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Cimorelli v. Tioga County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 1, 2018

TRACEY D. CIMORELLI, individually and d/b/a TRACEY CIMORELLIA'S DAY CARE, Plaintiff
v.
TIOGA COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA AND TIOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff Tracey D. Cimorelli (“Cimorelli”), individually and doing business as Tracey Cimorelli's Day Care, brings this action against defendants Tioga County, Pennsylvania, and Tioga County Department of Human Services (collectively, “Tioga County”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 16). Cimorelli alleges that Tioga County violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process by wrongfully filing a child abuse report against her, causing revocation of her child care license. (See id.) Before the court is Tioga County's motion (Doc. 30) for summary judgment. The court will grant Tioga County's motion.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[1]

         Cimorelli, a licensed child care provider, owned and operated a day care facility in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania until 2016. (See Doc. 30-1, Cimorelli Dep., 5:9-12, 6:9-18, 49:2-50:6, Apr. 6, 2017 (“Cimorelli Dep.”); Doc. 31 ¶ 1; Doc. 37 ¶ 1). Todd Adams (“Adams”) worked as Cimorelli's full-time assistant at the day care. (See Cimorelli Dep. 7:11-8:7, 8:20-23). Cimorelli hired additional part-time employees as needed when enrollment at the day care exceeded eight or nine children. (See Id. at 7:25-8:23).

         M.Y. attended Cimorelli's day care facility from September 2014 until December 2014 when she was eight months old.[2] (See Cimorelli Dep. 9:16-19; Doc. 31 ¶¶ 1-2; Doc. 37 ¶¶ 1-2). On December 5, 2014, M.Y.'s father picked her up from day care. (Doc. 31 ¶ 5; Doc. 37 ¶ 5). That evening, M.Y. showed signs of persistent discomfort. (See Doc. 31 ¶¶ 7-9; Doc. 37 ¶¶ 7-9). The next day, M.Y.'s parents took her to Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital, where x-rays were ordered and revealed a bruised hip. (Doc. 31 ¶¶ 10-11; Doc. 37 ¶¶ 10-11). On December 9, 2014, MY's parents brought her to see a pediatrician (Doc 31 ¶ 12; Doc 37 ¶ 12; see also Doc 30-4) The pediatrician ordered additional x-rays and diagnosed MY as having “bilateral fractures of the tibia and fibula” (Doc 31 ¶ 13; Doc 37 ¶ 13) MY's parents took her to Geisinger Medical Center (“Geisinger”) where a doctor confirmed the pediatrician's diagnosis (Doc 31 ¶ 14; Doc 37 ¶ 14)

         On December 11 2014 Geisinger reported suspected child abuse to Child Line based on MY's injuries (See Doc 31 ¶ 15; Doc 37 ¶ 15) Tioga County case workers commenced their investigation that same day (Doc 31 ¶ 16; Doc 37 ¶ 16) Over the course of three months case workers interviewed a number of individuals regarding MY's injuries to wit: MY's parents maternal grandparents and maternal aunt; staff and physicians at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital and at Geisinger; MY's pediatrician; Cimorelli Adams and other day care employees; and parents of other children who attended Cimorelli's day care (See Doc 30-2 at 61; Doc 31 ¶¶ 18 20-22 24 27-31; Doc 37 ¶¶ 18 20-22 24 27-31) The case workers interviewed MY's parents on multiple occasions and conducted two separate home visits (Doc 31 ¶¶ 16 21-22; Doc 37 ¶¶ 16 21-22) Their notes indicate a “warm and loving” relationship between MY and her parents (Doc 31 ¶ 23; Doc 37 ¶ 23) They also interviewed Cimorelli several times and visited the day care facility twice (Doc 31 ¶¶ 20 24 31; Doc 37 ¶¶ 20 24 31) The case workers considered alternative theories as to the cause of MY's injuries including contact with another child at day care and contact with MY's family dog (See Doc 31 ¶¶ 20 25; Doc 37 ¶¶ 20 25)

         The case workers met on February 5, 2015 to review evidence obtained throughout the investigation. (Doc. 31 ¶ 32; Doc. 37 ¶ 32). The next day, Tioga County issued its findings of child abuse and indicated Cimorelli and Adams as the cause of M.Y.'s injuries. (See Doc. 31 ¶ 33; Doc. 37 ¶ 33; see also Doc. 30-2 at 76). As a result, Cimorelli lost her child care license and closed her day care facility. (See Cimorelli Dep. 45:19-47:12, 49:2-4). Cimorelli and Adams successfully appealed Tioga County's finding. (Doc. 31 ¶¶ 34-36; Doc. 37 ¶¶ 34-36). Cimorelli reopened her day care facility shortly thereafter. (See Cimorelli Dep. 47:8-16).

         Cimorelli commenced the instant action on April 28, 2016, (Doc. 1), subsequently filing an amended complaint (Doc. 16) on June 22, 2016. Therein, Cimorelli asserts one substantive due process claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 16 ¶¶ 44-70). Cimorelli contends that case workers, pursuant to an “unofficial custom, ” failed to thoroughly investigate the cause of M.Y.'s injuries and targeted Cimorelli instead. (See, e.g., Doc. 35 at 4-5, 11-13, 15; Doc. 37 ¶¶ 16-17, 21, 25, 29). Tioga County filed a motion (Doc. 17) to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). We denied Tioga County's motion, finding that Cimorelli failed to articulate an official policy that caused her alleged injury but permitting her to proceed on an unofficial custom theory of liability. (Doc. 23; see also Doc. 24). Following a period of discovery, Tioga County filed the instant motion (Doc. 30) for summary judgment, together with supporting papers.[3] The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact” and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with “affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, ” in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) requires movants and nonmovants alike to support factual assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or otherwise “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Rule 56(e) allows the court to deem undisputed any fact not properly countered by record evidence. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). The Local Rules of Court undergird these principles by requiring Rule 56 motions to “be accompanied by a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.” Local Rule of Court 56.1. The Local Rule also requires the party opposing summary judgment to file a responsive statement identifying genuine issues to be tried and mandates that both parties' submissions “include reference to the parts of the record that support the statements.” Id. Consistent with Federal Rule 56, the Local Rule allows a court to deem a moving party's statement to be admitted when it is not properly “controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing party.” Id.; see Thomas v. United States, 558 F.Supp.2d 553, 558-59 (M.D. Pa. 2008). In resolving the instant motion, the court has reviewed the parties' statements and has independently considered the entire record.

         III. Discussion

         As stated supra, we have already determined that Cimorelli failed to allege the existence of an official policy at the Rule 12 stage. (Doc. 23 at 7). Hence, the sole issue before the court is whether Tioga County is entitled to summary judgment on Cimorelli's unofficial custom theory.[4]

         Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides a cause of action to redress violations of federal law committed by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but merely a method for vindicating those rights otherwise protected by federal law. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe,536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002); Kneipp v. Tedder,95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To establish a claim under Section 1983, plaintiff must show a deprivation of a “right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a person acting under color of state law.” Kneipp, 95 F.3d at 1204 (quoting Mark v. Borough of Hatboro,51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)). Under Pennsylvania law, Cimorelli had a legitimate property interest in her child care license. See City of Phila., Bd. of License & Inspection Review v. 2600 Lewis, Inc., 661 A.2d 20, 22 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1995) (citing Young J. Lee, Inc. v. Dep't ...


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