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Mathis v. County of Lyon

United States District Court, D. Nevada

April 11, 2014

RICHARD MATHIS, Individually, as Special Administrator of the Estate of Joe Robinson Mathis (a/k/a Joe R. Mathis), and as Trustee of the Joe Robinson Mathis and Eleanor Margherite Mathis Trust; JAMES MATHIS; and ANTHONY MATHIS, Plaintiffs,
COUNTY OF LYON and RICHARD GLOVER, in his individual capacity, Defendants.


ANDREW P. GORDON, District Judge.


The Court has recited the factual background of this case on multiple occasions. (Dkt. Nos. 61, 186.) The following is a brief recitation of the relevant, uncontested facts as best the Court can determine from the pleadings and the moving papers. Additional facts are discussed as necessary in the analysis below.

On May 29, 2006, Deputy Sheriff Abel Ortiz ("Ortiz") discovered Joseph R. Mathis ("Joseph") deceased in his home in Wellington, Nevada. Ortiz pronounced Joseph dead on the scene and called a funeral home to remove the body. After the body was removed, Ortiz locked and sealed the home.

Joseph had three sons: Richard Mathis ("Richard"), James Mathis ("James"), and Anthony Mathis ("Anthony") (collectively, the "Mathis Brothers, " "Brothers, " or "Plaintiffs"). Richard is the trustee of the Joe Robinson Mathis and Eleanor Margherite Mathis Trust (the "Mathis Trust") and the special administrator of Joseph's estate. At the time of Joseph's death, David McNinch was the successor trustee to the Mathis Trust. Richard was appointed interim trustee on July 17, 2006.

Later in the day on May 29, 2006, Ortiz unsuccessfully attempted to contact Richard Mathis, who lived in Las Vegas. He then was able to contact James in Washington state and Anthony in Quebec, Canada. The precise details are inconsistent, but either James or Anthony informed Ortiz that they would arrive in Wellington within several days.

On May 30, 2006, Ortiz contacted Richard Glover, the elected Public Administrator of Lyon County and informed him of Joseph's death. Without notifying the Mathis Brothers, Glover entered Joseph's home to locate and weapons and valuables. He removed some of the personal property from the House and took it to his storage locker.

Upon their arrival in Wellington, the Mathis Brothers obtained counsel and were able to recover some of the personal property that Glover had seized. The Mathis Brothers filed a missing property report with the Sheriff's Department and requested an investigation into Glover's conduct. Ultimately, criminal charges were not filed against Glover. Glover gave the Mathis Brothers an inventory list of everything he had seized, but the list proved inaccurate when Glover later returned an unlisted archery bow that he found in his storage unit. Plaintiffs contend that Glover still retains some of their personal property and that he tried to sell some of it at a public auction.

On May 14, 2007, the Mathis Brothers filed the Complaint in this Court asserting various state and federal claims for relief. Glover faces federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For Glover's alleged constitutional violations, Lyon County faces § 1983 claims under the doctrine of municipal liability established by Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). The state law claims include conversion, trespass to land, and breach of fiduciary duty against Glover, and negligent supervision against the County.

On September 9, 2008, the Court dismissed the Equal Protection claims. (Dkt. No. 61.) The Court held that Glover is entitled to qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment claims, but not for the Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. The Ninth Circuit upheld the denial of qualified immunity, and did not address the grant of qualified immunity. Mathis v. Cnty. of Lyon, 633 F.3d 877, 879 (9th Cir. 21011). The Court also held that Glover was not a final-policymaker in his role as Public Administrator, thereby precluding one method of establishing municipal liability under Monell.

On October 12, 2012, the County moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 159.) On October 15, Glover moved for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 160), and Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment as to the procedural due process claims and the state law negligent supervision claim. (Dkt. No. 161).

On July 12, 2013, the Court reconsidered its earlier dismissal order (Dkt. No. 61), and held that Glover was a final policy-maker for the County in the area of securing property of a deceased. (Dkt. No. 186.)

Subsequently, the County submitted a renewed motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 189), which rendered moot their prior summary judgment motion (Dkt. No. 159), and Plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary against Lyon County as to the search and seizure claims (Dkt. No. 190). This Order resolves the outstanding motions for summary judgment: docket nos. 160, 161, 189, and 190.


A. Standing/Real-Party-in-Interest

A trust is properly viewed as an entity with enforceable civil rights. See Marin v. Leslie, 337 F.Appx. 217, 219-20 (3d Cir. 2009); RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF TRUSTS § 2 cmt. a (2003). A trust, however, like a corporation, is not a natural person capable of taking action on its own behalf. The trustee is the person so empowered, and may sue on behalf of the trust to accomplish the purposes of the trust or otherwise protect the property held in trust. NRS §§ 163.023, 163.4147. "As a general proposition, the creation of a trust divides title to the trust property, placing legal title in the trustee and equitable title in the beneficiary." 76 AM.JUR. 2d Trusts § 258 (2010), cited in Goodrich v. Briones (In re Schwarzkopf), 626 F.3d 1032, 1039 (9th Cir. 2010). In federal court, a trustee of an express trust may sue in her own name without joining the trust on whose behalf the action is brought. FED. R. CIV. P. 17(a)(1)(E).

Richard Mathis was not appointed as interim trustee until July 17, 2006-about six weeks after his father's death. (Dkt. No. 198-1 at 2.) The trustee at the time of Joseph's death was McNinch. (Dkt. No. 194-5 at 10-11.) Nonetheless, Richard has capacity to enforce the purposes of the Mathis Trust-care and protection of the Trust Property[1] for the ultimate benefit of the beneficiaries. The County has not presented any authority to support its position that a trust's claim for relief may be brought only by the trustee in place at the time of the injury. If that were so, an apathetic trustee could unfairly deprive the beneficiaries of relief for harm to trust property. There may be some temporal cut-off for claims related to past injuries, but this case does not so concern the Court.

In addition, the three Mathis Brothers, as beneficiaries, have equitable interests that this Court can enforce. See In re Schwarzkopf, 626 F.3d at 1039. By operation of Joseph's will (Dkt. No. 194-4) and the trust instrument (Dkt. No. 194-5), they have vested equitable interests in the Trust Property and are "regarded as the real owner[s] of [the] property." See id. (applying California law); Expert Masonry, Inc. v. Boone County, Ky., 440 F.3d 336, 338-39 (6th Cir. 2006) (vested property interests are protected by Due Process Clause); Hardesty v. Sacramento Metro. Air Quality Mgmt. Dist., 935 F.Supp.2d 968 (2013). Under the Trust Instrument, there appears to be no contingency capable of divesting the Mathis Brothers of their 1/6 mandatory interest in the Trust Property. ( See Dkt. No. 194-5.) In other words, the trustee had and has no discretion to not distribute the 1/6 shares in the Trust Property to the Brothers. NRS § 163.4185(1)(a).

To the extent the Trust Property was still held in trust at the time of the alleged violations or possessed by the Public Administrator (and thus incapable of distribution), the Mathis Brothers have enforceable rights as beneficiaries with vested equitable interests in the Trust Property. To the extent the Trust Property had already been distributed at the time of the alleged violations, the Mathis Brothers have enforceable rights as partial title owners of the Trust Property. Under either formulation, the Mathis Brothers have standing to sue. Finally, the Mathis Brothers have enforceable rights in relation to their personal property that was stored at the Mathis House.

B. Summary Judgment Standard

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary adjudication when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See id. "Summary judgment is inappropriate if reasonable jurors, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor." Diaz v. Eagle Produce Ltd. P'ship, 521 F.3d 1201, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Shumway, 199 F.3d 1093, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 1999)). A principal purpose of summary judgment is "to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).

In determining summary judgment, a court applies a burden-shifting analysis. "When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial. In such a case, the moving party has the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact on each issue material to its case." C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24. If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). To establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that "the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. P. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 631 (9th Cir. 1987). In other words, the nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations that are unsupported by factual data. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). Instead, the opposition must go beyond the assertions and allegations of the pleadings and set forth specific facts by producing competent evidence that shows a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

At summary judgment, a court's function is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. The evidence of the nonmovant is "to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255. But if the evidence of the nonmoving party is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249-50.

C. Federal Claims - 42 U.S.C. § 1983

42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress...

Section 1983 provides a mechanism for the private enforcement of substantive rights conferred by the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989). Section 1983 "is not itself a source of substantive rights, ' but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.'" Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)). "To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must [1] allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must [2] show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

Plaintiffs' remaining Section 1983 claims are under the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment is applicable against state and local governments by incorporation through the Fourteenth Amendment. Colorado v. Bannister, 448 U.S. 1, 2 (1980). This Court previously held that Glover enjoys qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment claims. (Dkt. No. 61.) Conversely, the Court held that he does not enjoy qualified immunity for the Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claims-a holding the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Mathis, 633 F.3d at 879. Qualified immunity is not a defense available to local government units, such as counties. Eng v. Cooley, 552 F.3d 1062, 1064 n.1 (9th Cir. 2009). Thus, the County may be liable for Glover's alleged constitutional violations notwithstanding any personal immunity he enjoys.

In Monell, the Supreme Court held that local government units are "persons" for the purposes of Section 1983. 436 U.S. at 690. A plaintiff may establish Monell liability by showing at least one of the following:

(1) conduct pursuant to an official policy inflicted the injury; (2) the constitutional tort was the result of a "longstanding practice or custom which constitutes the standard operating procedure of the local government entity;" (3) the tortfeasor was an official whose acts fairly represent official policy such that the challenged action constituted official policy; or (4) an official with final policy-making authority "delegated that authority to, or ratified the decision of, a subordinate."

Price v. Sery, 513 F.3d 962, 966 (9th Cir. 2008). Plaintiffs assert claims under the first and third of these methods (official policy and final policy-maker). "Generally, a municipality is liable under Monell only if a municipal policy or custom was the moving force' behind the constitutional violation.... In other words, there must be a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation.'" Villegas v. Gilroy Garlic Festival Ass'n, 541 F.3d, 950, 957 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989)).

As to the first method, the plaintiff must prove that the official "committed the alleged constitutional violation pursuant to a formal governmental policy or a longstanding practice or custom which constitutes the standard operating procedure of the local government entity.'" Gillette v. Delmore, 979 F.2d 1342, 1347 (9th Cir. 1992) (quoting Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989) (emphasis added)). Whether the official acted pursuant to policy or custom is a question of fact. Villegas, 541 F.3d at 964.

Concerning the third method, "[a] single decision by a municipal policymaker may be sufficient to trigger section 1983 liability under Monell, even though the decision is not intended to govern future situations." Gillette v. Delmore, 979 F.2d 1342, 1347 (9th Cir. 1992). However, "[m]unicipal liability under section 1983 attaches only where a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question.'" Id. (quoting Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986)). Whether a deliberate choice was made among various alternatives is a question of fact. See Quiroz v. Licalsi, 2005 WL 3283708 at *33 (E.D. Cal. 2005).

The Court previously held that Glover was a final policy-maker for the County in the area of securing property during his tenure as Public Administrator. For Monell liability to attach under the final-policymaker theory then, the dispositive questions are (1) whether Glover committed the alleged constitutional violations; and (2) whether he deliberately chose to take the actions constituting those violations from among various alternatives. On summary judgment, the Court must determine whether there any genuine disputes of fact that a jury must resolve regarding either of these two questions. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a).

1. Fourth Amendment (Third and Fourth Claims for Relief)

Plaintiffs allege an unconstitutional search of the Mathis House and an unconstitutional seizure of personal property found therein. At the time of the alleged violations, the House was held in the Mathis Trust. Some of the personal property belonged to Joseph (and thus the Mathis Trust upon his death) and some belonged to the brothers (who were storing it at the Mathis House).

To prevail on a Fourth Amendment claim for an unconstitutional search or seizure, the plaintiff must prove that (1) she had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place searched or property seized; and (2) the search or seizure was unreasonable. Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 374 (1986). The Court assesses the Fourth Amendment violation in relation to the County's possible liability under Monell, as Glover has qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment claim. The first issue to determine the County's liability is whether Glover violated the Fourth Amendment, which necessitates asking if Plaintiffs have Fourth Amendment "standing" and if the search was reasonable.

a. Legitimate Expectation of Privacy / "Standing"

"To invoke Fourth Amendment protection, Plaintiffs must have both a subjective and an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy." Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967). A property interest alone is insufficient. Lavan v. City of Los Angeles, 693 F.3d 1022, 1035 (9th Cir. 2012). "There must also be an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in that property interest." Id. "In order to determine whether an expectation of privacy is reasonable, Katz posits a two-part inquiry: first, has the individual manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged search? Second, is society willing to recognize that expectation as reasonable?'" Id. (quoting Cal. v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207, 211 (1986)). The necessity of a reasonable (i.e., legitimate) expectation of privacy is also referred to as Fourth Amendment "standing." Minn. v. Carter, 525 U.S. 83, 87 (1998).

Courts may consider various factors to determine whether a claimant had a legitimate expectation of privacy. The ability to exclude others weighs strongly in favor of claimants, although it is not necessary to establish an exclusive possessory interest. U.S. v. $40, 955.00 in U.S. Currency, 554 F.3d 752, 757 (9th Cir. 2009). A person who stores items in another's home may have a legitimate expectation of privacy in that home, depending on circumstance and factors such as whether periodically checking on the property is permitted. See U.S. v. Davis, 932 F.2d 752, 757 (9th Cir. 1991) (citing U.S. v. Harwood, 470 F.2d 322 (10th Cir. 1972)). However, mere ownership of stored items is insufficient to entitle the property's owner to challenge the search of the area in which the property was found. Currency, 554 F.3d at 757-58. The Court also may consider the severity of the intrusion in determining whether Plaintiffs had a legitimate expectation of privacy. U.S. v. Nerber, 222 F.3d 597, 599-600 (9th Cir. 2000).

The home receives the greatest protection under the Fourth Amendment. Payton v. N.Y., 445 U.S. 573, 585 (1980) ("[P]hysical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). Consequently, the showing required to establish a legitimate expectation of privacy in the home is less than in a commercial or other non-residential space.

Fourth Amendment standing is a mixed question of law and fact; where the facts are stipulated or are found by a fact-finder, the court determines as a matter of law whether the claimant had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place searched. See U.S. v. Singleton, 987 F.2d 1444, 1447 (9th Cir. 1993). On summary judgment then, the issues are whether there is a genuine dispute as to the Plaintiffs' subjective expectation that the Mathis House ...

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