and would use a baseball bat to provoke the police to shoot her. Police officers were dispatched to her residence in response to her call. One of the officers had effectuated an involuntary mental health detention on Colbert eight days prior. When another officer obtained a key to Colbert's apartment from a building manager and attempted to enter, Colbert emerged from her apartment holding a baseball bat. The officers shot Colbert, and she died the following day from her resulting injuries. Leland Wheeler is the biological son and only known living relative of Colbert. He was adopted by other parents as an infant, but alleges that he maintained a "close relationship with Ms. Colbert during part of his childhood and throughout his adult life."

         Wheeler filed this action in his individual capacity and on behalf of Colbert against the City of Santa Clara and several Santa Clara police officers ("Santa Clara"). The complaint also named as a plaintiff "John Doe 1," described as "the to-be-identified personal representative" of Colbert's estate. Colbert's estate was not submitted to probate and no personal representative was appointed. Wheeler asserted two § 1983 claims on his own behalf: a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim for deprivation of his right to a familial relationship with his biological mother and a related Monell claim for supervisory liability.[3]Wheeler also asserted a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, a related Monell claim for supervisory liability, and claims under the ADA and RA[4] on behalf of Colbert. Santa Clara moved to dismiss Wheeler's substantive due process claims and the claims asserted on Colbert's behalf. Wheeler requested leave to amend the complaint with the name of the Colbert estate's personal representative once one had been appointed.

         Granting Santa Clara's motion, the district court dismissed all of the claims without leave to amend. The court found that, although California's survivorship law prevented Wheeler from bringing claims on behalf of Colbert, the statute was not inconsistent with § 1983. The court also held that federal common law would not permit him to bring the § 1983 and ADA and RA survivorship claims. The court further determined that Wheeler lacked a constitutionally protected interest in his relationship with Colbert because their legal relationship had been severed. Finally, the district court denied his request for leave to amend as futile. Wheeler timely appealed.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         This court reviews de novo standing issues, In re Zappos.com, Inc., 888 F.3d 1020, 1024 (9th Cir. 2018), and orders granting a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Lloyd v. CVB Financial Corp., 811 F.3d 1200, 1205 (9th Cir. 2016). A denial for leave to amend is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Gompper v. VISX, Inc., 298 F.3d 893, 898 (9th Cir. 2002).

         DISCUSSION

         Wheeler argues that the district court erred in dismissing his case. He contends that (1) California's survivorship law undermines the deterrence and compensation goals of § 1983 because it would allow claims to abate when a civil rights violation caused the decedent's death; (2) federal common law of survivorship permits Wheeler to assert claims on behalf of Colbert; (3) the Fourteenth Amendment protects the companionship interests of all biological children and parents, regardless of the legal status of their relationship; and (4) the court abused its discretion by not allowing Wheeler to substitute an as yet nonexistent personal representative for Colbert's estate as plaintiff in this suit.

         A. California's Survival Statute Applies to Wheeler's § 1983 Claims.

         Wheeler asserts that state survivorship law can fill interstices where federal civil rights legislation does not provide a survivorship regime only so long as state law is not inconsistent with the purposes of the relevant federal civil rights law. He contends that because California's survivorship law allows claims to abate when a civil rights violation causes the decedent's death, its application would undermine the deterrence and compensation goals of § 1983.[5] Therefore, he argues, the California survivorship law is so inconsistent with § 1983 that recourse to federal common law is warranted.

         "[T]he decision as to the applicable survivorship rule" in a § 1983 action "is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 1988." Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 588 (1978). Section 1988(a) provides that:

The jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters conferred on the district courts by the provisions of titles 13, 24, and 70 of the Revised Statutes for the protection of all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and for their vindication, shall be exercised and enforced in conformity with the laws of the United States, so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect; but in all cases where they are not adapted to the object, or are deficient in the provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies and punish offenses against law, the common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes of the State wherein the court having jurisdiction of such civil or criminal cause is held, so far as the same is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States, shall be extended to and govern the said courts in the trial and disposition of the cause, and, if it is of a criminal nature, in the infliction of punishment on the party found guilty.

(emphasis added). In short, § 1988(a) "directs courts to fill gaps in certain federal actions with state law when state law is not 'inconsistent' with federal law." Guenther v. Griffin Constr. Co., Inc., 846 F.3d 979, 982 (8th Cir. 2017). When "resolving questions of inconsistency between state and federal law raised under § 1988," courts must consider whether the state law conflicts with the federal and constitutional provisions at issue and "whether application of state law would be inconsistent with the federal policy underlying the cause of action under consideration." Robertson, 436 U.S. at 590 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). "The policies underlying § 1983 include compensation of persons injured by deprivation of federal rights and prevention of abuses of power by those acting under color of state law." Id. at 590-91.

         Under California law, a cause of action is not lost by reason of a plaintiff's death. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. ("C.C.P.") § 377.20.[6] C.C.P. § 377.30 provides that a survival action can be maintained by the decedent's "personal representative" or "successor in interest." The "successor in interest" is defined as the beneficiary of the decedent's estate or "other successor in interest who succeeds to a cause of action." C.C.P. § 377.11. Adoption severs parent-child ...


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