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Johnathan Robins, As An Individual and On Behalf of His Son v. Judge Michael F.X. Coll

November 6, 2012


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


In this pro se civil rights action, plaintiff Johnathan Robins ("Robins") alleges violations of his and his minor son's constitutional rights. He has named as defendants an unidentified "Master Judge," Judge Michael Coll of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, the Delaware County Court - Domestic Relations Division (collectively, "judicial defendants"), and Michael Ward, a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare County Assistance Office caseworker ("Ward"). Robins' complaint against the judicial defendants stems from alleged violations of his Fourteenth Amendment rights throughout child support proceedings involving Robins' minor child, including Judge Coll's decision to hold Robins in contempt of court and to lodge a detainer against him. Robins' complaint against Ward is that Ward interfered with his right to care for his child by allowing the child's maternal grandmother to file for medical assistance under "her welfare plan" on behalf of the child.

Factual and Procedural Background

As alleged in the complaint, Robins is the father of Johnathan Robins, Jr. ("child"), who was born on February 20, 2008. Pl.'s Am. Compl. at 2. While his son was in his custody, in the spring of 2008, the child's maternal grandmother, Lucille Freeman ("Freeman"), added the child to her welfare plan. Id. at 2-3. Because the child was covered by Freeman's welfare medical plan, Robins could not get health insurance for the child with Blue Cross Blue Shield through the Philadelphia Health Center. Id. at 3. Robins called Michael Ward, a case worker for the Delaware County Department of Public Welfare ("DPW"), to advise him that he and his wife were primary caretakers of the child. Id. Although Ward advised him that he would immediately remove the child from Freeman's welfare plan, he did not. Id. In the summer of 2008, Robins once again attempted to get health insurance for the child. Id. Again, it was denied. Id. In November 2008, Robins took the child to a health clinic in Philadelphia, where he discovered that the child was covered by DPW under Keystone Health Insurance. Id. at 3-4. When Robins called Keystone Health Insurance, he was informed that he could not have the child covered at the health clinic because the child was under Freeman's insurance and "control." Id. at 4.

In December 2008, at a child support hearing before Master Judge,*fn1 Robins contended that Freeman's filing for medical assistance for the child was illegal because he and the child's mother were married and were the primary caretakers of the child. Id. Nonetheless, Master Judge ordered Robins to pay child support. Due to an alleged confusion regarding Robins' occupation, Master Judge assessed Robins' income at $3,466 per week and ordered him to pay $851 per month in child support. Id. at 5. Robins claims his income was actually well below the poverty level, but Master Judge did not give him an opportunity to present any proof of his actual income. Id. Master Judge also advised Robins that she would order him to take over responsibility for the child's healthcare and that such an order would take the child off Freeman's welfare plan. Id. Master Judge apparently never issued such an order. Id.

Robins appealed the decision of the Master Judge and a hearing was scheduled for March 17, 2009. Id. at 5-6. Due to his incarceration in Philadelphia County Prison, Robins did not appear in court and his appeal was dismissed. Id. at 6. When he contacted the Delaware County Court to reschedule, he was told that due to his incarceration and inability to pay, his financial obligation would be assessed at zero and his arrears would be remitted without prejudice. Id.

On May 20, 2009, at a hearing Robins was neither notified of nor allowed to attend, Judge Michael Coll found Robins in contempt for not appearing at the March 17 hearing and "placed a detainer against Robins so he would not be released from . . . prison." Id. As a result, on June 19, 2009, when Robins posted bail, he was immediately transferred to Delaware County Prison. Id. He was released from Delaware County Prison on July 22, 2009. Id. On August 26, 2009, Judge Coll found Robins willfully in contempt and sentenced him to thirty days in prison. Id. at 7. Robins was immediately taken into custody. Id. Robins attempted to appeal the contempt order, but his effort was impeded by Judge Coll who ordered Robins to pay for transcripts of the hearing, even though he was proceeding in forma pauperis. Id.

On December 15, 2011, Robins filed this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, and 1985. In the complaint, he asserted First Amendment, due process, and equal protection violations on his own behalf and on behalf of his child. After the judicial defendants and Ward filed motions to dismiss, Robins requested leave to amend his complaint. On May 1, 2012, leave was granted to file an amended complaint and both motions to dismiss were denied without prejudice. On June 1, 2012, Robins filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint asserted the same constitutional violations by the two judges, but dropped claims against Ward in his official capacity. Defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint. On July 25, 2012, Robins filed a second amended complaint, which purports to re-brand his First Amendment claims as arising out of the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn2 Robins seeks injunctive and monetary relief.

Standard of Review

In examining motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we accept all of the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true. Nesbit v. Gears Unlimited, Inc., 347 F.3d 72, 77 (3d Cir. 2003), cert. denied 541 U.S. 959 (2004). Additionally, we consider the pro se plaintiff's pleadings deferentially, affording him 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)).

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim "tests the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's claim." Petruska v. Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2006), cert. denied, 550 U.S. 903 (2007). Where a bar to relief is apparent from the face of the complaint, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be granted. Leveto v. Lapina, 258 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing ALA, Inc. v. CCAIR, Inc., 29 F.3d 855, 859 (3d Cir. 1994)). With these standards in mind, we accept as true the facts as they appear in Robins' complaint and draw all possible inferences from these facts in his favor.


Claims on Behalf of the Minor Child

Parents, who are not attorneys and are acting pro se, may not bring claims in federal courts on behalf of their children. Lazaridis v. Wehmer, 591 F.3d 666, 672 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Osei-Afriyie v. Med. Coll. of Pa., 937 F.2d 876, 882-83 (3d Cir. 1991)). The right to counsel belongs to the child. Osei-Afriyie, 937 F.2d at 883. Parents cannot waive this right. "[I]t is not in the interest of minors or incompetents that they be represented by non-attorneys. Where they have claims that require adjudication, they are entitled to trained legal assistance so their rights may ...

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