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Sporish v. County of Delaware

United States District Court, Third Circuit

September 25, 2013

JAMES DANIEL SPORISH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
COUNTY OF DELAWARE, PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

JOEL H. SLOMSKY, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff James Daniel Sporish is incarcerated. He is the father of Nicole Sporish. While Nicole Sporish was in the custody of her mother, she was the subject of dependency proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Ultimately, these proceedings resulted in her removal from her mother’s custody and her placement with Children Youth Services of Delaware County.

Plaintiff believes his civil rights as a father were violated by the way the dependency proceedings were handled, and he filed the instant lawsuit to vindicate his rights. His claims are based on the length of the proceedings, including hearing postponements, the failure to ensure his “video presence” at every hearing, and the inability to have his daughter’s custody transferred to his parents who reside in New Jersey. He also makes other related claims.

Proceeding pro se, Plaintiff filed the instant civil rights suit on behalf of himself and his daughter[1] against Delaware County, Children Youth Services of Delaware County (“CYS”), [2] and individual CYS employees Deirdre Gordon (Administrator), Christine Murphy (Supervisor), Margaret Amoroso (Legal Department Supervisor), Beverley White (Legal Department Intake Supervisor), and Summer Fowlkes (Case Worker).

Presently before the Court is the Joint Motion of Defendants to Dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the Court will grant the Motion to Dismiss.[3]

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The following facts are recited in a light most favorable to Plaintiff. Plaintiff James Sporish and Vanessa Onuffer are the biological parents of Nicole Sporish, a minor. (Doc. No. 3 at 6.) Since 2007, Plaintiff has been incarcerated at Albion State Correctional Institution. (Doc. No. 3 at 6; Doc. No. 13-1 at 2.) Prior to the events giving rise to this suit, Nicole was under the care of her mother. (Doc. No. 3 at 7.)

In July 2011, Children Youth Services of Delaware County (“CYS”) began monitoring Vanessa Onuffer’s care of her daughter. (Doc. No. 3 at 6-7, 75.) The CYS investigation was conducted by Defendants Summer Fowlkes and Christine Murphy, and raised suspicions that Ms. Onuffer had severe mental health, drug, and alcohol-related problems. Suspicions were also raised that Onuffer was abusing or neglecting Nicole. (Doc. No. 3 at 6-7.) With the approval of Defendants Deirdre Gordon and Margaret Amoroso, CYS petitioned the Juvenile Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County (the “juvenile court”) to adjudicate Nicole Sporish a dependent child, which would allow CYS to remove her from her mother’s custody. (Doc. No. 3 at 7, 75.) Classifying Nicole Sporish as a dependent, however, would put her at risk of being placed in the foster care system. (Id.) Because of this risk, CYS suggested to the court that Nicole could possibly remain in Onuffer’s care if Onuffer abided by certain measures. (Id.) As a result, in September 2011, CYS withdrew its initial dependency petition filed in juvenile court. (Doc. No. 3 at 76.)

While the petition was pending, a guardian was appointed for Nicole. In view of this appointment and the proceedings involving Nicole to that point, Plaintiff feared his daughter would be placed in foster care. (Doc. No. 3 at 7-9.) He therefore sent a letter to the court-appointed guardian with contact information for his parents in New Jersey. (Id.) In the letter, Plaintiff expressed his desire that his side of the family, which he referred to as the “family resource, ” take part in Nicole Sporish’s life. (Doc. No. 3 at 65.) Plaintiff also sent this same contact information to CYS. (Id.)

On December 2, 2011, CYS submitted a second dependency petition to the juvenile court, and Plaintiff once again wrote to CYS about his “family resource.” (Doc. No. 3 at 7-8, 76.) The hearing on this petition was originally scheduled for December 13, 2011, but was continued by the juvenile court several times and finally scheduled for March 6, 2012. (Doc. No. 3 at 73; Doc. No. 13-2 at 5-7, 8-13; Doc. No. 27 at 23-25.) On that date, Nicole Sporish was still in the custody of her mother, and at the request of Vanessa Onuffer’s counsel, the March 6th date was rescheduled to a “date to be determined.” (Doc. No. 13-2 at 14-16.)

In February 2012, before the March 6th date was continued, a phone call took place between Plaintiff and Defendant Fowlkes. (Doc. No. 3 at 9.) During this call, Plaintiff described his “family resource” and requested that Plaintiff be present at all hearings related to his daughter. (Id.) After Plaintiff stated his preference for Nicole Sporish to live with his family rather than be placed in foster care, Defendant Fowlkes informed him of the relevant conversations she had had with her supervisor, Defendant Murphy. (Id.) Specifically, because Plaintiff’s parents resided in New Jersey, Defendants Fowlkes and Murphy recognized the necessity to comply with the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (“ICPC”).[4] New Jersey authorities would have to be notified and give their approval for Nicole to be placed into out-of-state custody. (Id.) Defendant Fowlkes told Plaintiff that her supervisor, Defendant Murphy, had contacted the New Jersey authorities and learned that an ICPC would take from six months to a full year to be processed. (Id.) Defendant Fowlkes told Plaintiff she would immediately submit the ICPC paperwork and also inquire if there were any other procedures available to enable his parents to have temporary custody of Nicole. (Doc. No. 3 at 10.)

On March 28, 2012, at Defendant Murphy and Defendant Fowlkes’ request, Defendants Gordon and Amoroso filed an application with the juvenile court to take Nicole Sporish into emergency protective custody. (Doc. No. 3 at 10, 76.) A juvenile court judge then entered an emergency protective custody order, and CYS and the police removed the child from her mother’s care. (Doc. No. 3 at 10, 15, 77.) A hearing was held the next day, as required by statute, and the presiding Master gave legal and physical custody of Nicole Sporish to CYS. (Doc. No. 13-3 at 2-4.) The juvenile court judge ratified the Master’s recommendation on March 30, 2012. (Doc. No. 13-3 at 4.) Plaintiff was not present at any hearing on the emergency petition.

Following the events of late March, Plaintiff again spoke with Defendant Fowlkes. (Doc. No. 3 at 10.) Defendant Fowlkes informed him that she had spoken to his parents about their willingness to take on Nicole. She said the ICPC had not yet been sent to New Jersey, but would be sent soon, and also explained that there might be alternative channels beyond the ICPC process to give his parents custody. (Doc. No. 3 at 11.) Plaintiff informed her that he wanted his mother to attend the dependency hearing scheduled for April 17, 2012, even if she had to be subpoenaed. (Doc. No. 3 at 12; Doc. No. 13-3 at 3.)

The April 17th hearing was ultimately continued, but Plaintiff’s mother told him she had been instructed by Defendant Fowlkes and her supervisor not to attend the hearing. (Doc. No. 3 at 12, 73.) Plaintiff wrote to the juvenile court judge, requesting counsel and informing him that Plaintiff believed his “rights were being violated and (CYS) was ignoring the [family] resource.” (Doc. No. 3 at 12.)

On May 16, 2012, the juvenile court judge appointed counsel for Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 13-4 at 2-3.) Plaintiff’s mother informed him that Defendant Fowlkes had contacted her to schedule a home visit for May 24, 2012, but CYS representatives had not shown up that day. (Doc. No. 3 at 13-14.) When she called Defendant Fowlkes to inquire about the failed home visit, Defendant Fowlkes informed her that she and her supervisor decided it was not necessary because they expected Nicole Sporish to be placed back with her mother by December 13, 2012. (Doc. No. 3 at 14.)

Defendant Fowlkes called Plaintiff at the prison around the end of May to let him know that CYS had decided not to submit the ICPC to New Jersey. (Id.) Plaintiff said he wanted to speak with the juvenile court judge. (Id.) On July 6, 2012, Defendants Gordon and Amoroso petitioned for a dependency hearing to be held on July 13, 2012. (Id.) The position of CYS, as supported by an investigation conducted by Defendants Murphy and Fowlkes, was that Nicole Sporish had no alternative to foster care and that both her legal and physical custody should remain with CYS. (Id.) Once more, Defendant Fowlkes allegedly instructed Plaintiff’s mother not to attend the hearing. (Doc. No. 3 at 15.)

On July 13, 2012, the dependency hearing for Nicole Sporish was held in juvenile court. Plaintiff was present by video conference, as was his court-appointed counsel. (Doc. No. 3 at 15, 73.) During the hearing, Defendant Fowlkes testified about the various discussions she had with the Plaintiff and his parents, and she informed the court that she did in fact intend to submit the ICPC to New Jersey, contrary to what she had told Plaintiff earlier. (Doc. No. 3 at 15-16, 54.) The attorney for CYS explained that the ICPC could not be sent to New Jersey, however, until Nicole Sporish’s dependency status was adjudicated by the juvenile court. (Doc. No. 3 at 16, 59.) The juvenile court judge concluded the hearing by finding Nicole Sporish to be a dependent and ordering her to remain in CYS custody. (Doc. No. 3 at 16.)

On August 30, 2012, a new CYS caseworker filed the ICPC paperwork. (Doc. No. 3 at 15.) The new caseworker visited the home of Plaintiff’s parents and found it met all relevant requirements. (Doc. No. 3 at 17.) A permanency hearing was then held on September 28, 2012 and Plaintiff was again present by video conference. (Doc. No. 3 at 17, 73.) At the hearing, Plaintiff’s mother testified about her willingness to care for her grandchild; the new caseworker testified about her home study visit; Nicole Sporish’s attorney explained that she did in fact want to live with her grandparents; and Vanessa Onuffer’s attorney said there was no objection to Nicole Sporish living with her grandparents. (Doc. No. 3 at 17-18.) Plaintiff’s appointed counsel claimed that the ICPC procedures were not required in Nicole’s case. (Doc. No. at 18.) At the conclusion of the hearing, however, the juvenile court judge ordered CYS to retain custody of Nicole Sporish until the ICPC process had concluded. (Doc. No. 3 at 18-19.) The judge also ordered New Jersey to accelerate the ICPC process. (Id.)

As a result of these lengthy proceedings involving his daughter, Plaintiff filed the instant civil rights lawsuit against Delaware County and individual CYS employees Deirdre Gordon, Christine Murphy, Margaret Amoroso, Beverley White, and Summer Fowlkes (collectively referred to as “CYS employees”). (Doc. No. 3 at 1.) The Complaint alleges the following violations:[5]

Count I — 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim against CYS employees, for misrepresenting the facts about the family resource in petitions to the juvenile court in such a way as to make the court believe Plaintiff was disinterested in his daughter’s well-being.
Count II — 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claim against CYS employees, for misrepresenting Pennsylvania law to Plaintiff, his family, and the juvenile court in order to lead the court to believe there was no one available to care for Nicole Sporish.
Count III — 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection claims against CYS employees and Delaware County, for excessively delaying dependency hearings which led the juvenile court to believe there was no family that could take in Nicole Sporish and resulted in her ultimately being adjudicated as dependent.
Count IV — 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection claims against CYS employees and Delaware County, for failing to secure Plaintiff’s presence by video conference at every hearing which, had it been done, would have enabled Nicole Sporish to live with her grandparents rather than in foster care and prevented further dependency proceedings.
Count V — 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection claims against CYS employees, for submitting perjured recommendations in petitions to the juvenile court that listed foster care as the least restrictive placement for Nicole ...

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