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Bentley v. City of Mesa

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 16, 2019

Brian L. Bentley, et al., Plaintiffs,
City of Mesa, et al., Defendants.


          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Janna and Brian Bentley and their seven minor children bring this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against the City of Mesa, the Director of the Department of Child Safety (“DCS”), Gregory McKay, DCS employees Cristina Baggen and Gina Cordova, and City of Mesa Police Officers Darrel Palmer, Edward Clifford, Laurie Kessler, Domenick Kaufman, Lauren Glazer, Molly Corfits, and Rob Russo. Doc. 59. Defendants McKay, Baggen, and Cordova move to dismiss Plaintiffs' malicious prosecution and wrongful institution of civil proceedings claim (Count 9) under Rule 12(b)(6). Doc. 64. For the following reasons, the Court grant the motion.[1]

         I. Background.

         The Court takes the factual allegations of Plaintiffs' amended complaint (Doc. 59) as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). On March 31, 2016, at about 8:00 p.m., Janna Bentley told her seven-year-old son, T.A., to do his chores, but T.A. refused. Doc. 59 at 5. At about 10:15 p.m., Janna went to T.A.'s bedroom to check on him, but two of T.A.'s siblings reported that he had left. Id. at 5. Janna searched for T.A. for an hour in the house and outdoors. Id. at 6. His behavior was not uncommon - on other occasions, T.A. had hidden from his parents or snuck off to a neighbor's home. Janna called Brian, who was working late, around 11:30 p.m. to discuss a plan for finding T.A., and they remained in contact while Janna and two Bentley children searched the property and neighborhood. Id.

         Brian arrived home at 1:30 a.m. on April 1 and began searching for T.A. Janna fell asleep at 2:30 a.m. Brian knew that T.A. was not wearing shoes and had not left with his bicycle. The neighborhood was safe, and families were familiar with each other's children. Id. With that in mind, Brian turned on the home's exterior flood lights and unlocked the doors, and at 3:30 a.m. he laid down by the front door to wait for T.A.

         The search continued at 6:30 a.m., soon involving more than a dozen family members and neighbors. Id. at 7. After Janna called 911 for help at 8:00 a.m., Mesa Police Department (“MPD”) officers began searching the neighborhood and a helicopter surveilled. Just over two hours later, T.A. was spotted hiding in a bush in the front yard of the Bentley's next-door neighbor. He was nervous and upset, but not crying or physically harmed. Id. at 7-8.

         Brian carried T.A. into the home, and several officers and DCS workers followed. Id. at 8-9. Although paramedics confirmed that T.A. was fine and needed no emergency medical attention, several officers and DCS workers insisted that T.A. needed immediate evaluation at the hospital and Brian and Janna eventually agreed to go. Id. at 9-10. T.A. was later discharged from the hospital, and he and Janna were taken into custody and transported to an MPD substation, where T.A. was interviewed without Janna. Id. at 12-13, 16.

         Meanwhile, around 10:15 a.m., MPD officers had arrived at Great Hearts Academy where two Bentley children, B.J. and M.J., attended school. Id. at 13. The officers fabricated a reason to take custody of the children and ordered the school's administration not to notify their parents. Id. at 13-14. The officers removed the children and transported them to the substation to be interviewed by DCS. Id. at 13-16. Janna, T.A., B.J., and M.J. were released later that afternoon, and a DCS report found no concerns about the Bentleys' ability to care for and protect their children. Id. at 15-16.

         On April 21, 2016, DCS's investigation into the Bentley family was dismissed, concluding that no safety threats or risks warranted further DCS intervention. Id. at 17. On May 19, Janna and Brian made a public records request to MPD, seeking all records related to the events of April 1, specifically those related to B.J. and M.J.'s removal from school. On August 9, 2016, the State of Arizona charged Brian and Janna with two misdemeanors: one count of child neglect and one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Id. A jury found them not guilty on all counts on August 9, 2017. Id. at 18.

         In June 2017, DCS had begun another investigation into whether to place Janna and Brian on the DCS Central Registry, and soon instituted a civil action against them. Id. at 33-34. DCS concluded its investigation in November with a decision to enter Janna and Brian in the registry, finding that they neglected T.A. and failed to provide supervision while searching for him. Id. at 34-35. The Bentleys requested a hearing before an administrative law judge who ruled in their favor. DCS adopted the ALJ's opinion and did not add the Bentleys to the registry. Id. at 35-36.[2]

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard.

         When analyzing a complaint for failure to state a claim to relief under Rule 12(b)(6), the well-pled factual allegations are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cousins v. Lockyer, 568 F.3d 1063, 1067 (9th Cir. 2009). A successful motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) must show either that the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or fails to allege facts sufficient to support its theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). A complaint that sets forth a cognizable legal theory will survive a motion to dismiss as long as it contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). 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., 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “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. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         III. Discussion.

         The Ninth Circuit has recognized a § 1983 claim for “malicious prosecution with the intent to deprive a person of equal protection of the law or otherwise to subject a person to a denial of constitutional rights[.]” Poppell v. City of San Diego, 149 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing Usher v. City of L.A., 828 F.2d 556, 562 (9th Cir. 1987)). In order to prevail on such a claim, “a plaintiff ‘must show that the defendants prosecuted [him] with malice and without probable cause, and that they did so for the purpose of denying [him] equal protection or another specific constitutional right.'” Awabdy v. City of Adelanto, 368 F.3d 1062, 1066 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Freeman v. City of Santa Ana, 68 F.3d 1180, 1189 (9th Cir. ...

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