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Kenific v. Oswego County

July 23, 2010

ROBERT KENIFIC, JR.; AND SARAH SCHRAMM, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
OSWEGO COUNTY; OSWEGO COUNTY DEPT. OF SOC. SERVS.; ONONDAGA COUNTY; ONONDAGA COUNTY DEPT. OF SOC. SERVS.; CHRIS RILEY, EMPLOYEE OF ONONDAGA COUNTY DEPT. OF SOC. SERVS.;*FN1 D. HAYNES, EMPLOYEE OF OSWEGO COUNTY DEPT. OF SOC. SERVS.;*FN2 AND JOHN AND JANE DOE(S); EMPLOYEES OF ONONDAGA AND OSWEGO COUNTY DEPTS. OF SOC. SERVS., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court in this civil rights action filed by Robert Kenific, Jr. and Sarah Schramm ("Plaintiffs") are the following two motions: (1) a motion, filed by Oswego County, Oswego County Department of Social Services, Deborah Haynes, and John and Jane Does employed by Oswego County ("Oswego County Defendants"), to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for the lack of a genuine issue of material fact regarding Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (Dkt. No. 19); and (2) a motion, filed by Onondaga County, Onondaga County Department of Social Services, and Christopher O'Reilly ("Onondaga County Defendants"), to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for the lack of a genuine issue of material fact regarding Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 (Dkt. No. 20). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions for summary judgment are denied as premature, and Defendants' motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim are granted.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Relevant Procedural History

On February 27, 2007, Plaintiffs' filed their Complaint in this action. (Dkt. No. 1.) On March 26, 2007, the Onondaga County Defendants filed an Answer to Plaintiffs' Complaint. (Dkt. No. 14.)

On April 26, 2007, prior to the start of discovery, the Oswego County Defendants filed a motion for dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. (Dkt. No. 19.) In support of their alternative motion for summary judgment, the Oswego County Defendants submitted a Local Rule 7.1 Statement, as well as supporting record evidence. (Dkt. No. 19, Attach. 2 and 5.)

On May 21, 2007, the Onondaga County Defendants filed a motion for dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. (Dkt. No. 20.) In support of their alternative motion for summary judgment, the Onondaga County Defendants submitted record evidence as well as a (timely served but belatedly filed) Local Rule 7.1 Statement. (Dkt. No. 20, Attach. 1-7; Dkt. No. 24; Dkt. No. 31, ¶ 3 [Dougherty Affid.]; Dkt. No. 31, Attach 1.)

Also on May 21, 2007, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint. (Dkt. No. 21.)

On May 29, 2007, the Oswego County Defendants amended their aforementioned motion so as to address the new claims and allegations asserted in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. (Dkt. No. 26.) On June 1, 2007, the Onondaga County Defendants sought to adopt by reference the Oswego County Defendants' legal arguments. (Dkt. No. 28, at 1.)

On June 18, 2007, Plaintiffs filed their responses to Defendants' motions. (Dkt. No. 29.) In those responses, Plaintiffs did not submit either a Local Rule 7.1 Response or record evidence. (Id.) Instead, they requested discovery pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(f). (Dkt. No. 29, ¶ 2 [Bosman Affirm.].)

On July 25, 2007, Defendants' filed their replies to Plaintiffs' responses. (Dkt. Nos. 30-31.)

B. Plaintiffs' Claims

Generally, Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint arises out of the following alleged events. On or about May 25, 2005, Plaintiff Robert Kenific, Jr.'s minor child was placed in his care and custody by the child's mother due to the child's domestic dispute with, and use of violence against, the child's mother in the mother's household. (Dkt. No. 21, at ¶ 16.) While in Plaintiff Kenific's care and custody, the child resided with Plaintiff Kenific and his domestic partner, Plaintiff Sarah Schramm. (Id. at ¶ 15.) At some point during that residence, the child was diagnosed with a psychiatric or psychological disorder or disability, and was treated by physicians for that condition. (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 17.) Despite this treatment, the child initiated and committed acts of violence upon Plaintiff Kenific, requiring Plaintiffs to contact and request the assistance of the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department. (Id. at ¶ 17.) Upon doctor's orders, Plaintiff Kenific transported the child, in or about September of 2005, to a Comprehensive Psychiatric Evaluation Program ("CPEP") for treatment. (Id. at ¶ 18.) As a result of Plaintiff Kenific's transportation of the child to CPEP, either the child or his mother--who was employed by the Onondaga County Department of Social Services--falsely reported that the child had been abused, and the Onondaga County Department of Social Services was contacted. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 40.) Based upon a conflict of interest due to the employment of the child's mother, the Onondaga County Department of Social Services subsequently employed the services of the Oswego County Department of Social Services. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21.) After conducting some sort of investigation in the matter, the Oswego County Department of Social Services sent letters to Plaintiffs, dated November 30, 2005, labeling them as child abusers. (Id. at ¶ 47.)

As a result, Plaintiffs assert the following six causes of action against Defendants:

(1) a cause of action claiming that the Oswego County Defendants recklessly or intentionally conducted an incomplete and improper investigation of allegations of child abuse and neglect against Plaintiffs, and deliberately rendered a premature and false finding that Plaintiff Kenific had committed such abuse and neglect, breaching their duty to Plaintiffs to conduct a careful investigation without bias and based upon credible evidence (id. at ¶¶ 20-28);

(2) a cause of action claiming that all Defendants unjustly and falsely accused Plaintiff Kenific of abusing his minor child, threatened Plaintiff Kenific with criminal charges if he did not relinquish custody of the child, inflated and manufactured evidence to find Plaintiff Kenific guilty of abusing or neglecting the child, damaged the name and reputation of Plaintiff Kenific by falsely finding that he abused the child, and damaged the name and reputation of Plaintiff Schramm by falsely reporting that she had abused or neglected the child, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Plaintiffs' right to substantive and procedural due process underthe Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (id. at ¶¶ 29-36);

(3) a cause of action claiming that the Oswego County Defendants engaged in a conspiracy with one another to deprive Plaintiffs of their aforementioned due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, by knowingly or recklessly relying on and using false information provided by the Onondaga County Defendants regarding allegations of abuse or neglect made by Plaintiff Kenific's minor child and/or the child's mother (who was employed by Defendant Onondaga County Department of Social Services), recklessly conducting an incomplete and improper investigation of those allegations, agreeing to render a premature and false finding that Plaintiff Kenific had committed such abuse and neglect, and knowingly or recklessly interfering with the psychiatric treatment and care of Plaintiff Kenific's minor child in CPEP (id. at ¶¶ 37-43);

(4) a cause of action claiming that all Defendants have committed defamation and abuse of process against Plaintiffs by working in unison to conduct an incomplete and improper investigation of the alleged abuse and neglect of Plaintiff Kenific's minor child, working in unison to prematurely and wrongfully accuse Plaintiffs of such abuse and neglect, causing Defendant Oswego County Department of Social Services to send false letters to Plaintiffs dated November 30, 2005, that labeled Plaintiffs as child abusers, and (upon information and belief) publishing those letters to third parties (id. at ¶¶ 44-49);*fn3

(5) a cause of action claiming that the Oswego County Defendants, in finding that Plaintiff Kenific had abused and/or neglected his minor child, either treated Plaintiff Kenific differently from others similarly situated with the intent to inhibit or punish his exercise of his Fourteenth Amendment rights (e.g., his right to maintain custody of his minor child, raise that child, and make medical decisions concerning that child's care) or acted without any rational basis, in violation of Plaintiff Robert Kenific's right to equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and under the New York State Constitution (id., at ¶¶ 50-54); and

(6) a cause of action claiming that Defendant Oswego County and Defendant Oswego County Department of Social Services should be subjected to municipal liability for the unconstitutional acts of their employees, under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), because they had a custom, policy or practice of making findings of child abuse and/or neglect against parents or child custodians based upon hearsay allegations of intoxication without any legitimate basis, and they relied on or implemented that custom, policy or practice in this case to find that Plaintiff Kenific had committed such abuse and/or neglect of his minor child (id., at ¶¶ 55-60).

C. Defendants' Motions and Plaintiffs' Response

For the sake of brevity, familiarity with the numerous legal arguments contained in the parties' motion papers is assumed in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for review by the parties. The Court will make only three observations about those arguments.

First, at various points in their motion papers, all counsel in the case exhibit a certain casualness with the distinction between a dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and a dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, often seamlessly shifting between standards in the same paragraph. Of course, the former dismissal is based on a pleading insufficiency, while the latter dismissal is based on an evidentiary insufficiency. Toward the end of eliminating any confusion that has ensued as a result of this casualness, the Court will explain how it construes the parties' motion papers.

In the Oswego County Defendants' motion, they challenge only the pleading sufficiency of Plaintiffs' First Cause of Action (claiming breach of the duty to conduct a careful investigation without bias and based upon credible evidence), Third Cause of Action (claiming conspiracy to violate Plaintiffs' right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment), Fifth Cause of Action (claiming a violation of their right to equal protection of the laws under the United States and New York State Constitutions), and Sixth Cause of Action (claiming that Oswego County and the Oswego County Department of Social Services are subject to municipal liability based on the existence of an offending custom, policy or practice). (Dkt. No. 19, Attach. 3; Dkt. No. 26.) In addition, they challenge both the pleading sufficiency and (in the alternative) the evidentiary sufficiency of Plaintiffs' Second Cause of Action (claiming a violation of their right to substantive and procedural due process underthe Fourteenth Amendment), Fourth Cause of Action (claiming defamation and abuse of process), and claims against Defendant Haynes and the John and Jane Does based on the doctrine of qualified immunity. (Id.)

In the Onondaga County Defendants' motion, they challenge both the pleading sufficiency and (in the alternative) the evidentiary sufficiency of Plaintiffs' Third Cause of Action (claiming conspiracy to violate Plaintiffs' right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment), Fourth Cause of Action (claiming defamation and abuse of process), Sixth Cause of Action (to the extent it claims that Onondaga County and the Onondaga County Department of Social Services are subject to municipal liability based on the existence of an offending custom, policy or practice), and claims against Defendant Onondaga County Department of Social Services, as well as Plaintiff Schramm's claims against the Onondaga County Defendants. (Dkt. No. 20, Attach. 8.) In addition, they challenge only the evidentiary sufficiency of Plaintiffs' claims against Defendant Onondaga County Department of Social Services based on the doctrine of qualified immunity. (Id.)

Second, in their response to Defendants' motions, Plaintiffs decline to adduce any record evidence whatsoever. (Dkt. No. 29.) Rather, Plaintiffs argue, in pertinent part, that summary judgment at this stage would be improper because Defendants' affidavits are replete with hearsay and self-serving declarations, there has been no discovery, and no Answer from the Oswego County Defendants. (Dkt. No. 29, Attach. 1.)*fn4 More specifically, in support of their first argument, Plaintiffs' counsel states as follows:

The Defendants are in possession of case files, notes, statements, documents, records, and information directly relevant to the Plaintiffs' suit. Plaintiffs have not had any access to these discovery items to date and cannot fully and properly respond to a motion for summary judgment in the absence of the discovery. Plaintiffs are prejudiced by deprivation of discovery and summary judgment is improper at this early stage. (Dkt. No. 29, ¶ 5 [Bosman Affirm.].)

In their replies to Plaintiffs' response, Defendants argue, in pertinent part, that, under the circumstances, it is proper to grant summary judgment prior to the conducting of discovery. (Dkt. No. 30, Attach. 2; Dkt. No. 31.)*fn5 More specifically, in support of Defendants' second argument, the Oswego County Defendants' counsel states as follows:

Upon information and belief, all the evidence used to investigate the Plaintiffs has already been disclosed to the Plaintiffs prior to the commencement of this action, particularly during Mr. Kenific's request for administrative review of his 'indicated report' status. Plaintiffs had access to their file, and if either Plaintiff was aware of any witness who had knowledge casting doubt upon the Defendants, they had every opportunity to collect witness statements or affidavits, or any other evidence that would have supported their allegations. Further, it should be noted that Plaintiffs should know whether they had been injured or defamed. Yet, the Plaintiffs do not submit a single affidavit or sworn statement to support their claim. (Dkt. No. 30, ¶ 10 [Miller Affirm.].)

Third, in their six-page memorandum of law submitted in response to Defendants' motions, Plaintiffs have willfully failed to address numerous legal arguments asserted by Defendants in their memoranda of law. (Compare Dkt. No. 29, Attach. 1 with Dkt. No. 19, Attach. 3 and Dkt. No. 20, Attach. 8 and Dkt. No. 26.)

The Court finds that this failure to respond was willful for four reasons. First, in their Notice of Motion, the Oswego County Defendants expressly "demand[ed] that answering papers be served in accordance with Local Rule 7, of the Rules of the Northern District of New York." (Dkt. No. 19, at 1.) Second, Plaintiffs' counsel is an experienced litigator in federal court, fully aware of the requirements of Local Rule 7.1. Indeed, she has been specifically reminded of this requirement in the past by at least four different district judges of this Court. See, e.g., Dotson v. City of Syracuse, 04-CV-1388, 2009 WL 2176127, at *1 n.3 (N.D.N.Y. July 21, 2009) (Mordue, C.J.) (noting plaintiff's counsel's failure to fully comply with Local Rule 7.1, and deeming defendants' statement of fact admitted by plaintiff to the extent plaintiff's responses violate Local Rule 7.1); Lee v. City of Syracuse, 603 F. Supp.2d 417, 430-31 (N.D.N.Y. 2009) (Hurd, J.) (outlining the requirements of Local Rule 7.1, noting that plaintiff's counsel's objecting to certain material facts only on grounds of admissibility "provides no indication that the fact[s] [are] untrue," and therefore deeming those facts admitted by plaintiff); Hawkins v. County of Oneida, 497 F. Supp. 2d 362, 379-80 (N.D.N.Y. 2007) (Hurd, J.) ("In light of the lack of evidence produced in support of these claims, and plaintiff's failure to address them in response to defendants' motion for summary judgment, defendants' motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's common law claims will be granted."); Lore v. City of Syracuse, 00-CV-1833, 2007 WL 655628, at *1-3 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 26, 2007) (Munson, J.) (denying, without prejudice, defendant's motion for summary judgment based on "both parties' counsels' non-compliance with the Local Rules practice [specifically Rule 7.1], and advising parties' of the requirements of Rule 7.1, and their need to comply with these requirements); cf. Brown v. City of Syracuse, 01-CV-1523, 2008 WL 5451020, at *2, 5 & n.7 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 31, 2008) (Scullin, J.) (reviewing facial merit of defendants' request for dismissal of plaintiff's procedural due process claim, in light of plaintiff's failure to respond to that request). Third, in the Oswego County Defendants' Amended Memorandum of Law (filed on May 29, 2007), the Oswego County Defendants notified Plaintiffs of their failure to respond, giving them a further opportunity (i.e., in their Reply to that Amended Memorandum) to correct their failure. (See, e.g., Dkt. No. 26, at 5-10 [attaching pages "2" through "7" of the Oswego County Defs.' Am. Memo. of Law, arguing, inter alia, that "[t]hese multiple grounds have not been addressed either by the amendments or by any argument in opposition"). Fourth, nearly two months passed between the filing of the Oswego County Defendants' motion and the filing of Plaintiffs' response papers, more than enough time to research and craft an appropriate response to all of Defendants' legal arguments. (Compare Dkt. No. 19 with Dkt. No. 29.) However, despite these facts, Plaintiffs chose not to avail themselves of two opportunities to respond to various legal arguments asserted by Defendants. (See generally Dkt. No. 29, Attach. 1.)

Rather than recite the numerous legal arguments Plaintiffs fail to oppose, the Court will simply recite the few legal arguments Plaintiffs' do oppose. Specifically, in addition to generally opposing Defendants' request for summary judgment, Plaintiffs oppose, or partially oppose, only the following legal arguments asserted by Defendants: (1) Defendants' challenge to the pleading sufficiency of Plaintiffs' First Cause of Action (claiming breach of the duty to conduct a careful investigation without bias and based upon credible evidence) and/or Plaintiffs' Fourth Cause of Action (to the extent it claimed abuse of process);*fn6 (2) Defendants' challenge to the pleading sufficiency of Plaintiffs' claims against Defendant Haynes based on the doctrine of qualified immunity; and (3) Defendants' challenge to the pleading sufficiency of Plaintiffs' Second Cause of Action (claiming a violation of their right to substantive and procedural due process underthe Fourteenth Amendment) on the ground that they have not articulated a recognizable constitutional right. (Dkt. No. 29, Attach. 1.)

II. GOVERNING LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

It has long been understood that a defendant may base a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on either or both of two grounds: (1) a challenge to the "sufficiency of the pleading" under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); or (2) a challenge to the legal cognizability of the claim. Jackson v. Onondaga County, 549 F. Supp.2d 204, 211, nn. 15-16 (N.D.N.Y. 2008) (McAvoy, J., adopting Report-Recommendation on de novo review) [citations omitted].

With regard to the first ground, Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) [emphasis added]. By requiring this "showing," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain a short and plain statement that "give[s] the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.17 [citations omitted]. The main purpose of this rule is to "facilitate a proper decision on the merits." Rusyniak v. Gensini, 629 F. Supp.2d 203, 213 & n.32 (N.D.N.Y. 2009) (Suddaby, J.) [citations omitted].

The Supreme Court has long characterized this pleading requirement under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) as "simplified" and "liberal," and has repeatedly rejected judicially established pleading requirements that exceed this liberal requirement. Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.20 [citations omitted]. However, even this liberal notice pleading standard "has its limits." Id. at 212, n.21 [citations omitted]. As a result, numerous Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions exist holding that a pleading has failed to meet this liberal notice pleading standard.

Id. at 213, n.22 [citations omitted]; see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949-52 (2009).

Most notably, in Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, the Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision holding that a complaint had stated an actionable antitrust claim under 15 U.S.C. § 1. Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007). In doing so, the Court "retire[d]" the famous statement by the Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1968-69. Rather than turning on the conceivability of an actionable claim, the Court clarified, the "fair notice" standard turns on the plausibility of an actionable claim. Id. at 1965-74. The Court explained that, while this does not mean that a pleading need "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]," it does mean that the pleading must contain at least "some factual allegation[s]." Id. at 1965 [citations omitted]. More specifically, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level [to a plausible level]," assuming (of course) that all the allegations in the complaint are true. Id. [citations omitted].*fn7

As have other Circuits, the Second Circuit has recognized that the clarified plausibility standard that was articulated by the Supreme Court in Twombly governs all claims.*fn8 It should be emphasized that Fed. R. Civ. P. 8's plausibility standard, explained in Twombly, was in no way retracted or diminished by the Supreme Court's decision (two weeks later) in Erickson v. Pardus, in which the Court stated, "Specific facts are not necessary" to successfully state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) [citation omitted; emphasis added]. That statement was merely an abbreviation of the often-repeated point of law--first offered in Conley and repeated in Twombly--that a pleading need not "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]" in order to successfully state a claim. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1965, n.3 (citing Conley, 355 U.S. at 47) [emphasis added]. That statement did not mean that all pleadings may achieve the requirement of ...


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