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Billups v. Utz

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2017

CATHY UTZ, et al., Defendants


          Kane Judge

         Before the Court is a motion to dismiss by Defendants Ted Dallas, Cindi E. Horshaw, and Cathy A. Utz. (Doc. No. 36.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendants' motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action has its origins in a 2009 child abuse investigation of Plaintiffs Jamel Billups and Jacqueline Rosario.[1] Specifically, the present case centers around whether state officials had the authority to summarily reinstate Plaintiffs' listing on ChildLine, the state's child abuse database, months after expunging the original listing. (See Doc. No. 35.)

         On October 19, 2009, Franklin County's child protection agency received a report that Plaintiffs had abused their minor child, L.B..[2] (See Doc. No. 35 ¶¶ 14, 18.) ChildLine was notified of the abuse allegation on October 19, 2009. (Id. ¶ 23.) On December 18, 2009, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas conducted a dependency hearing and made a factual finding that Plaintiffs had abused their child. (Id. ¶ 27.) As a consequence, on February 22, 2010, state authorities updated ChildLine to reflect a “founded” report of child abuse. (Id. ¶ 28.) Plaintiff Billups was criminally charged concerning the child abuse allegation, but a jury acquitted him of all charges after a full trial in December 2010. (See id. ¶¶ 55-56.)

         On September 21, 2011, upon receipt of new exculpatory evidence, Plaintiffs appealed the ChildLine report to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (“DPW”), an agency since renamed the Department of Human Services (“DHS”). (See id. ¶ 33.) The agency rejected Plaintiffs' appeal as untimely. (See id. ¶ 34.) The state agency's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (“BHA”) also rejected Plaintiffs' subsequent appeal on timeliness grounds (id. ¶ 37), and Plaintiffs appealed the BHA disposition to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on May 15, 2012 (id. ¶¶ 37-38).

         During litigation in the Commonwealth Court, Plaintiffs and the state agency agreed to enter mediation and to stay the appeal in the Commonwealth Court while Plaintiffs sought an agency review by DPW or its designee pursuant to 23 Pa. Stat. 6341(a). (Id. ¶¶ 39-41.) Defendant Cathy Utz, acting as the designee of the agency secretary, reviewed Plaintiffs' case. (Id. ¶ 42.) On June 7, 2013, Defendant Utz sent a letter to Plaintiffs informing them that, upon review, the secretary had decided to expunge the ChildLine report in accordance with the state statute. (Id.)

         Officials from Franklin County sent Defendant Utz a letter of their own on June 28, 2013. (Doc. Nos. 10-3; 35 ¶ 47-48.) In the letter, signed by Franklin County child services director Douglas Amsley and Franklin County child services solicitor Brian Bornman, the county officials requested that Defendant Utz reconsider her decision to expunge the ChildLine reports based on “substantial misinformation” provided by Plaintiffs to the state agency. (Doc. No. 10-3 at 2.) According to the letter, Plaintiffs did not fully apprise the state agency of the exhaustive judicial proceedings that occurred in the wake of the dependency hearing - procedures which, as per the letter, deprived the state agency of jurisdiction over the claim. (Id.) Though not apparent from the text of the letter, Plaintiffs allege that the county officials sought reconsideration of the expunction because the county was defending Plaintiffs' civil rights lawsuit, and they “desire[d] to continue to have founded reports to use in their defense[.]” (Doc. No. 35 ¶ 61.)

         On December 19, 2013, Defendant Utz sent Plaintiffs another letter. (Doc. Nos. 10-2; 35 ¶ 68.) According to the letter, the agency completed its review of Plaintiffs' file after receiving “additional medical information.” (See Doc. No. 10-2 at 1.) Defendant Utz informed Plaintiffs that their request for expungement - that had already been granted on June 7, 2013 - was denied, and that, Plaintiffs would accordingly “remain listed as perpetrators of child abuse” on the agency's database. (Id.; see Doc. No. 35 ¶ 68.)

         Since the reinstatement, proceedings in the state judicial and administrative systems have been ongoing. On June 5, 2014, the Commonwealth Court issued a sealed opinion ordering the case to be remanded to address the merits “based on [a physician's] false testimony at the dependency hearing.” (See Doc. No. 35 ¶ 69.) Upon remand, the BHA conducted evidentiary hearings and determined that, while it retained jurisdiction over the ChildLine report itself, the BHA possesses no jurisdiction to determine whether Defendant Utz's reinstatement of the report was lawful. (Doc. No. 27-2.) On the request of Plaintiffs, the BHA stayed its determination on the merits of the report until this Court has adjudicated Plaintiffs' present federal complaint. (Id.; see Doc. No. 35 ¶ 76.)

         Plaintiffs initiated the present action on May 23, 2015 (Doc. No. 1), and they filed their amended complaint on July 21, 2015 (Doc. No. 10). In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs allege that the re-instatement of their ChildLine report without notice or the opportunity for a hearing, and without any express statutory authorization, violated due process protections found in both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, and that Defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit the violation. (Doc. No. 10 ¶ 81(a-b).) Plaintiffs also alleged that their relisting on the database caused compensable injury to their reputations in violation of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions, and that Defendants also engaged in a conspiracy to cause their reputation injury. (Id. ¶ 81(c-d).) In addition to damages, Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief requiring Defendants to de-list them from the ChildLine database. (Id. ¶ 80.)

         On August 4, 2015, Defendants Amsley, Bronman, and Franklin County (together, the “County Defendants”) filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (Doc. No. 11.) Defendants Dallas, Horshaw, and Utz filed their own motion to dismiss on August 21, 2015. (Doc. No. 21.) On February 29, 2016, this Court granted in part the County Defendants' and Defendants Dallas, Horshaw, and Utz's motions to dismiss and granted Plaintiffs leave to file a second amended complaint to address the pleading deficiencies identified in this Court's February 29, 2016 Memorandum. (Doc. No. 34.)

         On March 20, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint. (Doc. No. 35.) The second amended complaint adds eighteen allegations to the first amended complaint, though the remaining allegations are simply reiterations of the allegations made in the first amended complaint. (Doc. No. 35 ¶¶ 79-97.) On April 4, 2016, the County Defendants and Defendants Dallas, Horshaw, and Utz each filed a second Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. (Doc. Nos. 36, 37.) Plaintiffs and the County Defendants have since stipulated to the dismissal of the County Defendants (Doc. No. 43), and Defendants Dallas, Horshaw, and Utz's motion to dismiss is now ripe for disposition.


         Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide the defendant notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008). The plaintiff must present facts that, accepted as true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires “only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” a complaint may nevertheless be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for its “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The Court's inquiry is guided by the standards of Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Under Twombly and Iqbal, pleading requirements have shifted to a “more heightened form of pleading.” See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out “sufficient factual matter” to show that the claim is facially plausible. Id. Accordingly, to determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified the following steps a district court must take when determining the sufficiency of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6): (1) identify the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint “not ...

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