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Hatfield v. Berube

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 13, 2017



          Nora Barr Fischer United States District Judge


         This civil action arises from events that transpired in connection with the removal of Plaintiff's children from her custody on March 12, 2012 and related dependency proceedings. On January 7, 2013, Plaintiff Alicia Hatfield (“Plaintiff”) filed this pro se lawsuit for injunctive and monetary relief, naming Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the Mon Valley Regional Office of Allegheny County Children, Youth & Family Services (“CYF”), and various child welfare officials as Defendants. As matters presently stand, the only remaining Defendants are Amanda Berube (“Berube”), a former CYF caseworker, and Kathleen Tennant (“Tennant”), a CYS supervisor. Plaintiff's remaining federal claims against these two Defendants are asserted under 42 U.S.C. §1983 to redress the alleged violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In addition, Plaintiff asserts a state law claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         This Court has jurisdiction over the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§1331, 1343 and 1367. Presently pending before the Court is a motion by the Defendants for summary judgment on all remaining claims (Docket No. 65). For the reasons set forth below, the Defendants' motion will be granted.


         Plaintiff is the natural mother of four minor children, J.H., B.H., M.M., and A.F. (Defs.' Concise Statement of Material Facts, “DCSMF, ” ¶1.)[1] In the fall of 2010, Plaintiff and her children were living with Steven Fey -- Plaintiff's paramour and the father of A.F. -- in a house in Homestead, Pennsylvania that was owned by Fey's mother. (See Def.'s Ex. C, Pl. Dep. at 49:12-14, Docket No. 66-1; Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2, at 5.)

         In September 2010, CYF received a report that Fey had become physical with J.H., twisting his arm behind his back to the point of causing J.H. physical pain. (See Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2, at 4.) The reporting source informed CYF that Plaintiff wanted to leave Fey but lacked the financial resources to do so. (Id.) At that time, Plaintiff reportedly agreed that Fey did grab J.H. in the manner described when frustrated.

         A CYF intake worker subsequently visited the home on October 4, 2010 and discovered that the upstairs was gutted and unusable. (See Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2, at 4.) There was no running water in the kitchen, and all the children were sleeping in one room on beds that were soiled and old. (Id.; see also Pl.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 69-5 at 3.) The caseworker reported that there was a crack in the living room ceiling that had tape over it and the tape appeared to be moldy. (Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2, at 4.) At that point, CYF opened a case file on Plaintiff's family, and Three River Youth in-home services were implemented to assist Plaintiff with getting the water service turned on, finding her own housing, counseling Plaintiff on general parenting skills, assisting with family budgeting, and connecting the family to other community resources. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 4.)

         In late 2010, Plaintiff's family was transferred to a caseworker with Family Group Decision Making (“FGDM”). (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 4.) In December 2010 and January 2011, the FGDM caseworker made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the family. (Id.; see also Pl.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 69-5 at 3.)

         In May 2011, CYF received a call from Plaintiff reporting that Fey was verbally abusive to her and the children. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 4.) Plaintiff further stated that Fey had been physical with J.H. and had inflicted bruises on the children in the past. (Id.) Based on Plaintiff's allegations, the FGDM caseworker attempted to complete an assessment of the family but reportedly found them uncooperative over the course of several months. (Id. at 4-5; see also Pl.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 69-5 at 3.)

         On January 26, 2012, Berube was assigned to Plaintiff's family in her capacity as a caseworker for CYF. (DCSMF ¶2.) Berube's supervisor at the time was Tennant. (Id. ¶3.)

         Berube initially attempted to contact the family by phone on February 1, 2012, but the call was not answered. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) On February 7, 2012, she made an unannounced visit to the home. (DCSMF ¶6.) Although Berube could hear people inside the house, no one would answer the door. (Berube Decl.¶6(b), Defs.' Ex. B, Docket No. 66-1.) Subsequently, Fey arrived home and allowed Berube into the house without incident. (DCSMF ¶¶6-7; Berube Decl. ¶6(c)-(e); Pl.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 69-5 at 3.) In the course of her walkthrough inspection, Berube observed that there were only two mattresses in one room for the four children, there was once again no water service in the kitchen, and the home had a strong odor of animal urine. (DCSMF ¶8; Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) Plaintiff was “abrupt” with Berube and informed her she was not going to move out of the home. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.)

         Berube's second visit occurred on February 22, 2012. (DCSMF ¶9.) On this occasion, Fey again allowed Berube into the house and accompanied her as she conducted her walkthrough inspection. (Id. ¶¶10, 12-13, 15, 17.) During the walkthrough, Berube obtained photos of the upstairs area, which she found to be “completely gutted” with wires exposed. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) According to Berube's written account of the incident, “[t]here were concerns with broken windows in the home, outlet exposures and potential dangers of the ceiling collapsing downstairs.” (Id.; see also DCSMF ¶19.) In addition, “[t]he family [was] still not able to use water in their kitchen.” (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) Berube informed Plaintiff that if she did not address the issues concerning the condition of the house or find new housing, the children could be removed from the home. (DCSMF ¶20.) Plaintiff responded that she was planning to move out of the home. (DCSMF ¶21.)

         CYF subsequently received a report on March 10, 2012 “that Plaintiff was driving around Pittsburgh with her children and [had] stated that she is tired of the abuse.” (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) The reporting source, an in-home social services worker, informed CYF that Plaintiff “refused to go to [a] shelter with her children” and “was tired of J.H. being maltreated by Mr. Fey.” (Id.)

         Berube made contact with Plaintiff two days later, on March 12, 2012, at which time Plaintiff “was [reportedly] vulgar with [Berube] and would not explain anything to [her]. [Plaintiff] stated that she had a plan to move out but would not share this plan with [Berube]” and hung up on her. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.) Berube then filed applications with the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas Family Court, Juvenile Division, for emergency protective custody of each of Plaintiff's four children. (DCSMF ¶22; Def.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 66-2.) The various applications -- dated March 12, 2012 -- contained a common statement of allegations in support of Berube's request for emergency protective custody. (DCSMF ¶22.) The applications, which were approved and signed by Tennant, alleged the following, with respect to each child:

[CYF] is requesting an [Emergency Custody Application] for the children due to the lack of cooperation of the parents, [domestic violence] and the safety conditions of the home. The complete upstairs of the home is gutted and wires are completely exposed. Downstairs there is a broken window in the living room. The home smells of animal urine. On 3/10/12 Mother reported to the in-home worker that she was leaving the home due to abuse that is occurring in the home by Father Steve Fey. Mother reported that she is tired of the maltreatment Mr. Fey does to [J.H.]. Caseworker spoke with Mother on 3/12/12 regarding the abuse. Mother refused to provide any information to Caseworker as to the abuse. Mother states that she is moving out of the home but would not provide any information to Caseworker. The family was not cooperative with Family Group Decision Making. This family has a history with [CYF] due to [domestic violence] and conditions of the home. It appears that [A.F.] has a speech delay.

(Defs.' Ex. E, Docket No. 66-2, at p. 12; see also DCSMF ¶23.)

         That same day, the Honorable Cathleen C. Bubash of the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, Family Court Division issued an order for temporary emergency protective custody of the children. (DCSMF ¶24; Defs.' Ex. F, Docket No. 66-2, pp. 16-19.) Judge Bubash found that “[s]ufficient evidence was presented to prove that continuation or return of the child[ren] to the home of Alicia Hatfield... is not in the best interest of the child[ren]” and would be “contrary to [their] welfare.” (Id.) The court further found that preventative services were reasonably denied “due to the necessity for emergency placement, ” and the agency's level of effort in this regard was reasonable “due to the emergency nature of the situation, safety considerations, and circumstances of the family.” (Id.)

         Having obtained Judge Bubash's orders, Berube went to Plaintiff's home on March 12, 2012 to remove the children. (DCSMF ¶25.) When Fey answered the door, Berube informed him that she was there to remove the children and showed Fey a copy of the Judge's orders. (Id. ¶¶26-28; Pl.'s Ex. V, Docket No. 69-11 at 3.) Berube never entered the home on that occasion and did not personally provide Plaintiff a copy of the court's orders authorizing the children's removal. (Id. ¶¶29-30.) Upon their removal, the children were taken to the home of their maternal grandmother. (Def.'s Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.)

         On March 14, 2012, Plaintiff and her children were provided a shelter hearing. (DCSMF ¶31.) Plaintiff was present at the hearing and was represented by an attorney. (Id. ¶32.) Following the hearing, the state court ordered that the children remain in the care of their maternal grandmother pending further developments. (See Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at 5.)

         Thereafter, each of Plaintiff's four children became the subject of a separate state court dependency proceeding. (See Defs.' Ex. D, Docket No. 66-2 at pp. 2-8; see also Docket Nos. 33-1, 33-2, 33-3 and 33-4.)[2] At the dependency hearing, Berube testified concerning the family's history with CYF and with other social services agencies, as reflected in CYF's case file. (Pl.'s Ex. E, Docket No. 69-5 at 3.) Plaintiff was present for the dependency hearing and was represented by legal counsel. (Id.)

         On April 16, 2012, the state court found each of Plaintiff's children to be a “dependent child” within the meaning of the Juvenile Act, 42 Pa. C.S.A. 6302. (DCSMF ¶ 33; Defs.' Ex. G, Docket No. 66-2 at pp. 21-24.) As a result of the proceedings, J.H. was placed in shelter care, while the remaining children were placed in kinship care with their maternal grandmother. (Id.)

         On August 27, 2012, the state court held a permanency review hearing. (See Pl.'s Ex. F, Docket No. 69-6.) Plaintiff was again present and represented by counsel. (Id. at 2.) At the hearing, Berube provided testimony concerning ongoing developments with the family. (Id.) Based on improved circumstances, [3] the court determined that M.M. and A.F. could return home to Plaintiff and Fey, who were still residing together, while the other two children would remain in their respective placements. (Id. at 4.)

         On October 25, 2012, however, CYF received further reports of domestic violence and physical abuse within the home. (See Pl.'s I, Docket No. 69-6, at 17.) Based on these reports, CYF caseworker Aurelia Brooks and supervisor Ken Minefield filed an application for emergency custody of M.M. and A.F., which was verbally granted by the state court judge. (See Pl.'s Ex. H, Docket No. 69-6 at 10-14; Pl.'s Ex. G, Docket No. 69-6 at 7.) The children were placed with their maternal grandmother and, the following day (i.e., October 26, 2012), Berube and Tennant submitted shelter care applications for M.M. and A.F. (Pl.'s Ex. I, Docket No. 69-6 at 15-18; Pl.'s Ex. J, Docket No. 69-6 at 19-22.)

         Three days later, on October 29, 2012, the court held a shelter hearing, which Plaintiff attended with her attorney. (See Pl.'s Ex. K, Docket No. 69-6 at 24.) Berube also appeared at the hearing and provided testimony concerning the events that caused CYF to seek the children's removal. (Id. at 24-29.) Plaintiff reportedly agreed at that time that the children should remain in shelter care, and she requested that they be placed with a couple when she knew. The court declined this request and ordered that M.M. and A.F. remain with their maternal grandmother, along with B.H. (Id.)

         Ultimately, M.M. and B.H. were adopted by their maternal grandmother following a termination of Plaintiff's parental rights. (DCSMF ¶34; Def.'s Ex. H, Docket No. 66-2, at pp. 26-27; Pl.'s Ex. U, Docket No. 69-10 at 2-27.) A.F. was eventually reunified with Fey. (DCSMF ¶35; Defs.' Ex I, Docket No. 66-2, at p. 29.) J.H. was eventually returned to Plaintiff's custody after lengthy court proceedings and a determination by the state court that Plaintiff had substantially complied with the court-approved plan for reunification. (DCSMF ¶36; Defs.' Ex. I, Docket No. 66-2 at p. 31; see also Docket No. 33-3 at pp. 1-2.) There is no indication in the record that Plaintiff ever appealed these orders of the state family court.


         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on January 7, 2013 during the pendency of the family court proceedings. On January 22, 2013, she filed an amended complaint (Docket No. 6), which became the operative pleading in this case.

         On July 27, 2016, this Court entered a memorandum opinion (Docket No. 39) and order (Docket No. 40) which disposed of certain claims in the amended complaint, allowed other claims to proceed, and permitted a period for further amendment. Plaintiff declined further amendment and, as a result, the amended complaint remains the operative pleading in this litigation. Based on the Court's July 27, 2016 ruling, the only remaining claims in the case are: (i) §1983 claims asserted against Berube and Tennant in their individual capacities for alleged Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations; and (ii) a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         Defendants filed their Rule 56 motion (Docket No. 65) on February 13, 2017 as to all of the remaining claims. Contemporaneously, they filed a concise statement of material fact (Docket No. 66) and supporting brief (Docket No. 67).

         Plaintiff filed a response in opposition (Docket No. 68), a concise statement of material facts (Docket No. 69), and supporting exhibits (Docket Nos. 69-1 through 69-11) on March 17, 2017. Based on her filings, this Court discerns that Plaintiff is basing her claims on a number of multifaceted objections. As a general matter, Plaintiff asserts that “[t]he state proceedings in their entirety are in question.” (Pl.'s Opp. Mot. Summ. J. at 1, Docket No. 68.) More particularly, she contends that CYF and/or its agents did not meet their burden of proof or produce sufficient evidence to justify the separation of her from her children or the termination of her parental rights. She objects generally to the fact that the agency advocated her separation from Fey and her departure from Fey's house as a condition to getting her children back. She complains that her children had to witness her reputation being attacked in the course of the state proceedings. She claims that she now suffers an “emotional disconnection” from her children. (Pl.'s Opp. Mot. Summ. J. at 2.) With respect to Berube's February 22, 2012 in-home visit, Plaintiff contends that the search of the second floor area was nonconsensual. With respect to the March 12, 2012 removal of the children, Plaintiff maintains that Berube did not conduct a sufficient pre-removal investigation or show Plaintiff a copy of the court's emergency custody order.

         Despite the disjointed nature of Plaintiff's assertions, the Court finds that the issues are sufficiently joined for purposes of resolving the pending motion. Its analysis follows.


         A grant of summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party establishes “‘that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Heffernan v. City of Paterson, 777 F.3d 147, 151 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). A genuine dispute of material fact is one that could affect the outcome of litigation. Willis v. UPMC Children's Hosp. of Pittsburgh, 808 F.3d 638, 643 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). However, “‘[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'” N.A.A.C.P. v. N. Hudson Reg'l Fire & Rescue, 665 F.3d 464, 475 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

         The initial burden is on the moving party to adduce evidence illustrating a lack of genuine disputes. Hugh v. Butler Cty. Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986)). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the non-moving party must present sufficient evidence of a genuine dispute in rebuttal. Santini v. Fuentes, 795 F.3d 410, 416 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587). When considering the parties' arguments, the Court is required to view all facts and draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)). Further, the benefit of the doubt will be given to allegations of the non-moving party when in conflict with the moving party's claims. Bialko v. Quaker Oats Co., 434 F.App'x 139, 141 n.4 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Valhal Corp. v. Sullivan Assocs., 44 F.3d 195, 200 (3d Cir. 1995)).

         Nonetheless, a well-supported motion for summary judgment will not be defeated where the non-moving party merely reasserts factual allegations contained in the pleadings. Betts v. New Castle Youth Dev. Ctr., 621 F.3d 249, 252 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989)). The non-moving party must resort to affidavits, depositions, admissions, and/or interrogatory answers to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute. Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 773 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324). “[U]nsubstantiated arguments made in briefs or at oral argument are not evidence to be considered.” Versarge v. Twp. of Clinton, 984 F.2d 1359, 1370 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing Bell v. United Princeton Props., Inc., 884 F.2d 713, 720 (3d Cir. 1989)).

         In this case, Plaintiff is proceeding pro se. Consequently, we must interpret her filings in a liberal manner. See Ray v. Township of Warren, 626 F.3d 170, 173 (3d Cir. 2010); Renchenski v. Williams, 622 F.3d 315, 337 (3d Cir. 2010). Nevertheless, Plaintiff is still required to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the local rules of this Court. See Schock v. Baker, 663 F.App'x 248, 252 (3d Cir. 2016) (“Although the [plaintiffs'] pleadings are read with some leeway in light of their pro se status, they were still required to comply with Rule 56.”) (citing Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013)); Mearin v. Folino, 654 F.App'x 58, 61 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 576, 196 L.Ed.2d 453 (2016) (court noting that, “even with the leniency due pro se litigants, [plaintiff] could expect to be held to the local rules surrounding summary judgment motion practice”); Mertz v. Harmon, Civil Action No. 15-6627, 2017 WL 930303, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 9, 2017) (“Although Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, that does not eliminate his obligation to comply with Rule 56.”).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's Claims Under 42 U.S.C. §1983

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint asserts claims against Berube and Tennant pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, an enabling statute that provides a federal remedy for the violation of federal constitutional or statutory rights. Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 298 (3d Cir. 2000). To state a claim under section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant acting ...

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