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Hayes v. Erie County Office of Children and Youth

June 29, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mc Laug Hlin, Sean J., District J.


Plaintiffs, Charles Hayes and Victoria L. Hayes, bring this suit as Administrators of the Estate of Brittany Legler, a mentally disabled 15 year-old girl who was killed at the hands of her adoptive mother, Lisa Iarussi, in 2004. The D efendants are the Erie C county Office of C hildren and Youth ("O CY"), its Executive Director, and various supervisors, casew orkers, and em ployees of the agency, all of whom are sued in their individual and official capacities. Among the claims that Plaintiffs have asserted against these individuals and OCY are claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn1 for the alleged violation of B rittany Legler's federal substantive due process rights, claims under Pennsylvania state law for negligence per se and gross negligence, and a survival action under Pennsylvania Survival Act, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8302. W e have jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343(a)(3), and 1367.

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reas ons set forth below, this motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a complaint to be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). T he rule seeks to screen out claims for which there is clearly no rem edy or which the plaintiff has no right to assert; thus, a complaint should not be dismissed under the rule "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." K.J. ex rel. Lowry v. Division of Youth and Family Services, 363 F. Supp. 2d 728, 737-38 (D.N.J. 2005) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will ultim ately prevail, but whether he is entitled to offer evidence to support his claims. Id. at 738 (citation omitted). In reviewing a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6), we are required to accept as true all of the allegations in the com plaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Morse v. Lower M erion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d C ir. 1997) (citation om itted). W ith the foregoing standard in m ind, we recite the relevant factual allegations as set forth in the Com plaint.


Brittany Legler, a mentally disabled girl, was rem oved from her parents' hom e by OCY officials and placed in foster care because the agency had concerns about whether the girl's parents had the m eans to care for Brittany and her siblings. (Com plaint ¶¶ 18-19.) Brittany was borderline mentally retarded and she attended the "life skills" program at her local school district, which is designed for children with an IQ of 70 or less. (Id. at ¶ 40.) Subsequently, OCY was involved in placing Brittany with her adoptive m other, Lisa Iarussi, a m entally challenged adult. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21.) Prior to O CY's placement of Brittany with Iarussi, various individuals, including Brittany's foster mother and her relatives, had expressed concerns about Iarussi's fitnes s as a parent. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 41.)

On May 9, 2004, Brittany died in the hom e of Iarussi as the result of cum ulative physical abuse. (Com plaint at ¶ 4.) An autopsy revealed that Brittany had sustained 212 cuts and bruises, a cauliflower ear with chronic scarring caused by repeated trauma, scarred tissue to the lower lip caused by repeated traum a, a previously broken rib, and internal dam age. At the funeral hom e, people who knew Brittany did not recognize her. (Id. at ¶ 29.) Iarussi pleaded no contest to charges of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of children in connection with the events leading to Brittany's death. Her param our, Linda Fisher, who also resided at the hom e, pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. (Id. at ¶¶ 53-54.)

In the thirteen months leading up to Brittany's death, various individuals -- including nurses, teachers, aides, and other Millcreek School District employees -- had contacted OCY or a child-abuse hotline at least ten times concerning incidents of suspected physical abuse of Brittany. (Com plaint ¶ 22.) Am ong the concerns reported were bruises, frequent absenteeism, a chronically split lip, a cut to the back of the head, and heavy m akeup meant to m ask black and blue m arks to her face. (Id. at ¶ 23.)

OCY received the first report of suspected abuse in April 2003, and the investigation as to this report was closed in June of 2003. (Complaint ¶ 24.) Thereafter, OCY received eight confirmed complaints of abuse concerning Brittany, prompting a second OCY investigation which comm enced on February 10, 2004. (Id. at ¶ 25.) Following the commencement of this second investigation, OCY received two other confirmed reports of suspected abuse, one of which oc curred approxim ately a m onth before B rittany's death. (Id. at ¶ 26.) The final report of suspected abuse occurred prior to April 27, 2004, whe n the second investigation was closed. (Id. at ¶ 27.) Despite these reported incidents, OCY personnel failed to ever conduct a face-to-face interview or meet with the school district personnel who had made the reports. (Id. at ¶ 28.)

In 2000, the consulting firm of Hornby Zeller Associates, Inc. was comm issioned by the County of Erie at a cost of $99,000.00 to perform a study of OCY's operations. (Complaint ¶ 42.) The report, issued in September 2000, stated in part as follows:

This is ... an agency where staff feel as though they are in crisis. They describe their caseloads as insupportably high, they worry that the workload will get worse as turnover increases and they feel they are receiving inadequate support from the superiors. It is an agency where there is a great deal of respect for the director but where respect for anyone else has been eroded by the sm all jealousies and rivalries that often characterize closely knit families.

In sum , OC Y is any agency whose current perform ance is m ore than adequate but whose future capacity may be in doubt.

The larger problems lie ... not with casew ork perform ance but with the way staff treat each other and with their overall attitude toward the agency. A large proportion of the staff have been at the agency a very long tim e. T his is especially true of the m ore senior staff. As one observes the interactions, it sometimes appears as though they treat each other like family mem bers, with the affection, the jealousies and the animosity that can be associated with familial relationships. W ith such a strong sense of familiarity, the agency tends to run on the basis of relationships and personalities rather than on the basis of the organizational structure. ...

In brief, the organization has disenfranchised its supervisory staff and is characterized by too much division and animosity both among the units and am ong levels of staff.

(Id. at ¶ 43 (emphasis as in the Complaint).) This report authored by Hornby Zeller was hidden by OCY and its supervisors from the public and from County Council. (Id. at ¶ 44.)

Pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 6377, the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Act, the Pennsylvania D epartm ent of Public W elfare ("DP W ") is required to establish staff-to-fam ily ratios for O CY. (Com plaint at ¶ 32.) At all times material to this case, O CY was not in com pliance with the staff-to-fam ily ratio regulations established by DPW . (Id. at ¶ 33.)

In 2005, D PW com pleted a review of OCY's handling of the multiple reports of abuse involved in Brittany's case. T he Departm ent found that O CY had violated the law with respect to at least four specific DPW regulations. (Complaint at ¶ 34 and Ex. A.) Among other things, OCY had failed to complete a risk-assessment report of suspected abuse within sixty days, failed to make direct contact with school district workers and other individuals who had direct knowledge concerning Brittany, and failed to include a safety plan detailing those issues that O CY was review ing in determ ining Brittany's safety within her hom e. (Id. at ¶¶ 35-37 and Exhibit A.)

In January 2006, the Child Welfare League of America issued a report at the request of the County of Erie, which had hired the League to study OC Y, perform a review, and m ake recom m endations. (Complaint ¶ 45.) That report contained the following findings:

For a number of years there have been role conflicts and a culture of disrespect at OCPS [Office of Child Protective Services, formerly known as OCY] that detracts from the ability of the agency to carry out its mission.

A respectful working environm ent is key to a healthy organization. OCPS should implement a zero tolerance policy for disrespectful behavior at any level of the organization. Zero tolerance for disrespect does not mean there are no differences of opinion, or that som etimes m anagem ent makes decisions that staff must abide by. It does mean staff at all levels of the organization should have the opportunity to be heard and understood, regarding issues related to them, and staff are actively engaged in developing solutions to promo te an effective organization.

W e believe that OCPS is at a critical juncture. Factors related to workload increases, staff turnover and organizational culture have coalesced to a point of crisis. ...

In sum m ary, lack of strong and clear m anagem ent structure, lack of integrity in role functions and staff perceptions or inequity and injustice in workload distribution and job requirements contribute to a toxic work environment and interfere with OC PS's ability to carry out its m anda te.

(Com plaint ¶ 46 (emphasis as in com plaint).)

During the period relevant to this lawsuit, Defendant Debra Liebel was the Executive Director of OCY. (Complaint ¶ 9.) Defendant Edith Joseph was the intake supervisor assigned to Brittany's case and was directly responsible for handling the multiple complaints of suspected abuse of Brittany prior to her death. (Id. at ¶¶ 10, 39.) Defendants Robin Adam s and D ebbie Leasure were em ployed as supervisors at OCY. (Com plaint ¶¶ 11, 16.) Defendant Cyndi Valimont, was em ployed as a casewo rker at OCY. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Defendants Carroll Gallagher, Cindra Vallone, and Michael Hughes were employees at OCY during the time in question. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-15.)

Plaintiffs have sued OC Y as well as each of the foregoing individuals whom , it is alleged, were involved in one way or another with the handling of Brittany Legler's case. (Complaint ¶¶ 17, 62.) The individual Defendants are sued in both their official and individual capacities. (Id. at ¶¶ 9-17.) Plaintiffs allege that these Defendants were engaged in a joint venture and conspiracy in that they agreed with and assisted each other in performing the various actions and inactions which led to Brittany's death and lent their support and the authority of their office to each other during these events. (Id. at ¶ 61.) It is further alleged that each of the Defendants "advised, assisted, ratified and/or directed the actions and inactions taken with respect to Brittany Legler." (Id. at ¶ 62.)

Based on these averm ents, Plaintiffs have asserted a claim under § 1983 against all Defendants for the alleged violation of Brittany's Fourteenth Am endm ent substantive due process rights. Plaintiffs assert a separate § 1983 claim against Defendants OCY, Liebel, Adams, Leasure, and the "other individual Defendant supervisors premised on their alleged failure to properly train and supervise the remaining individual Defendants" in their handling of Brittany's case. (Com plaint ¶¶ 70-71.) As against Defendants OCY and Debra Liebel, Plaintiffs assert a claim of m unicipal liability under § 1983. W ith respect to the individual Defendants, Plaintiffs assert claims under Pennsylvania law for negligence per se and gross negligence. Finally, Plaintiffs assert a survival action on behalf of Brittany's estate pursuant to the Pennsylvania Survival Act, 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8302.

Defendants have filed a m otion pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) to dism iss all of these claim s. The issues have been briefed and argued and the matter is ripe for consideration.


A. Plaintiffs' § 1983 Claim for Violation of Substantive Due Process Rights

To prevail under 42 U.S.C . § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that he suffered the deprivation of his constitutional or federal rights by a person acting under color of state law. Mark v. Borough of H atboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995). Here, Plaintiffs allege that the nam ed Defendants, all of whom are indisputably state actors for purpos es of § 1983, deprived Brittany of her Fourteenth Am endm ent right to substantive due process.

Defendants seek to dism iss the Plaintiffs' § 1983 claim on the grounds that Plaintiffs have failed to adequately allege a constitutional violation. In addition, they argue that the supervisor Defendants cannot be held liable for the harm caused to Brittany Legler because no personal involvement on their part has been alleged. Assuming that a constitutional violation on the part of the individual Defendants has been adequately pled, Defendants nevertheless maintain that they should be dismissed from this suit under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Finally, Defendants argue that OCY cannot be held liable under § 1983 because Plaintiffs have failed to allege that the tragedy which befell Brittany Legler was anything other than a single occurrence. W e will address each of these arguments in turn.

(i) The Due Process C lause of the Fourteenth

Am endm ent provides that "[n]o State shall... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. CONST. AMEND. XIV. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), a case in which a young child sustained perm anent brain dam age as a result of being brutally beaten at the hands of his natural father, the U nited S tates Suprem e Court held that the Fourteenth Am endm ent provides no affirm ative right to governm ental aid or protection against violence occurring at the hands of private individuals. Id. at 195-96, 202. The Court therefore upheld an award of sum m ary judgment in favor of county welfare workers and local officials who had been sued under § 1983 by the child's m other for failing to protect the child. There are, however, two recognized exceptions to DeShaney's basic premise: the "special relationship" rule and the "state-created danger" rule.

Under the first exception, the State's affirmative duty of care and protection arises "not from the State's knowledge of the individual's predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the lim itation which it has im posed on his freedom to act on his own behalf. DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 200. Courts have thus recognized the State's obligation, e.g., to provide adequate medical care for prisoners in accordance with the Eighth Am endm ent's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishm ent, Estelle v. Gam ble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), and to provide the basic services necessary for the reasonable ...

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