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Washington v. Oklahoma State Department of Human Services

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

July 12, 2019




         Now before the Court are defendants Trina Strout, Scott Woodson, and Vannessa Stinnett's motion to dismiss (Dkt. # 17), defendants Charene Nowicki, Margaret Eagler, Ashley Dugger, Naciska Gilmore, and Latressa Avery's motion to dismiss (Dkt. # 18), and defendant Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS)'s motion to dismiss (Dkt. # 26).

         On December 28, 2018, plaintiff Donna Washington filed a pro se complaint (Dkt. # 1) against defendants OKDHS and eight OKDHS employees, seeking relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of her rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiff seeks $20, 000 in economic damages, $350, 000 in non-economic damages, $500, 000 in punitive damages, and a protective order against OKDHS on behalf of her family. Id. at 5. On February 12, 2019, defendants Strout, Woodson, and Stinnett filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Dkt. # 17). That same day, defendants Nowicki, Eagler, Gilmore, Avery, and Dugger also filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) (Dkt. # 18). Plaintiff filed a response (Dkt. # 22) to the individual defendants' motions, and attached 128 pages of supporting documents.[1] The individual defendants jointly filed a reply (Dkt. # 24) to plaintiff's response. On March 29, 2019, OKDHS filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) (Dkt. # 24). Plaintiff has not responded to OKDHS's motion.


         Pro se complaints are held to less stringent standards than pleadings drafted by lawyers, and must be construed liberally. Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). Nevertheless, the Court should not assume the role of advocate for the pro se litigant. Id. Moreover, even pro se plaintiffs are required to comply with the “fundamental requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Ogden v. San Juan Cty., 32 F.3d 452, 455 (10th Cir. 1994). As an initial matter, the Court notes that certain portions of plaintiff's pro se complaint are fairly incoherent. To the extent the Court is able to decipher plaintiff's allegations, the complaint fails to provide sufficient details and contextual information to allow the Court to fully comprehend plaintiff's claims. The Court recites the allegations as asserted in plaintiff's pro se complaint.

         Plaintiff alleges that, on June 12, 2018, she exercised her right to be free from governmental interference upon completion of a CPS[2] investigation for medical neglect/failure to obtain medical attention for plaintiff's minor. Dkt. # 1, at 6. On June 13, 2018, OKDHS called plaintiff to inform her that it had received claims that plaintiff was refusing to keep an EEG appointment scheduled for her child, and threatened to remove plaintiff's child from her home. Id. On June 14, 2018, plaintiff received another phone call from OKDHS, again claiming that plaintiff was refusing to keep the EEG appointment scheduled, and threatening to get the district attorney involved in order to remove plaintiff's child from her custody. Id. On June 15, 2018, CPS filed allegedly fraudulent reports of medical neglect with the court, [3] and then showed up to plaintiff's house with eight to ten police officers. Id. Plaintiff refused to let them into her house. Id. CPS then filed additional allegedly fraudulent reports with the court, and obtained an “unlawful warrant” to enter plaintiff's house and remove her child. Id. Later that day, CPS and eight to ten officers returned to plaintiff's house, kicked down her door, and aimed a semi-automatic rifle at plaintiff and her children. Id. The police officers allegedly threatened plaintiff, stating that all of her children would be taken if she did not cooperate. Id. The officers detained plaintiff. Id. The child's father arrived at plaintiff's house, and CPS allegedly deprived the father of his parental rights. Id. Without plaintiff's consent, the police officers and defendant Gilmore forcefully removed plaintiff's son from the home and had him medically evaluated. Id. That evening, plaintiff received a phone call from defendant Avery, requesting placement options for plaintiff's child. Id. at 7. Plaintiff explained to Avery that there had been mistake. Id. Avery responded that she had tried to inform plaintiff that they were going to take her son, and that plaintiff had to take it up with the judge because plaintiff had presented her with this information too late. Id. After the medical evaluation report showed that plaintiff's child was stable with no medical concerns, OKDHS refused to return the child to plaintiff. Id.

         On June 26, 2018, CPS again filed allegedly fraudulent reports with the court to have plaintiff's parental rights terminated. Id. Plaintiff sought help and support from the child's father, and, in response, OKDHS filed allegedly fraudulent reports with the court against the father, terminated the father's parental rights, and placed restrictions on his and plaintiff's visitations with the child. Id. CPS then had the child undergo allegedly unnecessary medical treatments and evaluations, did not allow plaintiff to attend any of the child's medical tests or evaluations, and refused to give plaintiff copies of paperwork from the doctors. Id. Plaintiff alleges that CPS conspired with an individual named Dr. Seigler to influence EEG results and to claim a seizure disorder. Id. Further, plaintiff alleges that CPS forced her child to see a therapist to convince him of a false disorder that he does not have. Id. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Nowicki “breached established agreement for conflict of interest regarding patient and doctor, ” and continued to force repeat testing of plaintiff's child during which misconduct had taken place. Id. at 8. Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Oklahoma Medical Board against Dr. Seigler. Id. Plaintiff alleges that, in response, defendant Nowicki placed tighter restrictions on plaintiff's communication with her child, demanded access to plaintiff's other children, and threatened to have the judge produce those children if plaintiff did not comply. Id. Further, plaintiff alleges that CPS falsely removed funds by taking her child's disability check. Id. at 7.

         On July 9, 2018, plaintiff informed defendant Nowicki that she was concerned about a child welfare worker's inappropriate behavior towards plaintiff's child. Id. at 8. Plaintiff alleges that her concerns were dismissed. Id. On July 10, 2018, plaintiff received an email from defendant Avery, stating that plaintiff was erratic and that her logic and deductions were conspiracy theories, and threatening to place the claim into plaintiff's permanent file. Id. On July 17, 2018, plaintiff emailed defendant Dugger regarding Nowicki's alleged misconduct. Id. No. actions were taken against the misconduct. Id. On August 13, 2018, OKDHS documented allegedly false information on file, requiring plaintiff to undergo and complete unnecessary mental health treatment and other required programs, and to have those treatment results released to OKDHS in order to have plaintiff's child returned to her. Id.

         On September 10, 2018, after plaintiff had regained custody of her child, OKDHS filed a temporary order to supervise the case to maintain access to plaintiff's child. Id. On September 17, 2018, after obtaining evidence that the EEG appointment scheduled by plaintiff was in fact cancelled by OKDHS, plaintiff asked defendant Eagler to present this evidence and to have the case dismissed. Id. at 9. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Eagler failed to intervene, and informed her that, pursuant to state law, she would need to speak to the child privately and away from plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff refused to allow the private communication. Id. Plaintiff alleges that CPS conspired with her child's school to produce seizure-like activity and claim a false seizure. Id. Plaintiff's case was dismissed on November 26, 2018. Id. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Eagler informed her that, even with the case being dismissed, “it will still read differently on other files and records.” Id.


         The Court first considers defendant OKDHS's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and, as the party seeking to invoke federal jurisdiction, plaintiff bears the burden of proving that jurisdiction is proper. Southway v. Cent. Bank of Nigeria, 328 F.3d 1267, 1274 (10th Cir. 2003). A court lacking jurisdiction “cannot render judgment but must dismiss the cause at any stage of the proceedings in which it becomes apparent that jurisdiction is lacking.” Basso v. Utah Power & Light Co., 495 F.2d 906, 909 (10th Cir. 1974). Where, as here, the Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss facially attacks the complaint's allegations as to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court must presume all allegations contained in the complaint to be true. Ruiz v. McDonnell, 299 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir. 2002).

         Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity is considered a limitation on a federal court's subject matter jurisdiction. The Eleventh Amendment renders a state immune from suits brought in federal courts by her own citizens as well as citizens of another state. Pennhurst St. Sch. & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984). State agencies that qualify as arms of the state possess sovereign immunity, as well. Sturdevant v. Paulsen, 218 F.3d 1160, 1164 (10th Cir. 2000). This immunity applies to a state entity whether a plaintiff seeks declaratory, injunctive, or monetary relief. Fed. Mar. Comm'n v. S.C. State Ports Auth., 535 U.S. 743, 765 (2002); Ellis v. Univ. of Kan. Med. Ctr., 163 F.3d 1186, 1196 (10th Cir. 1998). However, the Supreme Court has recognized two instances in which an individual may nonetheless sue a state: (1) where the suit is authorized by Congress, and (2) where a state voluntarily waives its sovereign immunity. Coll. Sav. Bank v. Fla. Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 670 (1999). Absent congressional authorization or waiver, federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over states or arms of states.

         Both the Tenth Circuit and this Court have repeatedly recognized that OKDHS is an arm of the State of Oklahoma to which Eleventh Amendment immunity applies. McKinney v. State of Okla., Dep't of Human Servs., 925 F.2d 363, 365 (10th Cir. 1991); Seaton v. Oklahoma ex rel. Dep't of Human Servs., No. 14-CV-780-JED-PJC, 2017 WL 1160579, at *3 (N.D. Okla. March 28, 2017); Legates v. Oklahoma ex rel. Rogers Cty. Dep't of Human Servs., Nos. 09-CV-644-FHM & 09-CV-29-FHM, 2010 WL 4941437, at *4 (N.D. Okla. Nov. 30, 2010). Furthermore, neither exception to sovereign immunity is applicable in this case. It is well-settled that Congress did not abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity when it enacted § 1983. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 345 (1979). Moreover, plaintiff does not allege, nor is there any indication in the record, that OKDHS has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity in this case. Therefore, the Court finds that the Eleventh Amendment precludes this Court from hearing plaintiff's claims against OKDHS on the merits. Accordingly, the Court finds that OKDHS's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) should be granted with prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Having determined that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear plaintiff's claims against OKDHS, the Court does not reach OKDHS's arguments in support of dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).


         Next, the Court considers the two Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss filed by the individually-named defendants. In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must determine whether the claimant has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. A motion to dismiss is properly granted when a complaint provides no “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint must contain 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. (citations omitted). “Once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint.” Id. at 562. For the purpose of making the dismissal determination, a court must accept all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true, even if doubtful in fact, and must construe the allegations in the light most favorable to a claimant. Id. at 555; Alvarado v. KOB-TV, L.L.C., 493 F.3d 1210, 1215 (10th Cir. 2007); Moffett v. Halliburton Energy Servs., Inc., 291 F.3d 1227, 1231 (10th Cir. 2002). All individual defendants assert the following bases for dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6): (1) plaintiff fails to allege sufficient facts to state a claim under § 1983; (2) the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and (3) plaintiff is not entitled to the injunctive relief sought. In addition, defendants Nowicki, Eagler, Dugger, Gilmore, and Avery argue that plaintiff cannot assert claims on behalf of others (i.e., her child and the child's father).

         A. Failure to State a Claim Under ยง 1983 and ...

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