United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma
OPINION AND ORDER
E. DOWDELL, UNITED SPATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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,  and Patrick Adam Guthrie. (Id. at
3, ¶¶ 7-21).
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Motion to Dismiss
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.
Eleventh Amendment Immunity
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
State Tort Claims under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims
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.
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.”).
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.
Request for Declaratory Judgment
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, ¶
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
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.
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.
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.
Motion is therefore granted with respect to Counts Two,
Three, and Eight, but denied as to ...