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Johnson v. New York State Office of Child and Family Services

United States District Court, N.D. New York

December 18, 2017

LISA JOHNSON, individually and as next friend of L.R., Plaintiff,
v.
NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          Lawrence E. Kahn, U.S. District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On November 7, 2016, plaintiff Lisa Johnson commenced this action individually and as next friend of her minor grandson, L.R. Dkt. No. 1 (“Complaint”). Plaintiff's amended complaint, Dkt. No. 36 (“Amended Complaint”), names as defendants the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (“OCFS”), the Albany County Department for Children, Youth, and Families (“DCYF”), Cheryl Cullen, Acting Commissioner of OCFS Sheila Poole, and several DCYF officials and employees: Gail Geohagen-Pratt, Ashanta Harris, Catherine Warren, and Marian Logan. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants terminated Plaintiff's foster care benefits and revoked her foster care certification in violation of the United States Constitution, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 670 et seq. (“AACWA”), and New York law. Am. Compl. Defendants OCFS, Poole, and Cullen (together, the “Moving Defendants”), moved to dismiss all claims asserted against them in the Amended Complaint. Dkt. Nos. 49 (“Motion”), 49-7 (“Memorandum”). For the reasons that follow, the Motion is granted.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual History

         When L.R. was born, both he and his birth mother, Plaintiff's daughter, lived in Plaintiff's home. Am. Compl. ¶ 74. In March 2013, L.R.'s mother “was asked to leave” the home. Id. ¶ 75. Plaintiff then sought to become certified as L.R.'s foster parent. Id. ¶¶ 80-82. At that time, DCYF contracted with Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth “to approve and certify foster homes.” Id. ¶ 83. After an inspection in September 2013, “Berkshire Farm made an emergency certification of [Plaintiff's] home.” Id. ¶ 87. At the end of September 2013, Plaintiff began receiving foster care maintenance payments on behalf of L.R. Id. ¶ 89. “On March 4, 2014, Berkshire Farm approved . . . [Plaintiff's] home as a suitable foster home for L.R.” Id. ¶ 92. Plaintiff maintains that this was when “the home had been fully certified” as a foster care home. Id. ¶ 109.

         In April 2014, DCYF sent a notice to Plaintiff, informing her of the agency's intent to remove L.R. from her home on April 24. Id. ¶ 100. Soon after receiving the notice, Plaintiff spoke to Ashanta Harris, a DCYF case worker, who told her that “if she wanted L.R. to stay in her home, she would have to file a petition for custody under Article 6 of the Family Court Act, ” and that “it would be ‘safest'” if Plaintiff filed a petition for custody.[1] Id. ¶ 102. On April 18, Plaintiff filed a custody petition in the Albany County Family Court. Id. ¶ 104.

         On April 25, 2014, the Albany County Family Court issued an order vacating DCYF's custody of L.R. and granting Plaintiff custody of her grandson through direct placement “until further order of the Court.”[2] Id. ¶¶ 111-12. Some time between April and June 2014, DCYF terminated Plaintiff's foster care benefits. Id. ¶ 116. After the termination of her foster care benefits, Plaintiff successfully applied for “a ‘child only' cash grant for the support of L.R., ” which provided her with less money than the foster care benefits had. Id. ¶ 117. On September 3, 2014, the Family Court granted Plaintiff “legal and physical custody of L.R. under Article 6 of the Family Court Act.” Id. ¶ 122.

         Plaintiff also states that her foster care certification was revoked, id. ¶ 124, but does not state when it was revoked or who revoked it. She alleges that, “[o]n or about July 10, 2014, ” after she “requested a conference” with Marian Logan, DCYF's Director of Children Services, Logan sent Plaintiff a letter explaining that her foster care certification “was not valid” because Plaintiff did not complete various “required certification activities” in a timely manner. Id. ¶¶ 118-19.

         In December 2014, Plaintiff, through counsel, requested that OCFS and DCYF provide a hearing regarding the termination of her foster care benefits and revocation of her foster care certification. Id. ¶¶ 123-24. OCFS held a hearing on March 10, 2015, and the presiding administrative law judge concluded that the agency did not have jurisdiction to hear Plaintiff's grievances. Id. ¶¶ 125, 127.

         Plaintiff alleges that, without foster care benefits, she and L.R. suffer “financial hardship” and “are regularly hungry due to lack of income to buy food.” Id. ¶ 131. Plaintiff further alleges that, because Defendants never provided the basis for terminating her foster care maintenance payments or revocation of her foster care certification “through a written notice, ” she and L.R. suffer from “emotional distress, mental anguish, and anxiety.” Id.

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed her original complaint on November 7, 2016. Compl. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, filed on May 15, 2017, names OCFS, DCYF, Poole, Cullen, Pratt, Logan, Harris, and Warren as defendants. Am. Compl. Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants violated AACWA and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when they failed to provide notice and an opportunity for a hearing regarding the termination of Plaintiff's foster care maintenance payments and the revocation of her foster care certification. Id. ¶¶ 33-34, 132-33. Plaintiff also alleges violations of New York State law. Id. ¶ 132.

         Plaintiff seeks (1) a declaration that Defendants “violated and continue to violate plaintiffs [sic] federal and state rights”; (2) an injunction requiring that Defendants provide Plaintiff and L.R. with notice and an opportunity for a hearing; (3) “damages for lost foster care benefits”; and (4) “damages for . . . pain and suffering.” Id. at 27-28. The Moving Defendants moved to dismiss all claims asserted against them in the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Mot.; Mem. Plaintiff opposed the Motion, Dkt. No. 54 (“Response”), and the Moving Defendants filed a reply, Dkt. No. 55 (“Reply”). For the reasons that follow, the Motion is granted.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Rule (12)(b)(1)

         “A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it.” New York by Schneiderman v. Utica City Sch. Dist., 177 F.Supp.3d 739, 745 (N.D.N.Y. 2016) (quoting Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000)). “Subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue and, thus, when a party moves to dismiss under both Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), the motion court must address the 12(b)(1) motion first.” Id. at 746 (quoting Makarova, 201 F.3d at 113).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a “complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A court must accept as true the factual allegations contained in a complaint and draw all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Allaire Corp. v. Okumus, 433 F.3d 248, 249-50 (2d Cir. 2006). Plausibility, however, requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [the alleged misconduct].” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         The plausibility standard “asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Where a court is unable to infer more than the mere possibility of the alleged misconduct based on the pleaded facts, the pleader has not demonstrated that she is entitled to relief and the action is subject to dismissal. Id. at 678-79.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. 12(b)(1) Motion

         1. Rooker-Feldman

         The Moving Defendants argue that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives the Court of subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiff effectively asks the Court to reexamine the Albany County Family Court's 2014 orders that granted her custody of L.R. Mem. at 11-12. “Rooker-Feldman bars the federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over claims ‘brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.'” ...


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