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Smith-Goodman v. City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2019

LISA A. SMITH-GOODMAN
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          JUAN R. SÁNCHEZ, C.J.

         Pro se Plaintiff Lisa A. Smith-Goodman brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants City of Philadelphia, the City's social worker, Stephanie English, in her official capacity (together, the City Defendants), Turning Points for Children, and Turning Points' employee, Kaitlin Sullivan, in her official capacity (together, the Turning Points Defendants), alleging Defendants violated her Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment rights by maintaining a policy of reunifying children with their biological parents without regard to the rights of those who serve as in loco parentis guardians and removing a child from her custody for whom she served in loco parentis. The City Defendants and Turning Points Defendants have both moved to dismiss Smith-Goodman's claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Because the Court finds Smith-Goodman (1) did not establish that her substantive due process rights were violated; (2) received adequate procedural due process; (3) failed to plead a “class-of-one” equal protection claim; and (4) cannot assert a Fourth Amendment child seizure claim, Defendants' motions to dismiss will be granted.[1]

         FACTS[2]

         In 2008, minor child Z.K.M. was left in Smith-Goodman's custody by Z.K.M.'s biological mother by an “agreement/testimony” made in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Family Division (Family Court), for Z.K.M.'s first year of life. Second Am. Compl. ¶ 5. Thereafter, in March 2010, Smith-Goodman filed for physical and legal custody of Z.K.M. in Family Court, after learning Z.K.M.'s biological mother was being investigated for drug use during another pregnancy that resulted in the birth of a child with drugs in the child's system. See Id. On March 16, 2011, the Honorable Diane Thompson, initially awarded Z.K.M.'s biological mother sole physical and legal custody of Z.K.M. Subsequently, on June 21, 2011, Z.K.M.'s biological mother and Smith-Goodman entered into another agreement in which they agreed to shared physical and legal custody of Z.K.M.

         At a later date, the custody proceeding was transferred to the Honorable Peter F. Rogers, who, on February 2, 2015, suspended Smith-Goodman's custodial rights until further court order. After lengthy litigation-involving several appeals, motions for recusal, and petitions for contempt of custody filed by Smith-Goodman-the custody proceeding were resolved on November 9, 2017, by third agreement between Z.K.M.'s biological mother and Smith-Goodman to share legal and physical custody of Z.K.M.

         After Z.K.M.'s biological mother and Smith-Goodman entered into the custody agreement, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) initiated a dependency proceeding in Family Court.[3] On February 6, 2018, the Honorable Allan L. Tereshko held a hearing on the dependency petition, which Smith-Goodman and her court-appointed counsel, Lisa Visco, Esq., attended. At the hearing, English, in her capacity as a social worker for DHS, testified as to the dependency issues in the case noting two reports were made to DHS-one report against Smith-Goodman for Z.K.M. having truancy issues and for Smith-Goodman's failure to take Z.K.M. to therapy, and one report against Z.K.M.'s mother for using marijuana in her home which hurt Z.K.M.'s eyes. English expressed concern for Z.K.M. because she was “very vocal” about being “confused about her caregiver[]” situation and being “afraid to upset one caregiver over the other.” Tr. 13, Feb. 6, 2018. At this hearing, Attorney Visco challenged English on her testimony regarding the report against Smith-Goodman for Z.K.M. having truancy issues. Id. at 21. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Tereshko adjudicated Z.K.M. dependent in Smith-Goodman's home, but transferred legal and physical custody of Z.K.M. to Smith-Goodman for the time being. Judge Tereshko further authorized DHS to “evaluate under the best interest test where [Z.K.M.] should be placed, ” Id. at 26, and defined Z.K.M.'s placement goal as to “remain with [her biological mother] or [Smith-Goodman].” Order of Adjudication and Disposition 1, Feb. 21, 2018.

         On May 8, 2018, Judge Tereshko held another hearing.[4] At this hearing, Sullivan, in her capacity as an employee for the community umbrella agency Turning Points for Children, testified that the goal of the dependency proceedings was to reunify Z.K.M. with her mother, see Tr. 9, May 8, 2018, and that she felt Smith-Goodman was an impediment to reunification, see Id. Sullivan further discussed her visit to Smith-Goodman's home and observations of Smith-Goodman as Z.K.M.'s guardian, on which Attorney Visco cross-examined her. See Id. at 19-20. After hearing testimony, Judge Tereshko indicated a willingness to reunite Z.K.M. with her biological mother. However, because Z.K.M.'s biological mother tested positive for marijuana use prior to the hearing, he refused to do so. Id. at 27 (“[I]f I did not have the [biological mother's] drug issues to deal with . . . I would re-unite the family today.”). Judge Tereshko deferred deciding Z.K.M.'s placement until a later date.

         Judge Tereshko held another hearing on Z.K.M.'s placement on August 7, 2018.[5] At this hearing, which Smith-Goodman and Attorney Visco also attended, see Permanency Review Order (Non-Placement) 1, Aug. 7, 2018, Judge Tereshko returned physical and legal custody of Z.K.M. to her biological mother, see Id. Judge Tereshko further suspended Smith-Goodman's guardianship and visitation rights. See Id. at 2.

         On August 28, 2018, Smith-Goodman filed the instant action, alleging she was “deprived of [her] right to due process as a person who stands in loco parentis to a child in dependency court” as well as purporting to bring certain claims on Z.K.M.'s behalf. Compl. 6. The Court sua sponte dismissed Smith-Goodman's complaint without prejudice for, inter alia, a lack of standing to bring claims on Z.K.M.'s behalf and failure to state a claim. On September 25, 2018, Smith-Goodman filed an Amended Complaint raising claims for violations of her constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and various Pennsylvania statutes. Smith-Goodman further added English, Sullivan, and Judge Tereshko as parties to the action. On September 19, 2018, the Court sua sponte dismissed the Amended Complaint without prejudice as to the City Defendants and Turning Point Defendants for, inter alia, failure to state a claim. The Court dismissed the claims against Judge Tereshko with prejudice on the ground of judicial immunity.

         On September 25, 2018, Smith-Goodman filed her Second Amended Complaint against the City Defendants and Turning Points Defendants alleging, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, violations of her due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, a conspiracy claim, and a Fourth Amendment child seizure claim. Smith-Goodman asks the Court to “order [Defendants] to discontinue violat[ing] [her constitutional due process rights” as well as award her “$100, 000 in punitive damages.” On November 20, 2018, and November 21, 2018, the Turning Points Defendants and City Defendants moved to dismiss for failure state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The motions are now ripe for disposition.

         DISCUSSION

         Smith-Goodman's Second Amended Complaint brings four main claims: (1) a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim; (2) a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim; (3) a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim; and (4) a Fourth Amendment child seizure claim. The Court will address each claim in turn.[6]

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pleaded “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court first must separate the legal and factual elements of the plaintiff's claims. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court “must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, ” id. at 210-11, but need not accept “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions” made in plaintiff's papers, see In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). The court must then “determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a ‘plausible claim for relief.'” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). To satisfy this standard, the complaint must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to “raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of” those elements. Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny¸ 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Because Smith-Goodman proceeds pro se, the Court construes her pleadings liberally and “will apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether [he] has mentioned it by name.” Dluhos v. Strasberg, 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003).

         At the outset, the Court is precluded from enjoining Defendants “from violat[ing] [Smith-Goodman's] constitutional due process rights” by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. “The Rooker- Feldman doctrine prevents the lower federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over cases brought by ‘state-court losers' challenging ‘state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced.'” Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 460 (2006) (citations omitted). For the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to apply, “(1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by the state-court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was ...


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