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Bangura v. City of Philadelphia

January 7, 2009

CAROL BANGURA
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Padova, J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Carol Bangura commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against nine defendants, including the City of Philadelphia (the "City"). The sole remaining claim is a Monell claim against the City.*fn1 Plaintiff alleges that the City deprived her of her substantive due process rights to custody and care of her minor child when it failed to communicate to the Philadelphia Family Court, which was handling custody proceedings involving the child, that abuse allegations against Plaintiff had been unsubstantiated. Presently before the Court is the City's Motion for Summary Judgment. We heard oral argument on the Motion on December 18, 2008. For the reasons stated below, the Motion is granted, and we enter judgment in the City's favor.

I. BACKGROUND

On January 14, 2005, a physical confrontation occurred between Plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, and her then-fourteen-year-old daughter ("R.L."), who was subsequently arrested and detained for assaulting Plaintiff. The following day, the police released R.L. to her biological father, Ray-James Lewis. Prior to this incident, Plaintiff had primary custody of R.L. pursuant to a Philadelphia Family Court Order dated March 16, 2001, and Lewis had only partial custody. (Def. Ex. D.)

On January 18, 2005, Lewis contacted the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS") to report that Plaintiff had been physically abusing R.L. (See Def. Ex. C-1, at 116.) The next day, Lewis obtained an emergency temporary custody order, giving him sole physical and legal custody over R.L. (Def. Ex. E.) On January 20, 2005, DHS social worker Carmita DeSeignoria-Johnson was assigned to investigate Lewis's child abuse allegations. (DeSeignoria-Johnson Dep. at 33:14-22.)

After interviewing Plaintiff, R.L., and Lewis in February and concluding her investigation, DeSeignoria-Johnson sent a March 21, 2005 letter to Plaintiff, which notified her that DHS was closing the child abuse case but marking it "substantiated." (Def. Ex. G.) This "substantiated" finding, according to DeSeignoria-Johnson, represented DHS's conclusion that an incident placing R.L. at risk had occurred. (DeSeignoria-Johnson Dep. at 64:8-24, 80:8-11.) Plaintiff appealed (via telephone) to the DHS Commissioner, who ultimately determined the case to be unsubstantiated. (Id. at 64:25-66:16; Def. Ex. C-1 at 114.) DeSeignoria-Johnson's handwritten note in the DHS File states: "3/21/05 -- not substantiated."*fn2 (Def. Ex. C-1 at 112(A).) A May 16, 2005 letter notified Plaintiff that her case had been changed to "unsubstantiated" due to insufficient evidence that Plaintiff had placed her daughter "at risk of serious injury." (Def. Ex. C-2.)

A Philadelphia Family Court hearing was held on February 18, 2005, during the gap between the interviews in February and the substantiated letter dated March 21, 2005. At the hearing, the judge delayed adjudication of Plaintiff's petition to regain custody, explaining that she could not rule on the petition while a criminal proceeding in which Plaintiff was the complaining witness was pending against R.L. (N.T. 2/18/05, Def. Ex. I, at 11:10-18.) Notably, neither the court nor the parties ever contacted DeSeignoria-Johnson regarding any of the court proceedings. (DeSeignoria-Johnson Dep. at 28:18-25.) Moreover, the most recent court order in the record, dated June 29, 2005, stated: "DHS File does not need to be subpoenaed." (Def. Ex. J.) This same order continued the custody hearing to July 18, 2005, at which point a semi-protracted trial began. At the conclusion of the semi-protracted trial early the next year, the Family Court issued a February 14, 2006 custody order granting full legal and physical custody of R.L. to Lewis.*fn3

Plaintiff commenced the instant action against the City in this Court on January 22, 2007. While the precise contours of her Monell claim against the City under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are difficult to discern from her Amended Complaint, at oral argument, her counsel clarified that her primary claim is that she lost custody of R.L. due to DHS's "do nothing" policy of failing to promptly advise Plaintiff, or to ever advise the Family Court, that the abuse charge against Plaintiff was unsubstantiated.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it might affect the outcome of the case under governing law. Id.

A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility for informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the movant's initial Celotex burden can be met simply by "pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325. After the moving party has met its initial burden, "the adverse party's response, by affidavits or otherwise as provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). Summary judgment is appropriate if the nonmoving party fails to make a factual showing "sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

In evaluating the evidence, we take the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. Morton Int'l, Inc. v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 343 F.3d 669, 680 (3d Cir. 2003). However, "[s]peculation, conclusory allegations, and mere denials are insufficient to raise genuine issues of material fact." Boykins v. Lucent Techs., Inc., 78 F. Supp. 2d 402, 408 (E.D. Pa. 2000).

III. DISCUSSION

As stated above, Plaintiff seeks to hold the City liable under § 1983 for violation of her right to care and custody of her minor child, and she proceeds under a Monell theory of municipal liability. Section 1983 does not create substantive rights, it merely provides "remedies for deprivations of rights established in the Constitution or federal laws."*fn4 Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006). Therefore, in order to establish a § 1983 claim, Plaintiff must demonstrate that while "acting under color of state law," the defendant "deprived [her] . . . of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States." Id. The first step in this evaluation is to "'identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated' and to determine 'whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.'" Id. (quoting Nicini v. Morra, 21 ...


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