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PEOPLE UNITED FOR CHILDREN v. CITY OF NEW YORK
July 18, 2000
PEOPLE UNITED FOR CHILDREN, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert J. Ward, District Judge.
Plaintiffs brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1988
alleging violations of their rights secured by the First, Fourth,
Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States
Constitution, and various provisions of the New York State
Constitution and the Family Court Act. Defendants moved pursuant
to Rule 12(b)(1), FED. R. CIV. P, for an order dismissing
plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction,
and for federal court abstention. They have also moved pursuant
to Rule 12(b)(6), FED. R. CIV. P, for an order dismissing
plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted. For the reasons hereinafter stated,
defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and
request for abstention are denied. Defendants' motion to dismiss
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is granted in part and denied in part.
Plaintiff People United For Children, Inc. ("People United") is
a non-profit organization that was founded in 1983. It conducts a
weekly support group for individuals who have lost custody of
their children to the defendant Administration for Children's
Services ("ACS"). The individual named plaintiffs, whose
particular allegations are set forth below, are affiliated with
People United. Defendants are the City of New York, Mayor Rudolph
W. Giuliani, ACS and its predecessor agency, the Child Welfare
Administration ("CWA"), and Nicholas Scoppetta, the Commissioner
of ACS. ACS, like its predecessor CWA, is responsible for
investigating and prosecuting incidents of child abuse and
II. Alleged System-Wide Deficiencies
Plaintiffs allege a number of system-wide deficiencies in ACS's
administration of New York City's child welfare program. They
contend that ACS fails to fully investigate allegations of child
neglect and abuse against parents or legal guardians before
removing children from their custody. This failure to investigate
allegedly results from ACS' proclaimed policy of resolving "[a]ny
ambiguity regarding the safety of a child . . . in favor of
removing the child from harm's way," and returning children to
their parents or guardians "[o]nly when families demonstrate to
the satisfaction of ACS that their homes are safe and secure."
First Amended Complaint at ¶ 37 ("Complaint"). According to
plaintiffs, this failure to investigate deprives plaintiffs of
their rights under the First, Fourth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and
Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and
Article XVII of the New York State Constitution. Plaintiffs also
allege that ACS fails to provide them with information concerning
available procedures and programs which will assist them in
regaining custody of their children in violation of various
provisions of New York's Family Court Act. Furthermore,
plaintiffs claim that ACS fails to adequately monitor and
supervise other foster care providers which are subcontractors of
In support of these general allegations, plaintiffs set forth
the circumstances of a number of individuals who have allegedly
been subjected to the challenged policies and practices of
III. Allegations Regarding Individual Plaintiffs
Each of the individual plaintiffs is a parent or legal guardian
who has been threatened with the removal of their children, or
whose children have been removed and placed into the custody of
CWA or ACS.
A. Candia Richards-Cantave and Joslin Richards-Cantave
During the course of his interrogation of Mrs.
Richards-Cantave, Mr. Small asked to see records concerning her
son's immunization. In response, Mrs. Richards-Cantave stated
that her son was only six months old and that she and her husband
had decided to delay having their son immunized because of their
religious beliefs and concerns about the safety and efficacy of
immunizations. In addition, Mrs. Richards-Cantave, who has a
Masters Degree in Public Health and was employed as the Director
of a health-related organization at the time of these events,
explained that she was breast-feeding her son and that he was in
no danger since the immunity he received from her lasts at least
eighteen months. Mrs. Richards-Cantave also handed Mr. Small
documents concerning her religious beliefs and the exemptions
from the vaccination requirements.
In response to Mrs. Richards-Cantave's statements and
presentation of supporting documents, Mr. Small stated, "in New
York State all children have to be immunized. There are no
exceptions or exemptions." Complaint at ¶ 52. Mr. Small and Ms.
Reyes then told Mrs. Richards-Cantave that she should be charged
with medical neglect and that her son should be removed from her
custody because he was not immunized. Mr. Small also requested
the name and telephone number of Mrs. Richards-Cantave's child's
physician, which Mrs. Richards-Cantave provided.
The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Richards-Cantave obtained a letter
from their child's physician stating that they were good parents
and that their son was in good health. They then visited the
Bronx ACS office accompanied by a social worker. Mr. and Mrs.
Richards-Cantave spoke to Mr. Small's supervisor, Mr. Esere, who
stated that it was not necessary for them to come to the office
and that Mr. Small had stated that there was nothing to the case.
As they were leaving the ACS office, Mr. and Mrs.
Richards-Cantave encountered Mr. Small. Contradicting his
supervisor's statements, Mr. Small began talking about their
alleged failure to immunize their son and stated that he had to
talk to ACS lawyers about the case. During the course of the
following week, Mr. Small called Mrs. Richards-Cantave on
numerous occasions, both at work and at home, to inquire as to
whether she was willing to have her son vaccinated. In response
to threats that a court order would be obtained if she did not
agree to vaccination, Mrs. Richards-Cantave repeatedly stated
that there was no medical emergency and requested that her
decision not to vaccinate her son be respected.
Subsequently, Mr. Small called Mrs. Richards-Cantave, this time
to inform her that she and her husband were required to appear in
Bronx Family Court on September 25, 1998. Mr. and Mrs.
Richards-Cantave then obtained legal counsel and went to court on
the date set. On the day of the hearing, Mr. and Mrs.
Richards-Cantave were served with copies of an Article 10
petition, which contained charges of neglect filed against them.
Despite being told that they would receive the papers prior to
the hearing date, this was the first time that Mr. and Mrs.
Richards-Cantave saw the petition. Once inside the courtroom, the
ACS attorney informed the judge that ACS was withdrawing the
Based on the condition of her apartment, which was messy and
contained a religious shrine, the ACS workers and the police
concluded that Ms. Hikmah and her granddaughter were in danger.
Ms. Hikmah was handcuffed and involuntarily taken to Harlem
Hospital. Ms. Hikmah's granddaughter was also taken to Harlem
Hospital for a pediatric examination. No signs of abuse or
neglect were subsequently reported. After four days at Harlem
Hospital, Ms. Hikmah was released when it was determined that she
was neither a danger to herself nor anyone else.
In March, 1993, Ms. Martin's three children were taken from her
custody by CWA, the predecessor agency to ACS. Ms. Martin's
daughter was placed with her grandmother, and her two sons were
placed in foster care. In November 1996, while she was
incarcerated at Rikers Island, Ms. Martin's parental rights for
her two sons were terminated in proceedings initiated by one of
ACS's contract agencies. Ms. Martin was not present during these
In August, 1995, Ms. Sherman, believing that her maternal
granddaughter would only be temporarily removed, voluntarily
placed her in the custody of CWA. CWA (or ACS) refuses to return
Ms. Sherman's granddaughter to her despite Ms. Sherman's repeated
requests and despite the fact that she has been taking care of
her granddaughter's brother for over five years without incident.
Ms. Sherman was never offered preventive services, informed of
the consequences of her actions, or informed of her right to have
her granddaughter live with her under a "kinship" program.
In the Fall of 1997, Ms. Logan's son and daughter were removed
from her custody by ACS after the public school that her son
attended reported that she refused to have him evaluated for
placement in the special education program. Thereafter, the two
children were placed in the custody of their maternal grandmother
and subsequently their maternal aunt, with whom they remain. In
June 1998, ACS wrote a letter to Ms. Logan requesting that she
contact the office regarding counseling and parenting skills
classes. The Complaint does not indicate whether Ms. Logan
enrolled in any counseling or classes. Ms. Logan is able to visit
her children but ACS refuses to return them to her custody or
develop a meaningful family reunification plan.
F. Lucille Delaphena and Jose Pena
In March 1993, Ms. Delaphena's and Mr. Pena's son and daughter
were removed from their custody and placed in foster care by CWA
after CWA received reports that Ms. Delaphena and Mr. Pena were
using drugs. Following the removal of the children, ACS (or its
predecessor CWA) failed to develop a meaningful family
reunification plan, or advise plaintiffs about, or refer
plaintiffs to, any programs that would assist them in obtaining
custody of their children. Nevertheless, Ms. Delaphena enrolled
in and successfully completed a drug treatment program as well as
a program on parenting skills. Subsequently, Ms. Delaphena's and
Mr. Pena's parental rights were terminated in proceedings
initiated by ACS, or one of ACS's contract agencies.
In April 1992, Ms. McClamy's son and daughter were removed from
her custody by CWA following an allegation that she had
physically abused her daughter. Since that time Ms. McClamy has
successfully completed parenting skills courses and received
therapy, but ACS has not yet returned her daughter to her
I. Lesley Marguerite Adams-Simien
On or about July 29, 1997, Ms. Adams-Simien's six year old
daughter was removed from her custody by employees of ACS
following allegations that Ms. Adams-Simien had inadequately
supervised her daughter. Ms. Adams-Simien has completed a
parenting skills course and is receiving therapy, but her
daughter has not been returned to her custody.
Ms. Jones was accused of leaving her children alone on at least
one occasion at a shelter. Subsequent to that event, her two
children were removed from her custody without a court order
based on an allegation that she failed to provide them with
proper supervision and guardianship. Prior to their removal, Ms.
Jones was not offered any preventive services by defendants. Ms.
Jones' children have not yet been returned to her custody.
K. Denise Johnson Burgess and James Burgess
On November 8, 1997, Ms. Johnson Burgess' and Mr. Burgess' four
daughters and granddaughter were removed from their custody by
employees of ACS and an unknown number of officers from the NYPD,
following an allegation that Ms. Johnson Burgess and Mr. Burgess
had neglected their six year old daughter. Ms. Johnson Burgess
was taken to North Central Hospital and then to the Fifty-Second
precinct police station. After several hours at the station, she
was released and the charges against her were dropped. Her
children have not been returned to her custody.
I. Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
Defendants argue that this action should be dismissed because
the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the case. In
deciding such a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), FED. R. CIV.
P., the Court must accept as true all material factual
allegations in the complaint, but should refrain from drawing any
inferences in favor of the party asserting jurisdiction.
Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co. v. Balfour Maclaine Int'l Ltd.,
968 F.2d 196, 198 (2d Cir. 1992).
Defendants rely on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to support
their argument that the Complaint should be dismissed for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction. The doctrine was first announced in
Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68
L.Ed. 362 (1923), and was reaffirmed in District of Columbia
Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75
L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, this
Court would "lack subject matter jurisdiction over a case if the
exercise of jurisdiction
over that case would result in the reversal or modification of a
state court judgment." Hachamovitch v. DeBuono, 159 F.3d 687,
693 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Moccio v. New York State Office of
Court Admin., 95 F.3d 195, 198 (2d Cir. 1996) (discussing the
history and evolution of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine).
Furthermore, Rooker-Feldman bars federal courts from
considering claims that are "inextricably intertwined" with a
prior state court determination. See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482
n. 16, 103 S.Ct. 1303; Hachamovitch, 159 F.3d at 694. The
doctrine is based on the notion that federal district courts have
no power to review state court judgments because such power is
reserved for the Supreme Court. See Hachamovitch, 159 F.3d at
Defendants argue that the Court lacks subject matter
jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because the
exercise of jurisdiction here would result in a reversal or
modification of New York State Family Court judgments upholding
the removal of plaintiffs' children. Plaintiffs counter that they
are not seeking review of these Family Court proceedings, but
rather, are challenging the general policies and practices ...