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Estate of Manstrom-Greening v. Lane County

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

June 6, 2019

ESTATE OF WILLIAM HAN MANSTROM-GREENING, by and through Carol J. Manstrom, Personal Representative, Plaintiff,
v.
LANE COUNTY; LANE COUNTY PAROLE AND PROBATION; DONOVAN DUMIRE; and GLENN GREENING, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. McShane United States District Judge

         William Manstrom-Greening was 17 years old when, on February 14, 2017, he committed suicide with his father's service weapon. In response to that tragedy, Carol Manstrom, the mother of Mr. Manstrom-Greening, filed the instant action on behalf of her son's estate. Ms. Manstrom brings one substantive due process claim and one state-law wrongful death claim against the father of Mr. Manstrom-Greening, Lane County, and Donovan Dumire. The Court previously allowed both claims to proceed to discovery. At issue now is whether Defendants may, in one form or another, attempt to reduce their share of any potential liability, or avoid liability altogether, by proving that Ms. Manstrom's conduct also contributed to the death of her son. The question is purely a legal one at this still-early stage in the litigation and the Court remains deeply skeptical that the facts will support Plaintiff's claims or Defendants' theory of contribution. Nevertheless, as a matter of law, the Court finds that Defendants may attempt to demonstrate that Ms. Manstrom's conduct also contributed to her son's death. Any discovery on the defense, however, will be deferred until after the Court resolves dispositive motions on the principle claims.

         BACKGROUND

         The parties are familiar with the facts as alleged and the Court offers only a brief summary here. On the morning of February 14, 2017, William Manstrom-Greening reached for a semiautomatic pistol and took his own life. First Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 13, ECF No. 19. Mr. Manstrom-Greening was staying at his father's home when the incident occurred and found the weapon sitting on a desk in the living room. FAC ¶ 11. The weapon belonged to his father, Glenn Greening, who was an active-duty Parole and Probation Office for Lane County. FAC ¶¶ 8, 13. Mr. Greening was authorized to carry the pistol as his service weapon and required to retain possession while away from work. FAC ¶¶ 9, 10. Upon returning home from work on February 13, 2017, Mr. Greening placed the weapon, loaded and unsecured, on his living room desk. FAC ¶ 11. The weapon remained there until used by his son the next morning. FAC ¶¶ 11-12.

         On March 3, 2018, Mr. Manstrom-Greening's estate, by and through his mother, Carol Manstrom, filed the instant suit. The FAC names Lane County, Mr. Greening, and Mr. Greening's supervisor, Donovan Dumire, as defendants. FAC ¶¶ 4-6. As to each defendant, Plaintiff brings one claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the decedent's right to substantive due process based on a danger creation theory of liability. FAC ¶¶ 24-29. Mr. Greening is named in his individual capacity and Mr. Dumire is named in his individual and official capacities. FAC ¶¶ 24-29. Plaintiff also asserts one state-law wrongful death claim against Mr. Greening and Lane County based on a negligence theory of liability. FAC ¶¶ 30-38.

         In their response, Lane County and Mr. Dumire assert the affirmative defense of contributory negligence and bring crossclaims against Ms. Manstrom for contributory negligence and contribution. County Defs.' Answer to Am. Compl. (“County Answer”) ¶¶ 36-53, ECF No. 35. Mr. Greening, in his response, also asserts the affirmative defenses of contributory negligence and unclean hands. Greening Answer to Am. Compl. (“Greening Answer”) ¶¶ 41, 44, ECF No. 19. Lane County and Mr. Dumire-but not Mr. Greening-previously moved to dismiss the FAC, arguing that Plaintiff failed to state a claim under Section 1983. On December 12, 2018, the Court adopted Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin's recommendation and denied that motion.

         There are currently three motions pending before the Court. First, Lane County and Mr. Dumire move to permissively join Ms. Manstrom as a co-defendant pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 20(a)(2) and assert against her their already-pleaded crossclaims of contributory negligence and contribution. Second, Plaintiff moves to strike Lane County and Mr. Dumire's crossclaim for contributory negligence-which it interprets as a counterclaim for wrongful death-and their affirmative defense of contributory negligence.[1] Finally, Plaintiff moves pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) for partial judgment on the pleadings as to Mr. Greening's affirmative defenses of contributory negligence and unclean hands.

         This case was originally assigned to Magistrate Judge Coffin. It was reassigned to this Court on March 1, 2019. Prior to the case being reassigned, Magistrate Judge Coffin issued a Findings and Recommendation (“F&R”) addressing Defendants' motion for permissive joinder and Plaintiff's motion to strike. In his F&R, Judge Coffin recommended that the Court grant Plaintiff's motion to strike and deny Defendants' motion to permissibly join Ms. Manstrom. Defendants timely filed objections and Plaintiff subsequently filed her motion for judgment on the pleadings. On March 11, the Court heard oral arguments on all three motions and preliminarily denied the motion for joinder. Since the motions are related and involve virtually the same issues, the Court addresses them in a single Opinion and Order.

         STANDARDS

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings “challenges the legal sufficiency of the opposing party's pleadings.” Morgan v. Cty. of Yolo, 436 F.Supp.2d 1152, 1154-55 (E.D. Cal. 2006), aff'd, 277 Fed.Appx. 734 (9th Cir. 2008). Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), a party may move for judgment on the pleadings “after the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial.” A motion for judgment on the pleadings will only be granted if “there is no issue of material fact in dispute, ” Fleming v. Pickard, 581 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2009), and “the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Geraci v. Homestreet Bank, 347 F.3d 749, 751 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation and quotations omitted). Similarly, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f), a party may move to strike any affirmative defense that is, inter alia, “insufficient.” A plaintiff must file her motion to strike within 21 days after being served with the defendant's answer. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f)(2). In the case of both types of motion, an affirmative defense is adequately pleaded if the answer provides a plaintiff with “fair notice of the defense.” Simmons v. Navajo Cty., 609 F.3d 1011, 1023 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Castro v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 833 F.3d 1060 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc). “[T]he fair notice required by the pleadings standards only requires describing the defense in general terms.” Kohler v. Flava Enters., Inc., 779 F.3d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation and quotations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         The pending motions, although superficially distinct, raise two common issues. The first issue concerns the proper procedural mechanism by which a defendant may attempt to reduce her share of potential liability relative to the fault of a plaintiff when the plaintiff is acting as a personal representative and beneficiary of a decedent's estate. The second issue concerns whether the defendants here may, based on their pleadings and as a matter of law, attempt to reduce their share of any potential liability, or avoid liability altogether, by proving that Ms. Manstrom's conduct also contributed to the death of her son. The Court addresses each issue in turn.

         I. Proper Procedural Mechanism.

         Defendants attempt to limit their share of potential liability by pleading crossclaims for contributory negligence and contribution against Ms. Manstrom, pleading an affirmative defense of contributory negligence against Ms. Manstrom, and by moving to join Ms. Manstrom as a co-defendant. As discussed below, pleading the affirmative defense of contributory ...


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