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Seaton v. State ex rel. Department of Human Services

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 28, 2017

TOSHA SEATON, individually, et al., Plaintiffs,



         Before the Court is defendant Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 46), defendants Ed Lake, Betty Camacho, Melissa Jones, Robert C. Scheer, and Nicole Little's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 47), and defendants Realation Community Services of Oklahoma, Inc., Mark Jackson, and Almeda Evans' Partial Motion to Dismiss Counts Four, Five, Six, and Eight of Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint (Doc. 48). Plaintiffs have opposed each motion.


         Plaintiffs Tosha Seaton and James Seaton filed this lawsuit individually and as parents and next friends of their minor children A.S. and R.S., and the Estate of Christopher Seaton, to recover for damages resulting from the death of their eleven-year-old son, Christopher Seaton. Christopher died on April 7, 2013 after he was struck by three vehicles while attempting to cross Interstate 44 on foot. (Id. at 2, ¶ 3). Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint names as defendants the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (“DHS”), individual DHS employees Ed Lake, Betty Camacho, Melissa Jones, Robert C. Scheer, and Nicole Little (“individual DHS defendants”), Realations Commmunity Services of Oklahoma, Inc. (“RCSOK”), individual RSCOK employees Mark Jackson, Almeda Evans, and John Does 1, 2, and 3 (“individual RSCOK defendants), Gordon David Guthrie, [1] and Patrick Adam Guthrie. (Id. at 3, ¶¶ 7-21).

         Christopher, R.S., and A.S. were placed in defendant DHS's custody on May 7, 2009, following reports of sexual abuse by an older sibling. (Id. at 2, ¶ 1; id. at 9, ¶¶ 26-27). At the time of his death, Christopher was under the care of defendant RSCOK, a for-profit group home under contract with DHS, and had been in DHS custody for almost four years. (Id. at 2, ¶ 1). After he was placed in DHS custody, Christopher was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, oppositional defiant disorder of childhood, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, combined type, moderate. (Id.).

         From the time Christopher was first placed in DHS custody on May 7, 2009 until his death, he was placed in various facilities and admitted to various programs, such as the Cedar Ridge Hospital Acute Care Program for Children, the Cedar Ridge Residential Treatment Unit, foster care homes, trial reunification plans with his parents and grandparents, INTEGRIS Mental Health Willow View inpatient care, the INTEGRIS Mental Health Star Program, and finally, RSCOK. During the time Christopher was under DHS custody, he attempted to run away several times, was known to be a flight risk, and was also placed on absent without leave (“AWOL”) status. In fact, as early as May 2009 when Christopher was admitted to the Acute Care Program at Cedar Ridge Hospital, it was reported that he had attempted to run away from a foster home and/or shelter, as well as his school. (Id. at 9, ¶ 30). On June 19, 2009, while attending a family counseling session, Christopher ran away and crossed four lanes of traffic. (Id. at 9, ¶ 34). An ISP Progress Report dated June 29, 2010 states that Christopher was having “weekly runaway episodes.” (Id. at 9, ¶ 37). Christopher was placed on AWOL precautions for most of July 2010 while at INTEGRIS because he would run from staff. (Id. at 10, ¶ 30). On January 9, 2011, Christopher attempted to flee a DHS group home three times. (Id. at 11, ¶ 45). Christopher was often placed on AWOL risk during the nearly thirteen months he was in the INTEGRIS Mental Star Program. (Id. at 12, ¶ 48).

         On April 7, 2013, Christopher ran away from the group home with another minor under defendant RSCOK's care. They were chased by the group home staffer on duty and two group home residents. Christopher attempted to cross westbound Interstate 44, tripped on a concrete median, and was hit by three vehicles. He died at the scene. (Id. at 12, ¶ 50). At the time the lawsuit was filed, A.S. and R.S. were still in DHS custody. (Id. at 13, ¶ 56). Plaintiffs allege that DHS has “pushed” for termination of James and Tosha Seaton's parental rights following Christopher's death, and also that a DHS employee threatened that their children would remain in DHS custody if they proceeded with this lawsuit. (Id. at 13, ¶¶ 56-57).

         Plaintiffs' lawsuit asserts the following causes of action: (1) deliberate indifference of Christopher Seaton's substantive due process rights in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment by the individual DHS and RSCOK defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) negligent hiring, training, and supervision by DHS; (3) DHS and individual DHS defendants' negligent placement of Christopher Seaton in RSCOK; (4) negligent oversight of Christopher Seaton's care and custody by RSCOK and the individual RSCOK defendants; (5) negligent hiring, training, and supervision by defendant RSCOK and the individual RSCOK defendants; (6) RSCOK's breach of its third-party beneficiary contract with DHS; (7) negligent driving by defendants Gordon David Guthrie and Patrick Adam Guthrie; and (8) wrongful death pursuant to Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1053, against all defendants. Lastly, plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment against DHS and injunctive relief against all defendants. (Id. at 30, ¶ 146). Plaintiffs' suit requests compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. (Id. at 31).

         Legal Standard

         Each motion argues that dismissal is appropriate pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion, a court must determine whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require “a short and plain statement of the claim to show that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The complaint must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The standard does “not require a heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” and the factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555-56, 570 (citations omitted). The Twombly pleading standard is applicable to all civil actions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684 (2009). For the purpose of making the dismissal determination, a court must accept all the well-pleaded factual allegations of the complaint as true, even if doubtful, and must construe the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Alvarado v. KOB-TV, L.L.C., 493 F.3d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir. 2007).



         Defendant Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 46)

         Defendant DHS's Motion argues that the causes of actions relevant to DHS in the First Amended Complaint should be dismissed on three grounds. First, DHS argues that Eleventh Amendment immunity bars actions against DHS for money damages. Second, the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act, Okla Stat. tit. 51 § 151, et seq., exempts DHS from tort liability to plaintiffs. Lastly, DHS argues that plaintiffs are not entitled to any declaratory judgment against DHS. (Doc. 46 at 5). To be clear, the only counts pertaining to DHS are Count Two (negligent hiring, training, and supervision), Count Three (negligent placement of Christopher Seaton in RSCOK), and Count Eight (wrongful death pursuant to Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1053), in addition to plaintiffs' request for declaratory and injunctive relief.

         A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         “The Eleventh Amendment is a jurisdictional bar that precludes unconsented suits in federal court against a state and arms of the state.” Wagoner Cty. Rural Water Dist. No. 2 v. Grand River Dam Auth., 577 F.3d 1255, 1258 (10th Cir. 2009) (affirming district court's dismissal of plaintiffs' claims against state agency based on Eleventh Amendment immunity). The Tenth Circuit has held that DHS is an arm of the State of Oklahoma entitled to Eleventh Amendment Immunity. McKinney v. State of Oklahoma, 925 F.2d 363, 365 (10th Cir. 1991). In their Response, plaintiffs concede that DHS enjoys immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and therefore state they will not pursue any claim of money damages against DHS. (Doc. 56 at 6). Given plaintiffs' concession, DHS's Motion is granted on this ground.

         B. State Tort Claims under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act

         DHS next argues that it is exempt from liability for plaintiffs' tort causes of action (Counts Two, Three, and Eight) based on four of the exemptions to sovereign immunity under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act, Okla Stat. tit. 51 § 151, et seq. (“OGTCA”). (Doc. 46 at 10). Plaintiffs respond that none of the statutory exemptions cited by DHS are applicable to the facts of this case. (Doc. 56 at 7-10). In their Reply, DHS argues that given plaintiffs' concession that the Eleventh Amendment applies to DHS, plaintiffs' tort claims against DHS are barred as a matter of law. (Doc. 60 at 2-3). The Court agrees with DHS.

         The OGTCA allows plaintiffs to recover against state governmental entities for their negligence. See Smith v. City of Stillwater, 328 P.3d 1192, 1198 (Okla. 2015). Subject to certain enumerated exceptions, the OGTCA adopts the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 152.1(A)-(B). The Tenth Circuit has held, however, that “[t]he waiver of immunity in the OGTCA extends only to the State of Oklahoma's immunity in its own courts.” Harris v. Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs ex rel. Cent. Oklahoma Juvenile Ctr., 519 F. App'x 978, 980 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished). Moreover, the OCTGA explicitly states that “it is not the intent of the state to waive any rights under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 152.1(B). It follows then, that even though a state actor may not be entitled to sovereign immunity, the Eleventh Amendment can bar the same claim against a state actor in federal court. Lujan v. Regents of Univ. of California, 69 F.3d 1511, 1522 (10th Cir. 1995) (“The fact that the Regents may not be immune from suit in state court under principles of sovereign immunity does not mean that federal courts can exercise jurisdiction over [plaintiffs'] state-law claims consistent with the Eleventh Amendment.”).

         As discussed above, there is no dispute that DHS is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Court thus concludes that plaintiffs' state tort claims against DHS are barred as a matter of law, regardless of the OGTCA. See Harris, 519 F. App'x at 980 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (rejecting appellant's argument under OGTCA and affirming district court's dismissal of a state law negligence claim against the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs based on Eleventh Amendment immunity). Accordingly, Count Two is dismissed in its entirety, and Counts Three and Eight are dismissed as to DHS.

         C. Request for Declaratory Judgment

         DHS's last argument in favor of dismissal is that plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to support their claim for declaratory relief. (Doc. 46 at 13-14). Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint requests “a declaratory judgment that declares that DHS has failed to allocate necessary and adequate funding such that DHS, through its employees, was not able to meet regulatory and legislative requirements regarding appropriate supervision, protection and oversight of minors like Christopher, A.S. and R.S, ” pursuant to the Oklahoma Declaratory Judgment Act, Okla. Stat tit. 12, § 1651 et seq., and the federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201. (Doc. 41 at 30, ¶ 146).

         In support of its argument, DHS points to plaintiffs' failure to allege the existence of a justiciable controversy between plaintiffs and DHS. (Doc. 46 at 15). In response, plaintiffs contend that because A.S. and R.S., who are parties to this lawsuit through their parents, remain in DHS custody and thus there exists a legally protectable interest in a controversy ripe for judicial determination. (Doc. 56 at 11).

         The Oklahoma Declaratory Judgment Act allows a district court to, “in cases of actual controversy, determine rights, status, or other legal relations . . . provided however, that a court may refuse to make such determination where the judgment, if rendered, would not terminate the controversy, or some part thereof, giving rise to the proceeding.” Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1651. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held that declaratory relief depends “upon the existence of a justiciable controversy, ” which “refers to a lively case or controversy between antagonistic demands.” House of Realty, Inc. v. City of Midwest City, 109 P.3d 314, 318 (Okla. 2004). The Federal Declaratory Judgment Act provides that “[i]n a case of actual controversy within its jurisdiction . . ., any court of the United States . . . may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration.” 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a).

         Construing the facts in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, the facts as alleged in plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint are sufficient to support their right to relief beyond mere speculation. Specifically, plaintiffs claim for declaratory relief alleges: “The failure of DHS to hire sufficient and adequately trained personnel to supervise and protect vulnerable children, and to establish and implement the policies and procedures, denies children like Christopher, A.S., and R.S. services and protections afforded by Oklahoma statutes and the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma.” (Doc. 41 at 30, ¶ 146). The First Amended Complaint also alleges that DHS, through its employees, has suggested that plaintiffs' parental rights may be terminated and/or that A.S. and R.S. may never be returned to them. (Id. at 13, ¶¶ 56-57). The facts as alleged are sufficient to allege the presence of a live controversy between plaintiffs and DHS. Further, because A.S. and R.S. are currently in DHS custody and there is no guarantee they may be reunified with their parents, there is a legally protectable interest related to DHS's allocation of funding, as A.S. and R.S. would likely benefit from additional resources.

         In Briggs v. Oklahoma ex rel. Oklahoma Dep't of Human Servs., 472 F.Supp.2d 1304, 1311 (W.D. Okla. 2007), aff'd sub nom. Briggs v. Johnson, 274 F. App'x 730 (10th Cir. 2008), a father filed a lawsuit against DHS and several of its employees individually, alleging that their failure to protect and prevent physical abuse of his daughter resulted in her death. The plaintiff's complaint requested a declaration that DHS “failed to allocate necessary and adequate funding to its agencies and subsidiaries such that DHS, through its employees, was not able to meet regulatory and legislative requirements regarding appropriate supervision, protection and oversight of minors like Kelsey . . . who are in DHS custody.” Id. (quotations and citations omitted). The court granted DHS's motion to dismiss plaintiff's claim for declaratory relief on the grounds that there was no “sufficiently concrete or real” threat to the father, individually or as the representative of his daughter's estate, and thus there was no live case or controversy. Id. at 1312. Another district court in this Circuit reached the same conclusion based on almost identical facts. See Robbins v. Oklahoma ex rel. Dep't of Human Servs., 2007 WL 756694 (E.D. Okla. Mar. 7, 2007) (granting dismissal of plaintiffs' claim for declaratory judgment on reconsideration), rev'd on other grounds in Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242 (10th Cir. 2008). Contrary to the plaintiffs in Briggs and Robbins however, the plaintiffs in this case have filed suit on behalf of their living children who are currently in DHS custody, and thus can demonstrate that they may benefit from increased funding to DHS, particularly in light of the fact that their children may remain in DHS custody if their parental rights are terminated. The Court concludes that plaintiffs' allegations are sufficient at this stage.

         DHS' Motion is therefore granted with respect to Counts Two, Three, and Eight, but denied as to ...

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