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Niebla v. County of San Diego

filed: June 23, 1992.

ANGELICA NIEBLA, BY AND THROUGH HER GUARDIAN AD LITEM, MARCELINO NIEBLA; MARCELINO NIEBLA, AN INDIVIDUAL; MARIA NIEBLA, AN INDIVIDUAL, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



On Appeal From the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. D.C. No. CV-90-0543-B(M). Rudi M. Brewster, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Sneed, Beezer and Trott, Circuit Judges.

MEMORANDUM

This appeal raises the question: What does the Constitution require a county social worker to do before seeking a court order authorizing emergency medical treatment for a child whose religion proscribes that treatment? Angelica Niebla and her parents are Jehovah's Witnesses who object on religious grounds to blood transfusions. When Angelica was twelve years old and again when she was fifteen, county social workers successfully sought emergency, ex parte orders authorizing blood transfusions. The Nieblas sued the county alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1988) and California law. The district court dismissed the federal claims under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and remanded the pendant state claims. The Nieblas timely appeal the dismissal. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988) and we affirm.

I

Angelica Niebla and her parents, Marcelino and Maria Niebla, are Jehovah's Witnesses. They accept their faith's teaching that receiving a blood transfusion is a serious violation of God's Word as expressed in the admonition to "abstain from blood." See, e.g., Acts 15:29. They also believe that a transfusion involves more danger and uncertainty than non-Witnesses generally associate with the procedure.

In October 1986, twelve year old Angelica was hospitalized with a falling blood count. On October 13, 1986, following a doctor's request, a social worker from San Diego County ("the county") obtained an ex parte custody and transfusion order over the telephone from the Juvenile Division of the San Diego County Superior Court. No blood was transfused. The next day, the juvenile court took testimony from Angelica's parents regarding the family's opposition to blood transfusions. The court left the blood order in place and continued the hearing. On October 21, 1986, the court withdrew the order because blood had not been transfused and Angelica's condition had improved.

On December 10 and 11, 1986, the juvenile court held a trial on the medical neglect petition the county had filed against Angelica's parents. Angelica, her parents and Angelica's attending physician testified. The court dismissed the petition. In the course of the proceeding, Angelica's attorney urged the court to find that Angelica was a "mature minor" capable of determining her own medical care in the future. The court refused to make this finding.

In March 1989, Angelica, then fifteen years old, was again admitted to the University of California at San Diego Medical Center. On the morning of March 11, on a doctor's recommendation, a county social worker obtained an emergency, ex parte custody and transfusion order over the telephone from Judge Kapiloff of the juvenile court. Later that morning, Angelica's attorney arrived at the hospital and tried, through the social worker, to arrange for a hearing at the hospital to establish Angelica's decisionmaking capacity. Judge Kapiloff declined to hold a hearing at the hospital. That evening, Angelica received a transfusion despite her protestations.

On March 13, 1989, Judge Kapiloff granted an emergency, ex parte order for all transfusions needed to save Angelica's life during her hospitalization. On March 15, the Nieblas petitioned the California Court of Appeal for a writ of habeas corpus. On March 16, the county filed a medical neglect petition against Angelica's parents and a detention hearing was scheduled for the next day.

At the March 17 detention hearing, which Angelica attended, the juvenile court referee refused to modify Judge Kapiloff's previous transfusion order. The next day, Angelica was transfused, over her objections. On March 20, the county withdrew its request for custody; three days later, the California Court of Appeal denied habeas corpus. On April 14, the juvenile court dismissed the medical neglect petition.

On March 12, 1990, the Nieblas filed in state court a complaint seeking injunctive relief, a declaratory judgment and damages under both section 1983 and California law. On April 10, they filed an amended complaint which was served on the county two days later. The county then removed the action to federal court. After a hearing, the district court dismissed with prejudice all the federal causes of action for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. It is from this dismissal that the Nieblas appeal.

"A dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12[(b)(6)] is a ruling on a question of law and as such is reviewed de novo." Kruso v. International Tel. & Tel. Corp., 872 F.2d 1416, 1421 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 100 S. Ct. 3217 (1990). Review is limited to the contents of the complaint. Love v. United States, 871 F.2d 1488, 1491 (9th Cir. 1989). A complaint should not be dismissed under the rule "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claims which would entitle him to relief." Id. (quotation omitted). All allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the district court should have abstained. The Court concluded that, where there is a pending state proceeding, "abstention is appropriate unless state law clearly bars the interposition of the constitutional claim." Id. at 425-26.

II

The county suggests that this case calls for federal abstention under the Younger principles. See generally, Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). In general, where the government is a party to a civil suit, federal courts will abstain if proceedings exist in the state system to adjudicate ...


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