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Trombley v. O'Neill

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 7, 2013

RICK TROMBLEY, on Behalf of Himself, and His Minor Children, H and N, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN O'NEILL, Individually and as Comm'r of Essex Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs.; JEFFERY LETSON, Individually and as Essex Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs. Child Protective Serv. Caseworker; KIM MARIE, Individually and as Essex Cnty. Foster Care Caseworker; and MICHAEL GALLANT, Individually and as Attorney for Essex Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., Defendants

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RICK TROMBLEY, Plaintiff, Pro se, Lewis, New York.

For Defendants: CLAUDIA A. RYAN, ESQ., JOHN F. MOORE, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, TOWNE, RYAN & PARTNERS, P.C., Albany, New York.

OPINION

Hon. GLENN T. SUDDABY, United States District Judge.

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MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court, in this pro se civil rights action filed by Rick Trombley (" Plaintiff" ), on behalf of himself and his minor children H and N, against John O'Neill, Jeffery Letson, Kim Marie and Michael Gallant (" Defendants" ), is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Dkt. No. 19.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiffs' Complaint

Generally, construed with the utmost of special liberality, Plaintiff's Complaint asserts the following five claims against Defendants,[1] seeking damages only, arising from the removal of H and N from his custody: (1) a claim that Defendants Jeffery Letson (" Letson" ) and Michael Gallant (" Gallant" ) illegally entered Plaintiff's home without probable cause or a warrant and attempted to remove H and N in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment; (2) a claim that Defendants Letson, Gallant and John O'Neill (" O'Neill" ) filed a petition to remove H and N from Plaintiff's custody without grounds to do so in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) a claim that Defendant Kim Marie (" Marie" ) discriminated against Plaintiff based on his gender during the custody evaluation in violation of his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (4) a claim that Defendants Marie and Gallant coerced Plaintiff into an admission of neglect in violation of his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (5) a claim that Defendants conspired to violate his constitutional rights. ( See generally Dkt. No. 1 [Pl.'s Compl].)

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Generally, in support of these claims, Plaintiff alleges as follows: Plaintiff petitioned for temporary custody of his son, N, due to the alleged addiction problems of N's mother, " Korrin." (Plaintiff was already the custodial parent of H, who is not Korrin's child.) As a result, Family Court Judge Richard Meyer (" Judge Meyer" ) assigned Defendant Letson, a Child Protective Services Caseworker for Essex County Department of Social Services (" DSS" ), to the case. On May 17, 2008, Plaintiff found Korrin using cocaine at their home, while caring for the children. A domestic incident ensued, after which both Plaintiff and Korrin were arrested. Upon his release from the police station, Plaintiff returned home with H and N. Korrin did not return to the home.

According to arrest records submitted by Plaintiff in response to the current motion, of which the Court takes judicial notice, Plaintiff was arrested on May 18, 2008 for Assault in the Third Degree and Endangering the Welfare of a Child. According to the information, Plaintiff was accused of intentionally striking Korrin with his open hand several times, resulting in a cut across Korrin's nose and swelling of her forehead above the eye. Also, Plaintiff was accused of doing so in the presence of H and N, where alcohol, and possibly narcotics, were involved. ( See Dkt. No. 25 at 89-94 [Ex. N to Pl.'s Response to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss].)

On May 19, 2008, Letson and a coworker appeared at Plaintiff's home with two State Troopers for the purpose of removing H and N from the home and placing them in foster care. Plaintiff requested several times that Letson, Letson's coworker and the two Troopers leave the home, but they refused. When Plaintiff attempted to leave the home with his sons, he was prevented with the threat of arrest. Finally, after two and a half hours, Letson, his coworker and the Troopers left.

On May 20, 2008, Plaintiff was summoned to Family Court on a Child Neglect Petition filed by DSS, after which H and N were placed in foster care. After H and N were placed in foster care, an order of protection was issued directing that Korrin stay away from the home and that both Plaintiff and Korrin follow the order. The order of protection was issued at the request of Defendant Gallant. Defendant Marie was assigned to assist both Plaintiff and Korrin with the foster care process, but Marie took the side of Korrin from the start.

Within a month, Korrin was allowed back into the home, with a new order of protection issued to both Plaintiff and Korrin.

On August 26, 2008, after Plaintiff was coerced by his attorney as well as by Defendants Gallant and Marie, Plaintiff made a general admission of neglect. As a result, Plaintiff was subject to a year of supervision by DSS.

Pursuant to the August 21, 2008 Order of Family Court Judge Richard B. Meyer, Plaintiff's consent to the entry of an order of fact-finding without an admission was accepted, and the court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Plaintiff committed acts constituting child neglect of H and N. Moreover, the court acknowledged that Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and that Plaintiff voluntarily, intelligently and knowingly consented to the entry of an order of a finding of neglect without admission. ( See Ex. L to Aff. of Michael Gallant, Dkt. No. 19-4.)

In November 2008, Korrin attacked Plaintiff in front of several witnesses, after which the police were called but no arrests were made. Korrin reported the incident to her probation officer and Defendant

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Marie. Thereafter, both Korrin and Plaintiff were arrested. H and N were scheduled to return home on December 4, 2008, but as a result of the arrests, Defendant Marie and Judge Weyer would not allow it.

The following February, at the request of Defendant Marie, H was returned to the custody of his biological mother, " Jaime."

In May 2009, another incident occurred between Plaintiff and Korrin, after which the police were called, but no arrests were made. Korrin reported the incident to Defendant Marie, who contacted the police and advised them of the order of protection. Plaintiff was then arrested for first degree criminal contempt, a felony. At some point thereafter, Plaintiff was arrested for a misdemeanor-level criminal contempt related to the use of alcohol in violation of the order of protection. Plaintiff was eventually sentenced on May 17, 2010 to one year in jail for the misdemeanor charge.

In January 2010, ten days after Korrin completed an in-patient program, and at the request of Defendant Marie, Judge Weyer ordered that Korrin have custody of N. N remains in Korrin's care.

B. Defendants' Motion

Generally, in support of their motion to dismiss the complaint, Defendants assert the following arguments: (1) Defendants are entitled to statutory, qualified and absolute immunity from Plaintiff's claims, and (2) even if Defendants are not immune, Plaintiff fails to plausibly state a claim against them because (a) Plaintiff's false arrest claim is barred by the statute of limitations, (b) even if not time-barred, Plaintiff's allegations that he was prevented from leaving his home with the threat of arrest does not plausibly state a claim for false arrest, (c) Defendants Letson and Marie have no authority to prosecute Plaintiff, (d) Plaintiff fails to allege any facts in support of a claim against Defendants in their official capacities, (e) Plaintiff's procedural and substantive due process rights have not been violated, (f) Plaintiff was not discriminated against, and (g) Plaintiff has failed to allege any personal involvement of Defendant O'Neill in any of the actions underlying his claims. ( See generally Dkt. No. 19-28 [Defs.' Mem. of Law].)

Generally, in response to Defendants' motion, Plaintiff argues that (1) Defendants' immunity arguments should be denied in all respects and (2) Defendants' argument that Plaintiff's false arrest claim is untimely should be denied. Plaintiff does not respond to the remaining of Defendants' arguments in support of their motion to dismiss. (See generally Dkt. No. 25 [Pl.'s Response].)

Generally, in reply to Plaintiff's response, Defendants argue that (1) they are entitled to statutory, qualified and absolute immunity; (2) Plaintiff's false arrest claim is untimely, subject to this Court's application of the " prisoner mailbox defense" ; and (3) Defendants should prevail on the remainder of their arguments in support of their motion to dismiss because Plaintiff failed to contest them. ( See generally Dkt. No. 30 [Defs.' Reply.])

II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Failure to State Claim

It has long been understood that a defendant may base a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted 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 Cnty., 549 F.Supp.2d 204, 211, nn. 15-16

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(N.D.N.Y. 2008) (McAvoy, J., adopting Report-Recommendation on de novo review).

Because such motions are often based on the first ground, a few words on that ground are appropriate. Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 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). In the Court's view, this tension between permitting a " short and plain statement" and requiring that the statement " show[]" an entitlement to relief is often at the heart of misunderstandings that occur regarding the pleading standard established by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

On the one hand, the Supreme Court has long characterized the " short and plain" pleading standard under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) as " simplified" and " liberal." Jackson, 549 F.Supp.2d at 212, n.20 (citing Supreme Court case). On the other hand, the Supreme Court has held that, by requiring the above-described " showing," the pleading standard under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain a 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 (citing Supreme Court cases) (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court has explained that such fair notice has the important purpose of " enabl[ing] the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial" and " facilitat[ing] a proper decision on the merits" by the court. Jackson, 549 F.Supp.2d at 212, n.18 (citing Supreme Court cases); Rusyniak v. Gensini, 629 F.Supp.2d 203, 213 & n.32 (N.D.N.Y. 2009) (Suddaby, J.) (citing Second Circuit cases). For this reason, as one commentator has correctly observed, the " liberal" notice pleading standard " has its limits." 2 Moore's Federal Practice § 12.34(1)(b) at 12-61 (3d ed. 2003). For example, numerous Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions exist holding that a pleading has failed to meet the " liberal" notice pleading standard. Rusyniak, 629 F.Supp.2d at 213, n.22 (citing Supreme Court and Second Circuit cases); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-83, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949-52, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

Most notably, in Bell Atlantic Corp. 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. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). In doing so, the Court " retire[d]" the famous statement by the Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (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, 550 U.S. at 561, 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 556-70, 127 S.Ct. 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 the pleading must contain at least " some factual allegation[s]." Id. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1965, n.3. 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. at 554,

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127 S.Ct. at 1965.[2]

As for the nature of what is " plausible," the Supreme Court explained that " [a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). " [D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. . . . [W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]-that the pleader is entitled to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]. However, while the plausibility standard " asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," id., it " does not impose a probability requirement." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965.

Because of this requirement of factual allegations plausibly suggesting an entitlement to relief, " the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by merely conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Similarly, a pleading that only " tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement" will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (internal citations and alterations omitted). Rule 8 " demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id., at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

This pleading standard applies even to pro se litigants. While the special leniency afforded to pro se civil rights litigants somewhat loosens the procedural rules governing the form of pleadings (as the Second Circuit has observed), it does not completely relieve a pro se plaintiff of the duty to satisfy the pleading standards set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, 10 and 12.[3] Rather, as both the Supreme Court and Second Circuit have repeatedly recognized, the requirements set forth in Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, 10 and 12 are procedural rules that even pro se civil rights plaintiffs must follow.[4]

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Stated more simply, when a plaintiff is proceeding pro se, " all normal rules of pleading are not absolutely suspended." Jackson, 549 F.Supp.2d at 214, n.28.

Finally, a few words are appropriate regarding what documents are considered on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The court may consider the following documents without triggering the summary judgment standard: " (1) documents attached as an exhibit to the complaint or answer, (2) documents incorporated by reference into the complaint (and provided by the parties), (3) documents that, although not incorporated by reference, are " integral" to the complaint, or (4) any matter of which the court can take judicial notice[5] for the factual background of the case." Planck v. Schenectady Cnty., No. 12-CV-0336, 2012 WL 1977972, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. June 1, 2012) (Suddaby, J.). Moreover, " a pro se plaintiff's papers in response to a defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to state a ...


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