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Angel Luis Santos, et al v. Secretary of D.H.S.

July 23, 2012

ANGEL LUIS SANTOS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SECRETARY OF D.H.S., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

July ___, 2012

Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (Doc. 30); Defendant Lutheran Children and Family Services' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Doc. 39); Defendant Mary Louis Johnson's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Doc. 57); and Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motions (Doc. 66). Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are granted and Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint will be dismissed with prejudice as to all Defendants.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Angel Luis Santos ("Plaintiff Santos" or "Santos") initiated this action on December 15, 2010 on behalf of himself and his biological children, Gabriel Luis Santos and Sarah Nicole Santos ("the children" or "Co-Plaintiffs") with an application to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 1). Following a series of requests for enlargements of time within which to file responses to Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (Docs. 13, 14, 18), Plaintiff Santos filed a Motion for Leave to Amend the Complaint on June 20, 2011 in order to "clarify the judgment." (Doc. 20). Plaintiff Santos filed his Amended Complaint on July 25, 2011. (Doc. 30). Defendants Lutheran Children and Family Services ("LCFS") and Mary Louise Johnson ("Johnson") then filed renewed Motions to Dismiss. (Docs. 41, 57).

After being granted a number of extensions of time in which to file a response to Defendants' renewed Motions to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, (Docs. 49, 54, 61), Plaintiff Santos still failed to timely file a substantive response to Defendants' Motions. *fn1 Under the local rules, "[i]n the absence of [a] timely response [to a motion], the motion may be granted as uncontested . . . . ." E.D. P A. R. 7.1(c). Despite this rule, because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, the Court will review the merits of the arguments in Defendants' Motions.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Santos is a prisoner currently incarcerated in the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. (Doc. 60). Defendant, Secretary of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS") ("Secretary"), *fn2 is the presumed head of DHS. Defendant LCFS is one of many non-profit agencies that contracts with DHS to provide foster care services to children. (Doc. 41, pg. 3). Defendant Johnson was appointed as counsel by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County to represent Plaintiff Santos during his parental rights termination proceedings. (Doc. 57, pg. 5).

Plaintiff Santos, along with his children initiated this pro se civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendants violated their First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights during the time when Plaintiff Santos' children were first placed in foster care, and continued throughout the time Santos' parental rights were terminated on December 9, 2008. (Doc. 39, ¶ 32).

The facts construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs are as follows. On November 26, 2006, Santos was arrested for a criminal violation and subsequently incarcerated. (Doc. 30, ¶ 8). In December 2006, when DHS was informed that the children were "home alone," they removed the children from Plaintiff Santos' home and placed them in the custody of their older sister, Alicia Santos. (Doc. 30, ¶¶ 8-9). After a visit from his children in January 2008, Plaintiff Santos was informed by the children that Alicia Santos was being physically abused by her live-in boyfriend. (Doc. 30, ¶ 15). Plaintiff Santos immediately informed an agent of LCFS and requested that the children be removed from their sister's custody and placed with another family member. (Doc. 30, ¶ 16-17).

A few months later in May 2008, Plaintiff Santos was informed by the children that LCFS placed them in foster care within the home of Michael and Deborah Bickings ("Mr. and Mrs. Bickings"). (Doc. 30, ¶ 20; Doc. 41, pg. 3). Plaintiff Santos was engaging in limited contact with the children, when in October 2008, he received a notice for a Petition for a Finding of Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights and notice of the court's appointment of Defendant Johnson as counsel. (Doc. 30, ¶ 26-27). On December 9, 2008, Plaintiff Santos' parental rights were terminated in proceedings before the Honorable Flora Barth Wolf in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. (Doc. 3, pg. 16; Doc. 57, pg. 3). Following the termination of Plaintiff Santos' parental rights, Mr. and Mrs. Bickings subsequently adopted Co-Plaintiffs. (Doc. 41, pg. 3).

Plaintiffs' original Complaint alleged violations of their civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and violations of rights guaranteed to them by the First, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. (Doc. 3, pgs. 6-7). *fn3 In addition to the claims alleged in his original Complaint, Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint also asserts violations of additional rights guaranteed to them by the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. 30). The Amended Complaint contains a plethora of different claims regarding a variety of different incidents. *fn4

The majority of the claims, however, stem from custody proceedings regarding the children in Pennsylvania state court. Plaintiffs argue, inter alia, that Defendants deprived Plaintiff Santos of his right to determine the placement of his children; withheld services to Co-Plaintiffs; impermissibly restricted Plaintiff Santos' access to his children; and failed to adequately provide notice that his parental rights might be terminated. (Doc. 3, pgs. 5-7; Doc 30). Plaintiffs generally seek declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief against all Defendants, including a claim for punitive damages. (Doc. 30, pg. 44).

In response, Defendants LCFS and Johnson each assert in their respective renewed Motions to Dismiss that Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint is barred by the applicable statute of limitations. Defendant Johnson also argues that Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims against her are barred because she is not a state actor, and Plaintiff Santos' claims against her do not fall within the protections of the Sixth Amendment. Furthermore, Defendant LCFS argues that Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and that Plaintiffs' requested relief is also barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court is required to accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 (3d Cir. 1994). A complaint should be dismissed only if the alleged facts, taken as true, fail to state a claim. See In re Warfarin Sodium Antitrust Litig., 214 F.3d 395, 397-98 (3d Cir. 2000). The question is whether the claimant can prove any set of facts consistent with his or her allegations that will entitle him or her to relief, not whether that person will ultimately prevail.

Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by, Davis v. Scherer 468 U.S. 183 (1984); Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000).

While a court will accept well-pled allegations as true for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, it will not accept bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences, or sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The Supreme Court has recognized that "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In Twombly the Court made clear that it would not require a "heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. A "pleader is required to 'set forth sufficient information to outline the elements of his claim or to permit inferences to be drawn that these elements exist.'" Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted).

In 2009, the Supreme Court revisited the requirements for surviving a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 769-81 (2009). There, the Court made clear that "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements" will not suffice to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Id. at 663. In evaluating whether a Plaintiff has met the pleading requirements, a district court must identify "the 'nub' of the . . . complaint -- the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s]." Id. at 680. "[O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief [will] survive[] a motion to dismiss." Id. at 679.

In light of the decision in Iqbal, the Third Circuit set forth a two-part analysis to be applied by district courts when presented with a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. First, the court must separate the legal elements and factual allegations of the claim, with the well-pleaded facts accepted as true but the legal conclusions disregarded. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Second, the court must determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint demonstrate that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 211. If the court can only infer the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint must be dismissed because it has alleged, but has failed to show, that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id.

Notwithstanding Iqbal and Twombly, however, "[w]hen presented with a pro se litigant, [the Court has] a special obligation to construe his complaint liberally." Higgs v. U.S. Att'y Gen., 665 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011). Thus, even if a pro se plaintiff's claims are not set out in the clearest fashion, the Court is obligated to discern all the possible claims that the Plaintiff may be alleging. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972).

IV. DISCUSSION

Defendants LCFS and Johnson have asked the Court to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based upon several arguments. Moreover, although Defendant Secretary has not had the opportunity to response to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint due to lack of service, the Court will address ...


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