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Long v. Holtry

November 24, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


Before the court is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 10.) The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

A. Facts*fn1

For a period of over twenty years, Plaintiffs Philip and Michele Long operated their home as a foster home licensed by Lebanon County Children & Youth Services, ("LCCYS"), which is controlled by Defendant Lebanon County. At all times relevant to this case, Defendant James Holtry ("Holtry") was the executive director of LCCYS. Defendant Sue Maulfair ("Maulfair") was a caseworker, and Defendant Robert Sutherly ("Sutherly") was a supervisor at LCCYS.

During the time that Plaintiffs operated a foster home, approximately fifteen to twenty foster children stayed at their home. Beginning in 2006, two children where placed by LCCYS in Plaintiffs' home. Plaintiffs aver that upon their arrival at Plaintiffs' home, the children had emotional problems and certain developmental delays which began to abate while in Plaintiffs' care; however, these conditions worsened after the children visited their natural parents. Plaintiffs assert that they reported these problems to LCCYS. The children remained in Plaintiffs' home through January 2008.

In early January 2008, Plaintiff Michelle Long notified Maulfair that she would be unable to take the children to a regularly scheduled visit with their biological parents scheduled for January 15, 2008. On January 7, 2008, Michelle Long was told that she had to take the children for a visit with their natural parents; however, due to the short notice, she was unable to rearrange her schedule. On January 24, 2008, at approximately 4:15p.m., Plaintiffs received a telephone call from Maulfair requesting that Plaintiffs have the foster children packed up and ready to leave the foster home the following morning. Plaintiffs were only told that the children were being removed from their care, they were not told why they were being removed. Plaintiffs complied with the request despite receiving only one day's notice. Defendants did not inform Plaintiffs of their right to appeal LCCYS' decision to remove the children.

On February 5, 2008, Sutherly sent Plaintiffs a letter informing them that LCCYS would be closing their foster family status, and would not be placing any other foster children with Plaintiffs. The letter did not explain the reasons for LCCYS' decision, except that the agency felt it was in the best interest of all parties involved.

On March 10, 2008, LCCYS filed a petition for a change of placement of the foster children with the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs were not a party to this proceeding. On March 11, 2008, the court entered an order directing that the foster children be removed from Plaintiffs' foster home. On March 21, 2008, LCCYS filed a motion for an amended order requesting that the court enter a directive that Plaintiffs' home be closed for future placement of dependent children until LCCYS determines that reopening would be appropriate. Plaintiffs did not receive notice of the motion to amend, and consequently, were not given an opportunity to be heard by the court of common pleas regarding the closing of the foster home. On March 24, 2008, the court of common pleas amended its order and terminated Plaintiffs' foster home privileges for the future placement of foster children.

After entry of the order, Plaintiffs requested LCCYS to reinstate them as a foster home. On April 9, 2008, Holtry sent Plaintiffs a letter stating that there was no specific regulation for appealing a closure of a foster home, and that their request was denied. Before getting Holtry's April 9, 2008 order, on April 2, 2008, Plaintiffs appealed the closure of their foster home to the Department of Public Welfare Bureau of Hearings and Appeals ("BHA"). LCCYS filed a motion to dismiss the appeal alleging that the BHA lacked authority to rule on a order entered by a court of common pleas. On June 12, 2008, the BHA denied the motion to dismiss, and determined that the order issued by the court of common pleas regarding Plaintiffs continuing as a foster home was not binding on the BHA. The case was then presented to an administrative law judge ("ALJ") who determined that the amended order of the court of common pleas regarding the termination of Plaintiffs' foster home status was unenforceable, and that Plaintiffs' foster home should be reopened. On August 20, 2008, the BHA issued an order affirming the ALJ's decision. LCCYS appealed the BHA's decision to the Secretary for the Department of Public Welfare. On October 22, 2008, the Secretary for the Department of Public Welfare issued a final order upholding the BHA's ruling. That order was not appealed by LCCYS.

Despite the orders by DPW, Defendants have not reopened Plaintiffs' foster home. Plaintiffs aver that their home has not been reopened because of Defendant Holtry's personal animus towards Plaintiff Michelle Long, and that this animus has resulted in an informal policy by LCCYS to never reopen Plaintiffs' home. In support of their allegation, Plaintiffs point to Holtry's conduct in connection with the Foster Parent Association ("Association"). At the time of removal of the children from Plaintiffs' home, Michelle Long was serving as vice-president of the Association. On or around an April 2008 Association meeting, Holtry informed the Association that LCCYS removed the children from Plaintiffs' home. Plaintiffs contend that these actions caused rumors to spread that Plaintiffs had abused the children, something that is entirely false. Plaintiffs also contend that Holtry used his position as the executive director of LCCYS to cause Plaintiffs to be removed from a mailing list for foster parents, and that his actions caused Michelle Long to be removed as vice president of the Association.

Holtry has told Plaintiffs that if they wish to have their foster home reopened they must meet heightened requirements, but has not informed Plaintiffs what the heightened requirements are, thereby making it impossible for Plaintiffs to comply. Plaintiffs also allege that LCCYS has not required any other foster family to meet any heightened requirements.

A. Procedural History

On April 2, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their complaint alleging that Defendants are liable under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and their corollaries under the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Doc. 1.) On June 19, 2009, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 6.) Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on July 6, 2009. (Doc. 8.) On July 16, 2009, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, (Doc. 10), and their corresponding brief in support, (Doc. 11). On August 3, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their brief in opposition to Defendants' motion (Doc. 13), and on August 17, 2009, Defendants filed their reply brief, (Doc. 14). After a case management conference with the parties, Plaintiffs filed a motion requesting permission to file a sur-reply. (Doc. 23.) After briefing, the court granted Plaintiffs' request and also permitted Defendants the opportunity to file a sur-rebuttal brief. The parties filed their respective supplemental briefs on November 13, 2009, and November 16, 2009. (Docs. 26, 27.) The matter is now ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

When presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court is required to conduct a two-part analysis. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). First, "the factual and legal elements of the claim should be separated," the court "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. Second, the court must determine "whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a 'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___U.S.___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009)).

The complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief; it must "show such an entitlement with its facts." Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (citations omitted). As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, "[w]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not 'show[n]'-'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) (alterations in original).) In other words, a claim has "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1949 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Id.

"To decide a motion to dismiss, courts generally consider only the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993) (citations omitted); see also Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2007). The court may consider "undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the [attached] document[s]." Pension Benefit, 998 F.2d at 1196. Additionally, "documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the pleading, may be considered." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted); see also U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002) ("Although a district court may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings, a document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint may be considered without converting the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment.") (internal quotation omitted). However, the court may not rely on other parts of the record in making its decision. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

Finally, in the Third Circuit, a court must grant leave to amend before dismissing a civil rights complaint that is merely deficient. See, e.g., Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2007); Weston v. Pennsylvania, 251 F.3d 420, 428 (3d Cir. 2001); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). "Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility." Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

III. Discussion

Plaintiffs bring all of their claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which states in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.... 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2002). Section 1983 "is not itself a source of substantive rights, but a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred by those parts of the United States Constitution and federal statutes that it describes." City of Monterey v. Del Monte Dunes, 526 U.S. 687, 749 n. 9 (1999) (internal quotation omitted). To prevail in an action under § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) a violation of a right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States and (2) that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000); Moore v. Tartler, 986 F.2d 682, 685 (3d Cir. 1993).

In the instant case, there is no dispute that Defendants were acting under the color of state law. Consequently, the court turns to the question of whether Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts plausibly demonstrating that they had rights protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States that were violated by the Defendants. In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs assert that Defendants violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive and procedural due process and equal protection, as well as their rights under the Fourth Amendment and Pennsylvania's Constitution.*fn2 Plaintiffs ...

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