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Barron v. Washington County Children and Youth Social Service Agency

February 13, 2007

RUTH VIRGINIA BARRON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WASHINGTON COUNTY CHILDREN AND YOUTH SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCY, CHRISTY CROSS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS CASEWORKER II FOR WASHINGTON COUNTY CHILDREN AND YOUTH SOCIAL SERVICE AGENCY, FAMILY CARE FOR CHILDREN & YOUTH, INC., DEBORAH A. MCALLISTER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS REGIONAL DIRECTOR OF FAMILY CARE FOR CHILDREN & YOUTH, INC., JAMIE L. LEGAS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS SUPERVISOR FOR FAMILY CARE FOR CHILDREN & YOUTH, INC., TAMARA SMITH, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS CASE MANAGER FOR FAMILY CARE FOR CHILDREN & YOUTH, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hay, Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Ruth Virginia Barron, commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that defendants violated her rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by preventing her from and/or chilling her right to speak out in the best interest of the foster child for whom she was caring and by retaliating against her when she did.

According to the complaint, Ms. Barron was an approved foster caregiver with defendant Family Care for Children & Youth, Inc. ("FCCY"), and Washington County Children and Youth Social Service Agency ("CYS"). In August of 2002, she became a foster parent to Keith Crawford ("Keith") under an agreement with FCCY.

Soon after Ms. Barron took custody of Keith, she noticed aberrant behavior she believed was related to the fact that the eleven-year old child had been prescribed six different medications by Dr. Farheen Fahim, a psychiatrist. When Keith later developed an ulcer, his treating pediatrician ordered that all but one of the psychiatric medications be stopped. Ms. Barron alleges that she subsequently noticed "a vast improvement" in the child's mental functioning. He also "began to disclose disturbing recollections of his previous foster home, along with his memory of Dr. Fahim pressuring him to believe that his parents had sexually abused him." Complaint ¶ 11.

During the next visit to Dr. Fahim, when Keith began crying uncontrollably, Ms. Barron stated that she wanted to remain with him during his examination. She also attempted to explain the changes in medication and Keith's revelations since his medications had been discontinued. Ms. Barron was allegedly told that the examination was none of her concern, ordered out of the room and eventually told to take the child with her. Pursuant to the foster care agreement, Ms. Barron reported the incident at Dr. Fahim's office and her conclusions about the child's over-medication to both CYS and FCCY. Defendants Christy Cross, a caseworker for CYS, and/or Deborah A. McAllister, Regional Director of FCCY, Jamie Legas, a Supervisor at FCCY, and Tamara Smith, a Case Manager for FCCY, informed Ms. Barron that Keith would not be returned to his natural parents despite his wish to do so, accused her and the child of lying, and threatened to remove him from her care if she did not refill the medications. Soon thereafter, Ms. Barron received a letter from Ms. Legas questioning her compliance with the FCCY policy regarding twenty-four hour supervision of the child. Although not threatening, Ms. Barron contends that the letter "clearly conveyed the strong recommendation that Ms. Barron adhere to company policy and served as notice that her foster parent activities, now suspect, were subject to even stricter scrutiny." Complaint ¶ 14.

Prior to a parental rights hearing scheduled for mid-September 2003, Ms. Barron filed a sworn affidavit with the Orphans Court describing the situation, and expressing a desire for both herself and Keith to testify although neither of them was permitted to do. Shortly after filing the affidavit, on September 16, 2003, Ms. Barron met with Ms. McAllister at which time McAllister discussed concerns that Barron was not following FCCY policies. McAllister was particularly concerned with the fact that Barron had discontinued the child's medication without informing FCCY or CYS, a claim Ms. Barron denied. Barron was also allegedly criticized for filing the affidavit in which she "put FCCY down." Complaint ¶ 16.

Ms. Barron subsequently learned that Dr. Fahim had reported the office incident to CYS and FCCY, and expressed her opinion that plaintiff was senile and no longer fit to provide foster care. Ms. Barron also discovered that someone had reported her to CYS and FCCY for allowing another adult, who was allegedly a prior felon, to live with her in violation of FCCY policy. Ms. Barron contends that neither allegation was true.

On September 24, 2003, Ms. Legas arrived at Ms. Barron's home and explained that she was there to remove Keith because of the danger posed by living in the same home with a felon. Despite Ms. Barron's insistence that no one else was living at the house except herself and Keith, Ms. Legas searched the home until she discovered the belongings of the alleged houseguest. Although Ms. Barron explained that he was simply storing his possessions there temporarily, she was accused of lying and the child was forcibly removed against his will.

Ms. Barron unsuccessfully appealed the removal of Keith from her care and was subsequently advised by Ms. Legas, on October 29, 2003, that FCCY was revoking her eligibility as an approved foster parent with their agency. Barron asserts that defendants have since spread false rumors about her fitness as a foster parent to child care agencies in neighboring counties.

Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on October 31, 2005, bringing claims under § 1983 for violating her First Amendment rights (Count I), as well as state law claims for intentional interference with economic opportunity (Count II) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count III). Defendants CYS and Ms. Cross have now filed a motion to dismiss largely arguing that they are entitled to immunity and, alternatively, that plaintiff has failed to plead her intentional tort claims against Cross with the requisite specificity and that plaintiff should be required to provide a more definite statement of those claims.*fn1

In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), all well pleaded allegations of the complaint must be accepted as true and viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movant. Brader v. Allegheny General Hospital, 64 F.3d 869, 873 (3d Cir. 1995); Scrob v. Patterson, 948 F.2d 1402, 1405 (3d Cir. 1991). The Court is not, however, required to accept as true unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences. Schuylkill Energy Resources v. PP&L, 113 F.3d 405, 417 (3d Cir. 1997). Thus, "if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief," the motion to dismiss is properly granted. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will prevail in the end but only whether he should be entitled to offer evidence in support of his claim. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974).

Defendants first argue that plaintiff's § 1983 claims brought at Count I stemming from the removal of Keith from her home should be dismissed as to defendant Cross because her actions are protected by judicial immunity.*fn2 Specifically, defendants argue that public officials enjoy the same immunity from suit as judicial and quasi-judicial officers when acting pursuant to a court order and that because Judge Katherine B. Emery, of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Pennsylvania, issued several orders requiring Keith to be placed in certain other facilities, Cross was merely following a court directive and is entitled to immunity.*fn3 In so arguing, defendants rely principally on Lockhart v. Hoenstine, 411 F.2d 455 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 941 (1969), in which the Court found that, "[i]n addition to the recognized immunity enjoyed by judicial and quasijudicial officers, including prothonotaries, there exists an equally well-grounded principle that any public official acting pursuant to court directive is also immune from suit." Id. at 460. Because there was no genuine issue of material fact in Lockhart as to whether the defendant was acting pursuant to a court directive, the Court concluded that he was immune from suit. Id.

Here, however, it does not appear that defendants were acting pursuant to a court directive. To the contrary, according to the complaint, Keith was removed from plaintiff's home on September 24, 2003. See Complaint ¶ 19. Judge Emery, however, did not issue an order directing that Keith be placed in a facility for a mental health evaluation until October 17, 2003.

See Defs. Exh. A. Thus, to the extent that Cross participated in the decision to remove Keith from plaintiff's home, she could not have been acting at the behest of the court and, ...


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