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PEOPLE UNITED FOR CHILDREN, INC. v. CITY OF NEW YORK

April 21, 2003

PEOPLE UNITED FOR CHILDREN, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert J. Ward, United States District Judge.

OPINION

Plaintiffs have moved pursuant to Rule 23, Fed.R. Civ. P., for an order certifying this action as a class action. For the reasons hereinafter stated, plaintiffs' motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

In this civil rights action, plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated individuals, seek relief for alleged constitutional violations by defendant Administration for Children's Services ("ACS"). Plaintiff People United For Children, Inc. ("People United") is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1983. It conducts support group meetings for individuals who have lost custody of their children to ACS. The named individual plaintiffs are African American or black parents*fn1 affiliated with People United. Defendants are the City of New York, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, ACS and its predecessor agency, the Child Welfare Administration,*fn2 and Nicholas Scoppetta, former Commissioner of ACS. ACS is responsible for investigating and prosecuting incidents of child abuse and neglect.

Plaintiffs allege a number of system-wide deficiencies in ACS' 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 and 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." (Am. Compl. ¶ 37). According to plaintiffs, the "overwhelming majority of the parents and children impacted by defendants' proclaimed policy have been African Americans." (Pls.' Mem. of Law at 6). As a consequence, plaintiffs allege that they have been deprived of their rights under the First, Fourth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and Articles I and XVII of the New York State Constitution.*fn3 They seek class certification under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23.

DISCUSSION

I. Standards for Class Certification

Plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing that the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 are satisfied. Selby v. Principal Mut. Life Ins. Co., 197 F.R.D. 48, 54 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). For the class to be certified, plaintiffs must show that the putative class meets all of the requirements of Rule 23(a) and qualifies under one of the three categories set forth in Rule 23(b). Marisol A. ex rel. Forbes v. Giuliani, 929 F. Supp. 662, 689 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) ("Marisol I"), aff'd, 126 F.3d 372 (2d Cir. 1997) ("Marisol II"). In the present case, plaintiffs seek certification under Rule 23(b)(2).

A court may grant certification only if it is satisfied, after a "rigorous analysis," that the prerequisites of Rule 23 have been met. General Tel. Co. of Southwest v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 161 (1982). At the same time, plaintiffs' allegations are accepted as true and the court will not consider the merits of plaintiffs' claims when determining the propriety of class certification. Weigmann v. Glorious Food, Inc., 169 F.R.D. 280, 284 (S.D.N.Y. 1996). Moreover, liberal consideration of the requirements of Rule 23 is allowed "because courts have discretion to tailor the scope of the class later in the litigation." Id.; see also Sharif v. New York State Educ. Dep't, 127 F.R.D. 84, 87 (S.D.N.Y. 1989) ("[I]f an error is to be made with respect to class certification, it is to be `in favor and not against the maintenance of a class action.'"). As the Second Circuit indicated, "[t]he rule's inherent flexibility, and the district court's ability to manage the litigation as it develops, counsel against decertification." Marisol II, 126 F.3d at 377. Furthermore, a court may probe "beyond the pleadings and consider the range of proof necessary to support class certification." Daniels v. City of New York, 198 F.R.D. 409, 413 n. 5 (S.D.N.Y. 2001).

II. Class Definition

In this case, plaintiffs propose that the certified class consist of:

All parents or other persons legally responsible for the care of children within the City of New York who, pursuant to the City of New York's Administration for Children's Services policy of resolving "any ambiguity regarding the safety of a child . . . in favor of removing the child from harm's way" and only returning children "only [sic] when families demonstrate to the satisfaction of ACS that their children are safe and secure", have or will be:
(i) subjected to the removal of their children from their custody following an allegation of child neglect or abuse without an investigation as to whether the children are or will be in imminent danger if they remained in the custody of their parents and without notice and opportunity to be heard for a Family Court Order; and/or
(ii) subjected to the entry into and search of their homes by employees or agents of ACS following an allegation of child neglect or abuse where there has been [sic] determination that that [sic] the children are in imminent danger and without a Family Court Order; and/or
(iii) subjected to the removal of their children from their custody without being provided with the available procedures, programs or services for retaining or regaining custody of their children; and/or
(iv) discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the New York State Constitution. (Gibbs Decl. ¶ 2).*fn4
In short, the proposed definition contemplates a class composed of all parents who may be subjected to defendants' allegedly unconstitutional policies, practices, and customs, and a subclass of parents who may be discriminated against on the basis of race.

Defendants contend that the revised class definition is not workable because it is overly broad. Specifically, defendants argue that the proposed class includes every parent or other person legally responsible for the care of a child in New York City. In addition, defendants take issue with plaintiffs' allegedly "confusing and contradictory series of proposed class definitions." (Defs.' Mem. of Law in Opp'n at 8). Plaintiffs, on the other hand, claim that they revised the class definition to better conform with the Amended Complaint and this Court's decision in People United for Children, Inc. v. City of New York, 108 F. Supp.2d 275 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). They request that the Court redefine the proposed class to include only African American parents and guardians, if the Court finds their revised definition unsatisfactory.

District courts have broad discretion over class definition. Boucher v. Syracuse Univ., 164 F.3d 113, 118 (2d Cir. 1999). Nevertheless, courts should ensure that the class definition is "precise, objective, and presently ascertainable." Nicholson v. Williams, 205 F.R.D. 92, 97 (E.D.N.Y. 2001) (quoting Manual for Complex Litigation § 30.14 (3d ed. 1995)).

In the present case, it is not necessary to determine whether the revised class definition is overbroad because this Court finds that portions of plaintiffs' original class definition, particularly as it pertains to African American parents and legal guardians, more accurately sets forth their allegations and legal claims. As stated in Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Class Certification, the gravamen of their section 1983 claim is that ACS' putative policy "violate[s] the rights of African American parents to substantive and procedural due process, to equal protection of the law. . . ." (Pls.' Mem. at 2; Am. Compl. ¶ 98) (emphasis added). Plaintiffs include People United and individual African American or black parents.*fn5 In addition, plaintiffs claim that the class they seek to certify consists of "more than 1,000 African Americans who have already been harmed by defendants' discriminatory, otherwise unlawful, arbitrary and capricious enforcement of their aforementioned policy." (Pls.' Mem. at 2) (emphasis added). Furthermore, they contend that the "class representative plaintiffs, African American parents who have been threatened with the removal of their children or whose children were or are in the custody of the [ACS], are typical of the other members of this class." Id. at 3 (emphasis added). It is clear from these statements that the gravamen of plaintiffs' claim is to seek relief for African American or black parents and legal guardians. Thus, at this stage of the litigation,*fn6 the Court finds that the following definition of the proposed class, including five subclasses, more accurately reflects plaintiffs' allegations:

African American or black parents or persons legally responsible for the care of children within the City of New York, who are subject to the Administration for Children's Services' policy of resolving "any 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 "only when families demonstrate to the satisfaction of ACS that their children are safe and secure," and who have or will be:
(i) threatened with the removal of their children following allegations of child neglect or abuse by the Administration for Children's Services without a proper investigation as to whether their children will be in danger if they remain in the custody of their parents;
(ii) subjected to the removal of their children following allegations of child neglect or abuse by the Administration for Children's Services without a proper investigation as to whether their children will be in danger if they remain in the custody of their parents;
(iii) subjected to the removal of their children from their custody following allegations of child neglect or abuse without notice and opportunity to be heard in Family Court;
(iv) subjected to the removal of their children and not provided with procedures, programs, or services for retaining or regaining custody of their children; and/or
(v) subjected to the removal of their children and despite having successfully completed the available programs or services for regaining the custody of their children, have not had their children returned to them.
III. Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)

In order to be eligible for class certification, plaintiffs must first demonstrate that the putative class meets all four prerequisites of Rule 23(a). Once this requirement is satisfied, plaintiffs must show that the proposed class falls into one of the categories of maintainable actions under Rule 23(b). Marisol I, 929 F. Supp. at 690. Rule 23(a) provides that:

One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.
A. Numerosity

Under Rule 23(a)(1), the class must be "so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable." Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(1). In this action, defendants do not challenge the numerosity requirement, which is satisfied by the proposed class of over 1,000 African American parents and legal guardians.

B. Commonality

The commonality requirement of Rule 23(a) is satisfied "if plaintiffs' grievances share a common question of law or of fact." Marisol II, 126 F.3d at 372; see also Baby Neal ex rel. Kanter v. Casey, 43 F.3d 48, 57 (3d Cir. 1994). Rule 23(a)(2) does not mandate that the named plaintiffs show that all class members' claims are identical. Fox v. Cheminova, Inc., No. CV 00-5145, 2003 WL 900901, at *10 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 28, 2003). So long as the class shares at least one question of fact or law, the commonality requirement is met. Marisol I, 929 F. Supp. at 690. In the context of child welfare class actions, plaintiffs may satisfy this requirement if "their injuries derive from a unitary course of conduct by a single system," even though the individual situations of class members differ. Marisol II, 126 F.3d at 377.

Here, the Court finds that plaintiffs meet the commonality requirement because common questions of law and fact exist among the class members. See Alexander A. ex rel. Barr v. Novello, 210 F.R.D. 27, 33 (E.D.N.Y. 2002). Although plaintiffs in this action present numerous questions of law and fact, the primary question of law common to the entire class appears to be: whether ACS' policy of resolving any ambiguity regarding the safety of a child in favor of removing the child from harm's way, and returning children to their parents and guardians only when families demonstrate to the satisfaction of ACS that their homes are safe, violates the Constitution, particularly as that policy applies to black parents and guardians? Plaintiffs' common question of fact appears to be: whether ACS has systematically failed to (1) fully investigate allegations of child neglect and abuse against black parents and guardians before removing children from their custody; and/or (2) provide black parents and ...


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