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Isbell v. Patterson

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 28, 2013

AMIR A. ISBELL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CRAIG PATTERSON, et al., Defendants

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For Amir A Isbell, J.B., A Minor, A.I., A Minor, Bergina Brickhouse Isbell, M.D., Plaintiffs: Mark D. Freeman, Mark D. Freeman, Esq., Media, PA.

For Craig Patterson, Rachel Wade, Julie Spencer, Montour County, Defendants: David L. Schwalm, Thomas, Thomas & Hafer, LLP, Harrisburg, PA.

For Mediator, Mediator: Joseph Anthony Barrett, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of Clerk of Court, Scranton, PA.

OPINION

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John E. Jones III, United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

On August 27, 2013, this Court issued a memorandum and order (Doc. 72), relevantly granting Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on their procedural due process claim. Defendants timely filed a Motion for Certification of Interlocutory Appeal and Stay Pending Appeal (Doc. 73), seeking immediate review of the order. For the reasons articulated herein, the Court will deny the Motion.

I. Background

Plaintiffs commenced the underlying action by filing a complaint (Doc. 1) asserting,

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inter alia, that Defendants' implementation of a voluntary safety plan, based on a report of suspected child abuse, violated their procedural due process rights. The safety plan had pertinently required Plaintiff Amir Isbell to vacate the family home for a period of time and prohibited unsupervised contact between the Isbells and their children. Plaintiffs received no notice of the right to an attorney or a hearing or any other means of challenging the deprivation of their parental rights resulting from the application of the safety plan.

After several procedural turns, Plaintiffs relevantly moved for summary judgment as to the due process claim, which this Court granted. See Isbell v. Bellino, No. 4:12-cv-0043, 962 F.Supp.2d 738, *54 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2013) (Doc. 72). We rejected Defendants' qualified immunity defense, holding that the right to procedural protections is clearly established where a county agency endeavors to remove a parent from the family home. We explained that the Third Circuit, in Croft v. Westmoreland County Children and Youth Services, 103 F.3d 1123 (3d Cir. 1996), noted that " the policy of removing the suspected parent from the family home during the pendency of child abuse investigations absent any procedural safeguards raises a procedural due process issue," id. at 1125 n.3, and that " rigorous adherence to procedural safeguards" is necessary anytime a state seeks to alter or suspend a parent's right to the custody of his or her children. McCurdy v. Dodd, 352 F.3d 820, 827 (3d Cir. 2003); see generally Starkey v. York Cnty., No. 11-cv-981, *26-28 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 20, 2012). We additionally found that Mr. and Mrs. Isbell's right to the care and custody of their children was substantially altered by the safety plan and that neither the safety plan nor any other correspondence from Defendants met " even the most relaxed procedural due process requirements." Isbell, at *34. We imposed judgment as to liability in Plaintiff's favor and ordered a trial on damages only.

Defendants filed the present motion for certification of interlocutory appeal and stay pending appeal on September 6, 2013 (Doc. 73), as well as a supporting brief (Doc. 74). Plaintiffs filed an opposition brief on September 13, 2013 (Doc. 75), and, on September 27, 2013, Defendants filed a reply (Doc. 76). The motion is now fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

Interlocutory review was intended by Congress for only " exceptional cases." Caterpillar Inc. v. Lewis, 519 U.S. 61, 74, 117 S.Ct. 467, 136 L.Ed.2d 437 (1996) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Couch v. Telescope Inc., 611 F.3d 629, 633 (9th Cir. 2010) (explaining that 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) provides a " narrow exception to the final judgment rule" ). A district court may certify an order for interlocutory appeal where (1) the relevant order involves a " controlling question of law" ; (2) there is " substantial ground for difference of opinion" on that question; and (3) a prompt appeal " may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation." 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b); see Katz v. Carte Blanche Corp., 496 F.2d 747, 754 (3d Cir. 1974). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that each requirement is satisfied. See Orson, Inc. v. Miramax Film Corp., 867 F.Supp. 319, 321 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (citation omitted). Even if the statutory conditions are met, the Court may exercise its discretion to decline to certify the order. See In re Chocolate Confectionary Antitrust Litigation, 607 F.Supp.2d 701, 704 (M.D. Pa. 2009) (citations omitted).

Defendants assert that there are two controlling questions in this case: whether Croft clearly establishes the right to procedural protections as to a voluntary

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safety plan, and, also, what minimal procedural due process is necessary when implementing a voluntary safety plan. Defendants argue that, if it is ultimately held that the right to procedural due process has not been clearly established, then they are entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment should not have been granted in Plaintiffs' favor. Defendants also assert that there is no authority as to what procedural safeguards are necessary when a safety plan is implemented, maintaining that they provided minimal procedural protections, for instance, by advising Plaintiffs of their rights related to the child abuse investigation and obtaining the agreement of Plaintiffs and their counsel to the safety plan. Contending that substantial grounds for differing opinions exist on these issues, Defendants explain that Croft does not control because it concerned substantive -- not procedural -- due process and is factually distinguishable. Even assuming procedural safeguards are necessary, Defendants aver that no Third Circuit precedent addresses what would constitute minimal due process. Finally, Defendants argue that an immediate appeal could obviate the need for a trial on damages.

After considering the law and the parties' arguments, we conclude that Defendants have failed to demonstrate the existence of substantial grounds for a difference of opinion on a controlling question of law. First, what constitutes minimum due process relative to a voluntary safety plan is not a controlling question in this case because the Court found that Defendants failed to provide any process whatsoever. See Isbell, at *38 (" [W]e are compelled to conclude that the Defendants entirely failed to provide any level of procedural due process protections to the Plaintiffs in any meaningful manner either pre- or post-deprivation." ). Thus, the disposition of this legal issue does not control the outcome of this matter. See Katz, 496 F.2d at 755 (explaining that a controlling question of law is one that " would result in a reversal of a judgment after final hearing" ).

Second, Defendants have not demonstrated substantial grounds for differing opinions as to the right to procedural safeguards where the state implements a voluntary safety plan. It is an established principal that where a state endeavors to change or affect the parent-child relationship in furtherance of a legitimate state interest, Fourteenth Amendment liberty interests are implicated, requiring procedural safeguards. See, e.g., B.S. v. Somerset Cnty., 704 F.3d 250, 271 (3d Cir. 2013) (" [I]t is axiomatic that at least some process is required when a 'state seeks to alter, terminate, or suspend a parent's right to the custody of [her] minor children.'" (quoting McCurdy, 352 F.3d at 827)); McCurdy, 352 F.3d at 827 (compelling " rigorous adherence to procedural safeguards" where parents' custodial relationship with their children is interfered with by the state (citing Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 656-57, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972))). Fundamentally, due process requires " the opportunity to be heard 'at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner,'" Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 333, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976) (quoting Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545, 552, 85 S.Ct. 1187, 14 L.Ed.2d 62 (1965)), and, here, as stated, this Court found that Plaintiffs had no such opportunity. Accordingly, we find that Defendants have not demonstrated that " controlling authority fails to resolve a pivotal matter" in this case, In re Chocolate Confectionary Antitrust Litigation, 607 F.Supp.2d at 705, and we conclude that interlocutory appeal is not appropriate.

As we decline to grant Defendants' motion for certification, it is unnecessary to address the motion to stay litigation.

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NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT Defendants' Motion for Certification of Interlocutory Appeal and Stay Pending Appeal (Doc. 73) is DENIED.


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