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Sinaloa Lake Owners Association v. City of Simi Valley

filed: November 30, 1995.

SINALOA LAKE OWNERS ASSOCIATION; ROBERT A. AIN; DIANTHA AIN; LEONARD BELLENSON; ANN BELLENSON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
CITY OF SIMI VALLEY, DEFENDANT, AND ROGER STEPHENSON; JAMES DOODY; VERNON H. PERSSON; DAVID JACINTO; JAMES E. LEY; HOWARD MCEWAN, EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF SHELDON MCEWAN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. CV-83-8220-ER. Edward Rafeedie, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Procter Hug, Jr., Charles Wiggins, and John T. Noonan, Jr., Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Hug.

Author: Hug

HUG, Circuit Judge:

This appeal concerns a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against state officials for breaching a private dam and the consequent draining of a private lake. The dam was breached by officials of the California Division of Safety of Dams ("DSOD") because they believed it was in a damaged condition and dangerous to the homeowners downstream. The DSOD is responsible for inspecting non-federally owned dams in California. At the close of the presentation of evidence by the plaintiffs and defendants, the district court entered judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the state officials were entitled to qualified immunity. The principal issue is whether, in light of the evidence presented at trial, the state officials were entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. We affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Sinaloa Lake Owners Association, Inc. ("SLOA") owns a private dam and the lake behind the dam. The dam is an earthen structure, 800 feet long and 30 feet high, and is located upstream from the City of Simi Valley. In early 1983, after heavy rains raised the lake's water level endangering the safety of the dam, the DSOD declared an emergency, breached the dam, and drained the lake.

The SLOA and a group of homeowners brought this section 1983 action on December 16, 1983, against the City of Simi Valley, the County of Ventura, the DSOD, and the officials of DSOD for inverse condemnation, for seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and for violation of both substantive and procedural due process rights guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted the state officials' motion to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiffs' claims were not ripe for review because they had failed to exhaust state and judicial remedies. On appeal from the entry of judgment on the pleadings, we affirmed the dismissal of the Fourth Amendment claim and the inverse condemnation claim. We reversed the dismissal of the procedural and substantive due process claims and remanded for trial. Sinaloa Lake Owners Ass'n v. City of Simi Valley, 882 F.2d 1398, 1404-10 (9th Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 494 U.S. 1016, 108 L. Ed. 2d 493, 110 S. Ct. 1317 (1990) (" Sinaloa I "). Following the remand, the City and County were dismissed by stipulation of the parties. The DSOD, as an agency of the State, was dismissed on Eleventh Amendment grounds for lack of jurisdiction. That order was appealed under a Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b) certification, and we affirmed that order in an unpublished memorandum Disposition. Sinaloa Lake Owners Ass'n v. California Division of State of Dams, No. 91-56352 (9th Cir. May 17, 1993).

The case proceeded to a jury trial against the individual employees of the DSOD. At the Conclusion of the plaintiffs' presentation of the evidence, the district court found that all defendants except James Doody, Chief Engineer of the DSOD, were entitled to qualified immunity and entered judgment as a matter of law in their favor. At the Conclusion of the trial of the remaining claim against Doody, the district court held that Doody also was entitled to qualified immunity and entered judgment as a matter of law in his favor. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm.

II.

RELATIONSHIP TO PRIOR APPEAL

In the prior appeal before our court, the district court dismissed the complaint for lack of ripeness, and therefore, lack of jurisdiction. Sinaloa I, 882 F.2d 1398. In considering the appeal we were required to take the allegations in the complaint as true. Id. at 1401. The focus of the appeal was whether the complaint alleged any valid claims for relief for which there was jurisdiction. We held that violation of procedural and substantive due process rights had been adequately alleged in the complaint. At that stage, the question of qualified immunity was not an issue because we were merely dealing with the allegations of the complaint.

This appeal concerns the issue of qualified immunity and the entry of a judgment as a matter of law at the completion of the trial. The issue before us is not the substantive issue of whether the plaintiffs were or were not deprived of property without due process of law, but rather whether these state officials were entitled to qualified immunity in carrying out their official duties. We conclude that they were.

III.

QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

It is important to note at the outset the purpose of the defense of qualified immunity. The Supreme Court stated "the central purpose of affording public officials qualified immunity is to protect them 'from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.'" Elder v. Holloway, 127 L. Ed. 2d 344, 114 S. Ct. 1019, 1022 (1994) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 806, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982)). The qualified immunity defense allows for mistaken judgments and protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229, 116 L. Ed. 2d 589, 112 S. Ct. 534 (1991) (per curiam) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 89 L. Ed. 2d 271, 106 S. Ct. 1092 ...


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