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Worrell v. City of New York

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 24, 2014

BARBARA WORRELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF NEW YORK, ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN SERVICES, RONALD E. RICHTER, in his capacity as COMMISSIONER OF ACS OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

MARGO K. BRODIE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Barbara Worrell filed an Amended Complaint on March 27, 2013, against Defendants City of New York (the "City"), the Administration for Children Services ("ACS") and Ronald Richter in his capacity as Commissioner of ACS, asserting claims of Fourteenth Amendment due process violations, municipal liability, and state law claims of negligence, negligent hiring and retention and negligent infliction of emotional distress.[1] (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 15-20.) Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. At oral argument on February 28, 2014, the Court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's due process and municipal liability claims for failure to state a claim. The Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction and dismissed Plaintiff's state law claims for negligence, negligent hiring and retention and negligent infliction of emotional distress without prejudice. The Court explains its decision below.

I. Background

On January 25, 2010, Plaintiff was employed as a teacher at the Saratoga Family Inn Day Care in Queens, New York, (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 13), when a report of abuse alleging that Plaintiff had injured and bruised a child's arms at the daycare was made to the State of New York which maintains a statewide central register for child abuse and maltreatment reports ("Central Register"), ( id. ¶ 14).[2] According to Plaintiff, ACS investigated the reported incident of abuse but did not properly conduct the investigation. ( Id. ¶ 15.) As a result of the investigation by ACS of the report of abuse, on March 6, 2010, Plaintiff's name was placed on the Central Register as "indicated" for abuse/maltreatment of a child, suggesting that there was some basis to support the allegations of abuse. ( Id. ¶¶ 2, 15.) As a result of the "indicated" finding by ACS, Plaintiff was supervised in her duties, and was not allowed to perform certain duties, including taking the children on trips or being a lead teacher. ( Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff requested that the Central Register be amended and that the indication of abuse/maltreatment be changed to unfounded, but the "City" did not allow her to "properly appeal" the designation, even after ACS learned that Plaintiff could not have committed the abuse/maltreatment. ( Id. ¶¶ 2, 19-20.)

On June 6, 2011, Plaintiff had a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") to determine whether the information in the Central Register should be amended, ( id. ¶ 2), that is, whether the allegations could be substantiated.[3] After the hearing, the ALJ determined that while there was a documented injury to the child, ACS failed to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that Plaintiff committed the alleged maltreatment and caused the injury. (Docket Entry No. 17-2, "ALJ Decision" at 5, 8.) Plaintiff's name remained in the Central Register for a total of approximately 21 months until the ALJ's decision. (Am. Compl. ¶ 17.)

Plaintiff alleges that the lengthy delay violated her due process rights by denying her the right to a fair hearing. ( Id. ¶¶ 2, 17.) Plaintiff further alleges that she was denied due process when ACS failed to reinvestigate the report of abuse against her after finding out that their initial observations and investigation were incorrect. ( Id. ¶ 28(A).) She argues that her due process rights were also violated when ACS workers discussed the allegations with unnamed individuals at the Saratoga Day Care Center, who conducted a "campaign of whispering" behind her back. ( Id. ¶ 18.) She further claims that ACS workers conspired with members of the daycare and authorities of New York State to place and keep her name on the Central Register. ( Id. ¶ 16.) As a result of her name being placed on the Central Register, Plaintiff "could not apply for a job even if she wanted to because the Indication' would show, " ( id. ¶ 28(C)), she suffered physical and emotional harm, ( id. ¶ 28(D)), humiliation, loss of professional reputation and potential income, ( id. ¶ 21), and she no longer enjoyed her position as a nursery school teacher and "no longer desire[d] to foster' children, " ( id. ¶ 72). Plaintiff also did not "reapply for her status as a foster parent" because of her inclusion on the Central Register. (Oral Argument Transcript ("Tr.") 26:15-17.) Plaintiff filed a municipal Notice of Claim on November 27, 2011, ( id. ¶ 26), and commenced this action on December 14, 2012, (Docket Entry No. 1).

II. Discussion

a. Standard of Review

In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court "must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true." Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. ex rel. St. Vincent Catholic Med. Centers Ret. Plan v. Morgan Stanley Inv. Mgmt. Inc., 712 F.3d 705, 717 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)); see also Lundy v. Catholic Health Sys. of Long Island Inc., 711 F.3d 106, 113 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Holmes v. Grubman, 568 F.3d 329, 335 (2d Cir. 2009)); Matson v. Bd. of Educ., 631 F.3d 57, 63 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting Connecticut v. Am. Elec. Power Co., 582 F.3d 309, 320 (2d Cir. 2009)). A complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Matson, 631 F.3d at 63 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678); see also Pension Ben. Guar. Corp., 712 F.3d at 717-18. "[W]here the wellpleaded 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.'" Pension Ben. Guar. Corp., 712 F.3d at 718 (alteration in original) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Although all allegations contained in the complaint are assumed true, this principle is "inapplicable to legal conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

b. Claims Against ACS and Richter

Plaintiff sued ACS and Richter in his official capacity as Commissioner of ACS. Plaintiff cannot maintain her suit against ACS or Richter since a suit against the Commissioner of ACS is deemed to be a suit against ACS and ACS is not a suable entity. Section 396 of the New York City Charter provides that "[a]ll actions and proceedings for the recovery of penalties for the violation of any law shall be brought in the name of the City of New York and not in that of any agency, except where otherwise provided by law." N.Y.C. Admin. Code & Charter Ch. 16 § 396. This provision has been construed to mean that ACS is not a suable entity, and claims against ACS workers in their official capacities are deemed to be claims against ACS. See, e.g., Allen v. Mattingly, No. 10-CV-0667, 2011 WL 1261103, at *14 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2011) (finding that where plaintiff sued the Commissioner of ACS, the attorney for ACS and an ACS caseworker in their official capacities, "such claims are deemed to be claims against the ACS, which lacks the capacity to sue or be sued"), aff'd, 478 F.Appx. 712 (2d Cir. 2012); Emerson v. City of New York, 740 F.Supp.2d 385, 396 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) ("[T]he Court finds that ACS, the NYPD Firearms Division, and the NYPD 46th Precinct, as agencies of the City, are not suable entities and thus dismisses Emerson's claims against them." (citations omitted)); Johnson v. New York, No. 04-CV-1070, 2007 WL 764514, at *5 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 9, 2007) ("[T]he action filed against ACS must be dismissed since the agency lacks the power to sue or be sued."), aff'd, 283 F.Appx. 877 (2d Cir. 2008); Harrison v. New York City Admin. for Children's Servs., No. 02-CV-0947, 2003 WL 21640381, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. July 7, 2003) (dismissing claims against ACS because "[t]he New York City Charter provides that all actions and proceedings for the recovery of penalties for the violation of any law shall be brought in the name of the City of New York and not in that of any agency, except where otherwise provided by law" (alteration, citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

Plaintiff admits in her Amended Complaint that "[t]he members of New York City Administration for Children Services (ACS)[] are agents and employees of the government of the City of New York." (Am. Compl. ¶ 12.) Counsel also conceded at oral argument that ACS is not a suable entity. (Tr. 38:24-39:12.) Since ACS cannot be sued and the claims against Richter are deemed to be claims against ACS, all of Plaintiff's claims against ACS and against Richter were dismissed.

c. Due Process Claim

Plaintiff's due process claim is not entirely clear. Plaintiff appears to argue that she was denied due process when ACS failed to reinvestigate the report of abuse/maltreatment against her after ACS determined at some point that its initial observations and investigation were incorrect. (Am. Compl. ¶ 28(A).) At oral argument counsel clarified that Plaintiff is asserting a stigma plus procedural due process claim as a result of her listing on the Central Register based on the deprivation of her liberty interests in seeking employment and being a foster parent. (Tr. 14:14-23.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff's due process claim fails because she fails to plead an actual liberty interest, and she was not deprived of an interest without sufficient process. (Def. Mem. 3.)

"In order to establish a procedural due process claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he possessed a protected property or liberty interest and was deprived of it without due process." Palacio v. Pagan, 345 F.Appx. 668, 669 (2d Cir. 2009); see also J.S. v. T'Kach, 714 F.3d 99, 105 (2d Cir. 2013) (stating the elements of procedural due process); Looney v. Black, 702 F.3d 701, 706-07 (2d Cir. 2012) (same); Schweitzer v. Crofton, 935 F.Supp.2d 527, 545 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (same). "In order to do this, a plaintiff must first identify a property right [or liberty interest], second show that the government has deprived ...


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