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Rodriguez v. City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

March 6, 2014

ZEYNA RODRIGUEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF JOHN DOE, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

Berle M. Schiller, J.

The City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and its Commissioner, Anne Marie Ambrose, published a picture of Zeyna Rodriguez and her minor son in an annual report. The photo was published without Zeyna’s permission. Plaintiffs claim that publishing the photo without permission caused great psychological harm to their family. They brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as various state law invasion of privacy claims. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ federal claim. The Court grants the motion, declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims, and dismisses this action such that Plaintiffs may file their state law claims in state court.

I. BACKGROUND

On March 12, 2013, DHS released its 2012 Annual Report entitled Improving Outcomes for Children (“IOC Report”) in hard copy and in digital format on its website. (Compl. ¶¶ 11-12.) The inside front cover of the IOC Report contains a full-length color photograph “prominently displaying Zeyna with her son John Doe.” (Id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiffs estimate that the photo is six to seven years old and that John Doe was eight to ten years of age at the time the photo was taken. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Plaintiffs never signed a release or gave permission to use the photo nor do Plaintiffs know when the photo was taken or who took it. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) Indeed, DHS never contacted Plaintiffs prior to selecting or publishing the photo. (Id. ¶ 21.)

Plaintiffs have never received or applied for assistance or services from DHS. (Id. ¶ 22.) Soon after the IOC Report was published, Plaintiffs received emails, phone calls, and other communications about the photo and why it had appeared in the IOC Report. (Id. ¶ 24.) “Plaintiffs have also had questions directed at them as to their need for DHS services and the identity of John Doe with respect to his natural parents. As a direct result, John Doe has questioned his own identity and has even asked Zeyna and his father to submit to a paternity test.” (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.) John Doe is also receiving counseling to address his concerns about his identity. (Id. ¶ 27.)

Plaintiffs requested removal of the photo from the IOC Report. (Id. ¶ 29.) Counsel for DHS informed Plaintiffs that the image had been removed from all electronic sources and that hard copies of the IOC Report with Plaintiffs’ images were no longer being issued. (Id. ¶ 30.) There was nothing that DHS could do, however, about hard copies already released to the public. (Id.)

Count I of the Complaint, brought against DHS, Commissioner Ambrose, as well as unnamed DHS employees, is a § 1983 claim for violation of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights as a result of Defendants’ policy and custom. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that “Defendants developed and/or instituted procedures, policies, practices, or customs which tacitly endorsed and/or permitted employees of Defendant DHS, including the individual Defendants themselves, to publish photographs with deliberate indifference to the liberty interest in reputation afforded to those whose images were selected.” (Id. ¶ 36.) Counts II through V are state law claims for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[1]

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a district court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Bd. of Trs. of Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local 6 of N.J. Welfare Fund v. Wettlin Assocs., 237 F.3d 270, 272 (3d Cir. 2001). A court need not, however, credit “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions” when deciding a motion to dismiss. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

“Factual allegations [in a complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. Although the federal rules impose no probability requirement at the pleading stage, a plaintiff must present “enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s]” of a cause of action. Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Simply reciting the elements will not suffice. Id. (holding that pleading that offers labels and conclusions without further factual enhancement will not survive motion to dismiss); see also Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has directed district courts to conduct a two-part analysis when faced with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, the legal elements and factual allegations of the claim should be separated, 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 make a common sense determination of whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show 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.

III. DISCUSSION

Both Plaintiffs and Defendants treat the federal claim as a due process claim asserting a deprivation of Plaintiffs’ liberty interest in reputation. Reputation alone is not an interest protected by the Constitution. See Versage v. Twp. of Clinton, N.J., 984 F.2d 1359, 1371 (3d Cir. 1993); see also Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701–12 (1976). “Rather, to make out a due process claim for deprivation of a liberty interest in reputation, a plaintiff must show a stigma to his reputation plus deprivation of some additional right or interest.” Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 236 (3d Cir. 2006). This is known as the “stigma-plus” test.

In order to satisfy the stigma prong of the “stigma-plus” test, a plaintiff must show that (1) the allegedly stigmatizing statement was made publicly; (2) the statement was substantially and materially false; and (3) the reputational harm was caused by the falsity of the statement. Lockett v. Pa. Dep’t of Corrections, 529 F. App’x 294, 296 (3d Cir. 2013). A stigmatizing statement is one that infringes upon the “reputation, honor, or integrity” of the plaintiff. See Brown v. Montgomery Cnty., 470 F. App’x 87, 91 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Ersek v. Springfield, 102 F.3d 79, 83–84 (3d Cir. 1996)). Plaintiffs have alleged no facts that support a finding that any stigmatizing statement or picture was made here. They allege that DHS published a photo of them in a report without first seeking permission. That does not state a federal claim. Plaintiffs claim that the “full-length color photograph prominently displaying Zeyna and her son on the inside of the IOC report falsely suggests that they were recipients of services from Defendant when in fact they were not.” (Pls.’ Br. in Opp’n to Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss [Pls.’ Br.] at 6.) Plaintiffs allege, and the Court must accept as true, that they received communications asking about their need for DHS services. (Compl. ¶¶ 24-25.) Assuming the veracity of the claim that a picture in a DHS report implies that those in the photo are recipients of DHS services, however, Plaintiffs have not stated a claim here. They cite no case law for the proposition that receiving DHS services is stigmatizing. The Court will not presume that any and all interactions with DHS are of a stigmatizing nature. The Court will also not presume that all who receive DHS services are stigmatizing by virtue of their need for services from DHS. Furthermore, a careful reading of the Complaint shows that Plaintiffs have failed to allege any reputational harm. At most, Rodriguez had to answer questions about the photo and ...


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