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Harris v. Adams County Domestic Relations

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 10, 2015

TERRY HARRIS, Plaintiff,



Plaintiff Terry Harris, proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Doc. 1). For the reasons provided herein, it is recommended that Plaintiff's complaint be dismissed (Doc. 1).


Plaintiff Terry Harris filed the instant civil rights action on October 28, 2014, against Adams County Domestic Relations; Director, William Gold; Assistant Director, Susan Gantz; Supervisor, Kelly Carothers; Supervisor, Emily Coolbaugh; Caseworker, Sarah E. Deihl; Judge Robert G. Bigham; Assistant District Attorney, Bernard A. Yannetti; Caseworker Brett Dillman; Administrative Assistant, Sherri Piper, Carol N. Newman, and Genevieve Dobson. (Doc. 1). In his complaint, Harris alleges that the above-named Defendants violated his constitutional rights under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments by refusing to grant him visitation rights of his son and refusing to modify his child support obligations in light of documentation attesting to an unspecified disability that interferes with his ability to secure permanent employment. (Doc. 1). Specifically, Harris alleges that the Adams County Court of Common Pleas erred in denying his petition to modify his existing child support order on the basis that there has been a substantial and material change in circumstances with respect to his inability to work as a result of a physical disability. While he obtained employment with Pepsi on July 20, 2014, he was terminated from that employment on September 3, 2014 because "Pepsi failed to accommodate [his] disability." (Doc. 1, at 3). He alleges that he only receives $750 per month in social security income, which does not cover his rent payments, medical bills, and other expenses. He further alleges that he is being threatened with imprisonment for failure to make child support payments. Harris seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, and an injunction vacating his child support payments, and granting him visitation rights.


Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court is obligated, prior to service of process, to screen a civil complaint in which a prisoner is seeking redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a); James v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 230 Fed.Appx. 195, 197 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court must dismiss the complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1); Mitchell v. Dodrill, 696 F.Supp.2d 454, 471 (M.D. Pa. 2010). The Court has a similar obligation with respect to actions brought in forma pauperis . See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). In performing this mandatory screening function, a district court applies the same standard applied to motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Mitchell, 696 F.Supp.2d at 471; Banks, 568 F.Supp.2d at 588.

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), continuing with our opinion in Phillips [ v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224 (3d Cir. 2008)] and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). A court "need not credit a complaint's 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). Additionally, a court need not assume that a plaintiff can prove facts that the plaintiff has not alleged. Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). In order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). When ruling on a motion to dismiss, a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted, and should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). "[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice." Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). Additionally, a document filed pro se is "to be liberally construed." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). A pro se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). The Third Circuit has instructed that if a complaint is vulnerable to dismissal for failure to state a claim, the district court must permit a curative amendment, unless an amendment would be inequitable or futile. Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002).


As an initial matter, the Court considers whether it is required to abstain under Younger .[1] "Abstention under Younger is appropriate where certain state law proceedings are pending, including some domestic relations disputes." Dixon v. Kuhn, 257 Fed.Appx. 553, 555 (3d Cir. 2007)(citing Yang v. Tsui, 416 F.3d 199 (3d Cir. 2005)). In order for a district court to abstain under Younger, three criteria must be met: "(1) ongoing state proceedings that are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings provide an adequate opportunity to present federal claims." Dixon v. Kuhn, 257 Fed.Appx. at 555 (citation omitted). "The Younger doctrine is based on comity and the notion that comity makes it undesirable to permit a party access to a federal court when he is currently involved in state proceedings where he can secure an adjudication of his constitutional claim." FOCUS v. Allegheny Cnty. Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 844 (3d Cir. 1996).

Harris clearly meets the first prong, as the state proceedings with respect to his child support are "ongoing, " and "require the state court's continuing participation." Jones v. Pa. Dep't of Pub. Welfare, No. CIV.A. 03-CV-3610, 2004 WL 1175808, at *4 (E.D. Pa. May 27, 2004) Specifically, pursuant to Pennsylvania law, "parents are liable for the support of unemancipated children under the age of 18." Jones, 2004 WL 1175808, at *4 (citing 23 Pa. C.S.A. § 4321(2)). In making an order of support, a Pennsylvania court "shall at all times maintain jurisdiction of the matter for the purpose of enforcement of the order and for the purpose of increasing, decreasing, modifying or rescinding the order." 23 Pa. C.S.A. § 4352(a)). As such, "a party subject to a child support order is a party to an open case that will not terminate until the child support order is finally discharged.'" Dixon, 257 Fed.Appx. at 555 (quoting Anthony v. Council, 316 F.3d 412, 419 n.9 (3d Cir. 2003)(nothing that "child support orders... endure for many years... [and] state courts continually monitor, enforce and modify child support orders").[2] Moreover, "[i]t is reasonable to ...

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