Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Ninth Circuit Panel Declares:
LASD, Baca Properly Granted Summary Judgment
Man Whose $780,000 Commission That Was Seized Won’t Get It Back
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed a summary judgment in favor of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, former Sheriff Lee Baca, and others in an action brought by a man who was charged with grand theft, acquitted, and was rebuffed in his effort to regain possession of $780,000 in funds which deputies seized from him.
The plaintiff, Flavio Rodriguez, suing under federal civil rights statutes, sought a return of the money, damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, and punitive damages. He argued that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (“LASD”), through its “Friends of the Sheriff” program, dispensed favors to financial contributors, and that the man who wound up with his money was in that category.
LASD, Baca, and two other defendants who had been connected with the department argued that they could not return to Rodriguez what they did not possess. The funds had been turned over to Stanley Toy Jr., a San Gabriel ophthalmologist who was a major donor to candidates.
Toy claimed in 2008 that he was conned into making a $3 million investment—being assured that his return would be $100 million—and that the $780,000, realized by Rodriguez as a commission, was part of the money he should get back.
An internal Sheriff’s Department document that year identified Toy as “a friend of the sheriff” and said:
“We need to make absolutely sure there will not be a problem when it comes time to reimburse the victim.”
Rodriguez argued that Toy was a close friend of Baca, who appointed him a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Reserve; that defendant Larry Waldie, then-undersheriff and also a friend, made a false police report creating the erroneous impression that Toy had an entitlement to $3 million; and that the funds seized from him were quickly disbursed to Toy by defendant James Corbin, then a Sheriff’s Department investigator, contrary to advice from a deputy district attorney.
High Court Precedent
U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford of the Central District of California granted a judgment against Rodriguez finding, in part, that the action against the Sheriff’s Department was barred under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 which sets forth the criteria for a civil rights action against a local governmental entity. Guilford found missing one of the elements: that “the custom, policy, or practice was the moving force behind the employee’s violations of the person’s rights.”
Rodriguez argued in appeal:
“Rodriguez established that the “Friends of the Sheriff” program was THE ONLY ‘MOVING FORCE’ behind the violation of Rodriguez’s procedural due process right to notice and a hearing before his seized funds were disbursed to Toy—YEARS before Rodriguez was tried and acquitted. Rodriguez’s evidence establishes that…the ‘Friends of the Sheriff’ program pervaded the [department] during Baca’s tenure.”
In a memorandum opinion yesterday, a three-judge panel—comprised of Judges Richard Randall Clifton and John B. Owens, joined by U.S. District Judge John Antoon II of the Middle District of Florida, sitting by designation— said:
“The district court properly granted summary judgment to the LASD because Rodriguez failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether any ‘Friends of the Sheriff’ program was the ‘moving force’ behind the alleged violation of his due process rights.”
The opinion cited a 2011 Ninth Circuit opinion elaborating upon Monell.
It said summary judgment was properly awarded Baca because “Rodriguez failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Baca was either personally involved in or sufficiently causally connected to the alleged due process violation.”
The panel declared that Guilford properly awarded summary judgment to Waldie and Corbin based on qualified immunity “because Rodriguez failed to show that it was ‘clearly established’ that the circumstances here violated his due process rights.”
Rodriguez also sued Toy, alleging conversion. The doctor argued that the $780,000 in dispute was part of the $3 million that he had handed over to the perpetrator of an investment scam and was rightly returned to him, pursuant to a court order.
Yesterday’s opinion said that summary judgment in favor of Toy was appropriate “because Rodriguez failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Toy’s disposition of the disbursed funds was inconsistent with Rodriguez’s property rights.”
The case is Rodriguez v. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, No. 15-56487.
Orange County attorneys Alexandria C. Phillips and Thomas R. Lamons represented Rodriguez and Thomas C. Hurrell and Melinda Cantrall of the Los Angeles firm of Hurrell Cantrall LLP argued for the defendants.
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