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Lamont v. Farucci

United States District Court, S.D. New York

December 18, 2017

P. STEPHEN LAMONT, Plaintiff,
v.
LESLIE FARUCCI; NOREEN T. ROTHMAN; COUNTY OF WESTCHESTER; JOHN DOE; JANE DOE, [1] Defendants.

          P. Stephen Lamont Wellington, FL Pro Se Plaintiff

          Fay Angela Jones, Esq. Westchester County Attorney's Office White Plains, NY Counsel for Defendants

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KENNETH M. KARAS, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pro se Plaintiff P. Stephen Lamont (“Plaintiff”) filed the Complaint, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Leslie Farucci (“Farucci”), a social caseworker in Westchester County Department of Social Services (“DSS”), Noreen T. Rothman (“Rothman”), an Assistant County Attorney for Westchester County, and the County of Westchester (“the County”) (collectively, “Defendants”).[2] (See Compl. (Dkt. No. 2).) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated Plaintiff's parental rights under the Fourteenth Amendment when they changed the school district of his son, “S.L., ” who was previously placed in the custody of DSS, without Plaintiff's consent. (See generally Compl.)[3]

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion To Dismiss the Complaint Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (See Notice of Defs.' Mot. To Dismiss (Dkt. No. 45); Mem. of Law in Support of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Mem.”) (Dkt. No. 46).) Defendants claim that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims because they are barred by the Younger abstention and Rooker-Feldman doctrines, and that the Complaint fails to state a claim. (Defs.' Mem.) For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is granted.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are drawn from Plaintiff's Complaint and documents attached to it, (Dkt. No. 2), papers submitted in response to Defendants' request for a pre-motion conference, (Letter from Plaintiff to Court (Dec. 30, 2016) (“Obj. Letter”) (Dkt. No. 25)), various other papers submitted to the Court, (Letter from Plaintiff to Court (March 16, 2017) (“Post-Conference Letter”) (Dkt. No. 41); Letter from Plaintiff to Court (March 24, 2017) (“Request to Return S.L. to Rye High School Sua Sponte Letter”) (Dkt No. 42); Letter from Plaintiff to Court (November 6, 2017) (“Permanency Hearing Report Letter”) (Dkt. No. 68)), and Plaintiff's opposition to the Motion To Dismiss, (Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opp'n to Mot. To Dismiss (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Dkt. No. 53)), and are taken as true for the purpose of resolving the instant Motion.[4]

         On January 15, 2015, Plaintiff learned that he had been reported to state officials for “lack of guardianship, ” for failing to provide food, clothes, and shelter, of his minor son, “S.L.” (Pl.'s Mem. ¶¶ 2-3.) The next day, pursuant to an order of the Westchester County Family Court, S.L. was removed from Plaintiff's custody and placed in DSS' custody, pending the outcome of ongoing permanent removal proceedings. (Jones Decl. Ex. B. (“Dec. 8, 2016 Permanency Hearing Order”) 1 (citing January 16, 2015 Order on Application for Temporary Removal of Child (Before Petition Filed) (Katz, J.));[5] Request to Return S.L. to Rye High School Sua Sponte Letter 2 (“[I]n January 2015, [S.L.] was wrongly removed from his Father's custody.”).) S.L.'s placement with DSS was upheld on January 23, 2015 and again on March 10, 2016. (Jones Decl. Ex. C (“August 4, 2016 Order of Fact-Finding and Disposition”) 2 (citing January 23, 2015 Order on Application for Temporary Removal of Child (After Petition Filed) (Katz, J.) and March 10, 2016 Permanency Hearing Order (Katz, J.)).)[6] On August 4, 2016, following a fact-finding and dispositional hearing conducted over four sessions, two of which Plaintiff appeared at with counsel, Christina T. Hall (“Hall”), and two of which only Hall appeared at, the Family Court adjudicated S.L. “neglected” by Plaintiff, (August 4, 2016 Order of Fact-Finding and Disposition at 2-5, 8-9), and ordered that S.L. remain in the custody of DSS, (id. at 10).[7] As of March 11, 2017, this order was pending on appeal in the New York Appellate Division, Second Department. (Post-Conference Letter at II.)

         On July 27, 2016, Frank R. Alvarez, Superintendent for the Rye City School District, informed Plaintiff, in response to e-mail requests from Plaintiff, that “if [S.L.] needs transportation [to school], the District is ready to provide.” (Compl. ¶ 26(c); Id. Ex. C.)

         However, on August 5, 2016, Farucci, a senior social caseworker in the Child Welfare Services/Foster Care unit of DSS, sent a letter to Plaintiff stating:

I must also inform you that effective this fall school year (2016), [S.L.] will not be attending Rye High School. This is due to the long commute he would have to endure to and from school and it also prevents him from participating in any extra-curriculum activities.

(Compl. Ex. A; see also Compl. ¶ 10 (“By letter of August 8, 2016, attached herein as Exhibit ‘A', . . . Farucci[] stated that a unilateral decision was made to change the school district of Plaintiff's son, [S.L., ] without Plaintiff's consent.”); id. ¶ 20(c) (“Farucci . . . arbitrarily and capriciously changed school districts of [S.L.]”).)[8] On August 9, Plaintiff sent Farucci “a warning, with no reply, stating that doing so would violate Plaintiff's parental rights.” (Compl. ¶ 11.) On or about August 11, 2016, Plaintiff's Family Court counsel, Hall, spoke on the telephone with Rothman, an Assistant County Attorney for Westchester County, and “advised her that changing school districts without parental consent was a violation of parental rights.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Rothman “simply replied ‘we are changing school districts.'” (Id.; see also Id. ¶ 20(c) (alleging that Rothman “condoned” the school district change); id. ¶ 48 (“Rothman conspired with DSS.”).)[9] On September 7, 2016, Plaintiff spoke on the telephone with DSS manager Christina Cartagena, who informed him “that DSS had in fact changed school districts of [S.L].” (Id. ¶ 13; Pl.'s Mem. ¶ 33 (same); id. ¶ 21 (“On September 7, 2016, Plaintiff learned that DSS had changed [S.L.'s] school district without Plaintiff's consent. . . .”).) However, Farucci, Rothman, and DSS did not file “an application in Westchester Family Court to change school districts.” (Compl. ¶ 26(b); see also Id. ¶ 51 (same); Pl.'s Mem. Ex. B (email from Christina Hall, Esq. to Plaintiff stating that “I have sent you copies of ALL orders with the court and do not recall any judge signing an order stating that the child's school can be changed.”).)

         S.L. was moved from the Rye City School District, “ranked #2 in Westchester County[, ] to John Jay School District, an unranked school district.” (Compl. ¶ 30.) As a result, S.L., “an elite level soccer player, ” would be forced “to play soccer for a Class B team as opposed to a Class A team, ” thereby “impact[ing] the thousands of dollars that Plaintiff has invested in S.L.'s soccer career.” (Id. ¶ 31; Compl. Ex. D.) As a “further effect” of this school district transfer, S.L. will lose “the use of a brand new science wing and labs at Rye High School, ” affecting “the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Plaintiff has paid in school taxes over the last fourteen years in the Rye City School District.” (Id. ¶ 32.) And, at his new school, S.L. was “placed in a nebulous Algebra class” repeating a previous course he took and condensing what should have been “a full year of Algebra 2 in Rye High School, ” thereby causing “irreparable” “interruption of [S.L.'s] Algebra regime.” (Obj. Letter 2.) S.L. also was not “placed in [b]and class, notwithstanding the fact that he has played the trombone since 4th grade.” (Id.)

         On November 1, 2016, a Permanency Hearing was held in Family Court; Plaintiff did not appear, but his counsel did. (Dec. 8, 2016 Permanency Hearing Order 2.)[10] Following the hearing, the Family Court adopted an order on December 8, 2016 requiring that S.L. remain in DSS' custody and modifying S.L.'s permanency goal to placement for adoption, noting that S.L. had already “been placed in a pre-adoptive foster home” and “[a] petition seeking the termination of [Plaintiff's] parental rights . . . [was] currently pending before the [c]ourt.” (Id. at 3-4; see also Id. at 8.)[11] The court also modified S.L.'s “educational plan” in its order, stating:

[DSS] shall take the following steps/and or provide the following services for the education, health and well-being of the child: The child shall be monitored to ensure that he receives all necessary services, including but not limited to educational . . . services.

(Id. at 9-10; see also Post-Conference Letter at III.)[12] The Family Court proceedings relating to Plaintiff's custody of S.L. are ongoing as of October 2017. (Permanency Hearing Report Letter; id. Ex A (notice of permanency hearing sent to Plaintiffs counsel regarding Permanency Hearing Report and scheduled hearing on October 16, 2017); Letter from Plaintiff to Court (Dec. 11, 2017) Ex. A (“May 19, 2017 Permanency Hearing Order”) (Dkt. No. 69).)

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed the Complaint on October 4, 2016. (Compl. (Dkt. No. 2).) The same day, Plaintiff also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the County prohibiting the changing of S.L.'s school district. (Dkt. No. 3.) The Court granted Plaintiffs request to proceed in forma pauperis on October 28, 2016. (Dkt. No. 7.) On November 15, 2016, the Court issued an Order of Service, directing service on the named Defendants. (Dkt. No. 9.) All Defendants were served. (See Dkt. Nos. 28-30.)

         Defendants submitted letters for a pre-motion conference on December 16 and 20, 2016, indicating the grounds on which they would move to dismiss. (Dkt. Nos. 18, 19.) On December 21, 2016, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Court in response to Defendants' pre-motion letters, in part requesting that the preliminary injunction be granted and the letters ignored. (Obj. Letter.; see also Letter from Plaintiff to Court (Dec. 30, 2016) (Dkt. No. 26) (requesting the “Emergency Motion” be granted because “no defendant has opposed it”).) The Court denied Plaintiffs request in two memo endorsements, (Dkt. Nos. 25, 26), and scheduled a pre-motion conference, (Dkt. No. 27).

         On February 1, 2017, the Court held a pre-motion conference, at the end of which Defendants' counsel was ordered to submit a copy of a purported Family Court order that authorized DSS' decision to change S.L.'s school district. (Transcript of February 1, 2017 Conference (Dkt. No. 39); Dkt. (entry for February 1, 2017).) On February 10, 2017, Defendants filed a letter to the Court attaching an order purportedly “approving DSS's transfer of [P]laintiff's son S.L. to another school district.” (Letter from Fay Angela Jones, Esq. to Court (Feb. 10, 2017) 1 (Dkt. No. 37); id. Ex. A. (same document as Dec. 8, 2016 Permanency Hearing Order).) Plaintiff responded to Defendants' letter on March 16, 2017, contending that “there is no ‘underlying action' in Westchester Family Court” and that “[t]he nebulous term ‘educational plan'” in the Permanency Hearing Order is insufficient to render Defendants' actions constitutional, because “an ‘educational plan' has nothing to do with school districts.” (Post-Conference Letter at II-III.)

         Pursuant to a memo endorsement by the Court on March 16, 2017 setting a briefing schedule, (Dkt. No. 41), Defendants filed a Motion To Dismiss and accompanying papers on April 28, 2017, (Dkt. Nos. 45-47). Plaintiff opposed the Motion on May 19, 2017. (Dkt. No. 53.) Defendants filed a reply to Plaintiff's opposition on June 16, 2017, (Dkt. No. 54), and Plaintiff sent a letter to the Court containing a proposed sur-reply on July 6, 2017 (Dkt. No. 55). On August 31, 2017, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Court containing a “Modified [Proposed] Order” requesting that Rye City School District “provide unlimited transportation to [S.L.] to and from school including athletics and after school clubs.” (Letter from Plaintiff to Court (Aug. 31, 2017) 3 (Dkt. No. 57).) The Court ordered Defendants to respond in a memo endorsement, (see id.), and Defendants opposed Plaintiff's request on the jurisdictional grounds contained in the Motion To Dismiss, (Letter from Fay Angela Jones, Esq., to Court (Sept. 27, 2017) (“Jurisdiction Letter”) (Dkt. No. 64)).

         On September 28, 2017, the Court issued an order denying Plaintiff's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. (Dkt. No. 65.) On November 6, 2017, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Court containing an updated Permanency Hearing Report issued by DSS, noting that it does not use “the term ‘educational plan.'” (Permanency Hearing Report Letter; id. Ex. A.)

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Notice of Defs.' Mot. To Dismiss; Defs.' Mem.) “The standards of review for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and under 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim are substantively identical. In deciding both types of motions, the Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw inferences from those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” McCray v. Lee, 2017 WL 2275024, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. May 24, 2017) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Lerner v. Fleet Bank, N.A., 318 F.3d 113, 128 (2d Cir. 2003), as amended (Apr. 16, 2003) (“[T]he standards for dismissal under 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1) are substantively identical.”) However, “in contrast to the standard for a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it exists.” Sobel v. Prudenti, 25 F.Supp.3d 340, 352 (E.D.N.Y. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also McCray, 2017 WL 2275024, at *2 (“[O]n a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the party who invokes the Court's jurisdiction bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that subject matter jurisdiction exists, whereas the movant bears the burden of proof on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)” (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted)). This allocation of “the burden of proof” is “[t]he only substantive difference” between the standards of review under these two rules. Fagan v. U.S. Dist. Court for S. Dist. Of N.Y., 644 F.Supp.2d 441, 446-47 & n.7 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (quoting Lerner, 318 F.3d at 128).

         1. Rule 12(b)(1)

         “A federal court has subject matter jurisdiction over a cause of action only when it has authority to adjudicate the cause pressed in the complaint.” Bryant v. Steele, 25 F.Supp.3d 233, 241 (E.D.N.Y. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Determining the existence of subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold inquiry[, ] and a claim 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.” Morrison v. Nat'l Austl. Bank Ltd., 547 F.3d 167, 170 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted), aff'd, 561 U.S. 247 (2010); United States v. Bond, 762 F.3d 255, 263 (2d Cir. 2014) (describing subject matter jurisdiction as the “threshold question” (internal quotation marks omitted)). A district court resolving a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) “must take all uncontroverted facts in the complaint . . . as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party asserting jurisdiction[, ] [b]ut where jurisdictional facts are placed in dispute, the court has the power and obligation to decide issues of fact by reference to evidence outside the pleadings, such as affidavits, ” in which case “the party asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it exists.” Tandon v. Captain's Cove Marina of Bridgeport, Inc., 752 F.3d 239, 243 (2d Cir. 2014) (alteration, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted); see also Ray Legal Consulting Grp. v. Gray, 37 F.Supp.3d 689, 696 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (“[W]here subject matter jurisdiction is contested a district court is permitted to consider evidence outside the pleadings, such as affidavits and exhibits.”).

         2. Rule 12(b)(6)

         The Supreme Court has held that although a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations” to survive a motion to dismiss, “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement.” Id. (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, a complaint's “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Although “once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint, ” id. at 563, and a plaintiff must allege “only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” id. at 570, if a plaintiff has not “nudged [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, the[] complaint must be dismissed, ” id.; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (‚ÄúDetermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. But where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere ...


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