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Clayton v. Children's Choice

August 18, 2010


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


This action centers around the state court proceedings involving the custody of Marc Clayton, a four-year old who has been in foster care since December 4, 2006. Pursuant to a court order issued after he was found dependent, Marc was placed in the custody of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS") which arranged his placement with a foster parent through its service provider, Children's Choice, Inc. The plaintiffs, Marc's maternal grandfather and his wife, have unsuccessfully sought to participate in the proceedings.

Frustrated by their perceived inability to be heard in Family Court, the Claytons instituted this pro se federal civil rights action, alleging "illegal adoption, human trafficking, financial incentive" and "kidnaping" for financial gain. Implicit in their allegations is a claim that the defendants engaged in conduct calculated to generate financial benefit. They contend that the defendants violated their rights under the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments. They ask the court to "nullify the illegal adoption for profit scheduled 10/13/09," and award monetary damages.

Named as defendants are: Children's Choice, Inc., the service provider with which DHS has a contract to place and monitor dependent children in foster care; Drs. Bill and Carolyn Eberwine, the "owners" of Children's Choice; Honorable Kevin Dougherty, Administrative Judge of Family Court; Honorable Margaret T. Murphy, Supervising Judge of Family Court; Judges Charles Cunningham and Paula Patrick of the Family Court; Anne Marie Ambrose, Commissioner of DHS; Dell Meriweather, Deputy Commissioner of DHS; and three other DHS employees.*fn1

The alleged conduct of the defendants varies. The Claytons contend that the Children's Choice defendants kidnapped Marc, engaged in "human trafficking for profit, fraud and multiple civil rights violations." They charge the judicial defendants, except Cunningham who is not referred to in the complaint other than in the caption, with "administrative negligence, incompetence or deliberate complicity," and the DHS defendants with "negligent or fraudulent administration."

All defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint. They assert that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives the federal court of subject matter jurisdiction. The judicial defendants and the DHS defendants also contend that the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction raises a jurisdictional bar. In their motion, the judicial defendants also argue that judicial immunity bars this action against them. Alternatively, they urge that if the adoption proceedings are ongoing,*fn2 we should abstain.

In addition to raising a Rooker-Feldman argument, the Children's Choice defendants and the DHS defendants argue that the complaint is factually and legally insufficient and fails to meet the Twombly and Iqbal pleading standard. The Children's Choice defendants also contend that there is no constitutionally protected interest forming the basis for a constitutional violation because grandparents have no protected interest in dependency proceedings. They also assert that because they acted pursuant to court orders, quasi-judicial immunity applies, shielding them from this action.

We conclude that neither the Rooker-Feldman doctrine nor the domestic relations exception deprives the federal court of subject matter jurisdiction. However, under the most liberal reading of the complaint, the Claytons fail to make out a viable § 1983 case against any of the defendants. As grandparents, the Claytons do not have a protected liberty interest in the adoption of Marc, a necessary element forming the basis for a substantive due process claim. Even if they had stated a § 1983 cause of action, judicial immunity shields the judicial defendants. Therefore, the motions to dismiss will be granted.

Legal Standard

The jurisdictional challenges are brought under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1); and the motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The standards are similar, but not identical.

When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint are accepted as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). Additionally, the plaintiffs' pro se pleadings must be considered deferentially, affording them the benefit of the doubt where one exists. Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002)). In light of these standards, we shall accept as true the facts as they appear in the plaintiffs' complaint and draw all possible inferences in their favor.

A complaint must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), giving the defendant "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Although this standard "does not require 'detailed factual allegations,' . . . it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 U.S. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). There must be enough factual content from which we can draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable. In other words, the claim for relief must be "plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. To reach this point in the analysis, we only consider those legal conclusions that are supported by the factual allegations and disregard those that are not.

A motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) attacking the court's jurisdiction is treated similarly to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000). However, a jurisdictional motion challenging the factual underpinnings of a court's jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) requires less deference to the plaintiff's complaint. CNA v. United States, 535 F.3d 132, 139 (3d Cir. 2008). Because a "factual attack" in a Rule 12(b)(1) motion addresses the court's power to hear the case, there is no presumption of truthfulness and we may consider materials outside the complaint to determine whether the exercise of federal jurisdiction is proper. Id. at 139 and 145.

The plaintiff has the burden of persuading the court that it has jurisdiction. Gould, 220 F.3d at 178. However, consistent with the deferential standard, we shall keep the Claytons' pro se status in mind when we examine the facts relevant to subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1). Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 673 F.2d 700, 711 (3d Cir. 1982) (quoting Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, ...

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