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E.R. v. Stitt

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 19, 2019

E.R. a minor child by next friend NAIESHA N. CRAY, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
KEVIN STITT, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of Oklahoma, and JUSTIN BROWN, in his official capacity as Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, et al., Defendants.[1]

          ORDER

          SCOTT L. PALK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are motions by two of the eleven defendants in this action. Defendant Governor Kevin Stitt, sued in his official capacity, filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). See Mot., Doc. No. 6. Plaintiffs filed a response and Defendant Governor Stitt replied. See Resp., Doc. No. 14; Reply, Doc. No. 16. In addition, Defendant Justin Brown, sued in his official capacity as director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (“OKDHS”), filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). See Mot., Doc. No. 9. Again, Plaintiffs filed a response and Mr. Brown replied. See Resp., Doc. No. 15; Reply, Doc. No. 17.[2]Both motions now are at issue.

         I. Background[3]

         Plaintiff Naiesha Nicole Cray is the mother of five minor children-all of whom have been in the custody of the OKDHS since September 2017. Although the Court has reviewed and considered all of Plaintiffs’ factual assertions regarding the treatment of Ms. Cray and the children while the latter were in OKDHS custody, the entirety of such allegations need not be recounted here for the Court to decide the pending dismissal motions. Among other allegations, Plaintiffs assert (i) that N.C. had trouble walking, lacked balance, and frequently fell after being placed in a foster home, but she had no difficulties with her gait before being removed from Ms. Cray’s custody; (ii) that Ms. Cray was “interrogated, ” “degraded, laughed at, [and] disrespected” during a family function assessment session she was told to attend by the OKDHS; (iii) that the children were unnecessarily separated from each other; (iv) that B.C. and K.C. were abused by their foster family, including being “kept in a room naked for hours, ” being “beaten with [a] belt, being “sexually abused by touching their genitals” and being “forc[ed] . . . to perform oral sex . . . [and] anally raped;” (v) that E.R. was not properly supervised while being transported by the OKDHS and thus ran away; (vi) that OKDHS employees lied about Ms. Cray and the children, including in proceedings conducted under oath; (vii) that N.C. “arrived ungroomed, with no shoes, no coat, an[d] in a dirty thin dress” for a supervised visit with Ms. Cray, while B.C. “complained of a person named Brian . . . punch[ing] him in his stomach, that all he [ate was] gummy bear[s] and cereal, and that he had been alone with mean people, ” and two of the children had hair that had gone “not combed for twenty (20) days;” and (viii) that an OKDHS employee “pushed B.C. down inside a room and closed the door” during a visit to his foster family. Compl. ¶¶ 31, 38, 55, 61, Doc. No. 1.

         Plaintiffs press five causes of action-all of which are at issue in the instant motions filed by Governor Stitt and Mr. Brown (the only defendants who appear to have been served): (i) violation of Plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and made actionable via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (ii) violation of rights guaranteed by the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as made actionable via § 1983, (iii) violation of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, as amended by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (“AACWA”), (iv) violation of Plaintiffs’ procedural due process rights as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and made actionable via § 1983, [4] and (v) breach of federal contractual obligations based on third-party beneficiary status. See Compl., Doc. No. 1. Plaintiffs request the entry of a declaratory judgment that their rights have been violated, enjoinment of Defendants from the subjection of the children to practices that violate their rights, additional remedial relief “to ensure Defendants’ future compliance with their legal obligations to [the children], ” and an award of costs and attorneys’ fees. Id. at p. 32.

         II. Pleading standard

         Before considering the merits of a case, a court must establish that it has subject-matter jurisdiction. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env’t, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998). The establishment of jurisdiction is a threshold requirement that is “inflexible and without exception.” Id. at 95 (quotation marks and citation omitted). If the Court determines it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, it must dismiss the case. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3). Generally, Rule 12(b)(1) motions to dismiss “take one of two forms: (1) a facial attack on the sufficiency of the complaint’s allegations as to subject matter jurisdiction; or (2) a challenge to the actual facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction is based.” Ruiz v. McDonnell, 299 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir. 2002). The instant motions are of the former variety. “In reviewing a facial attack on the complaint, a district court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true.” Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1002 (10th Cir. 1995).

         In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court must determine whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. Under Rule 8(a)(2), a pleading is to contain “a short and plain statement of [each] claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” While Rule 8(a)(2) “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ’ . . . it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). As such, “labels and conclusions” and “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. In essence, a plaintiff must “nudge[ his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible” in order to survive a dismissal motion. Id. at 570.

         To assess the sufficiency of a claim made by a plaintiff, a two-pronged approach is deployed. First, “a judge ruling on a defendant’s motion to dismiss a complaint must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Id. at 572 (quotation marks and citation omitted). A court need not, however, accept the veracity of “mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Second, in light of the well-pleaded factual allegations, the court must determine whether “a complaint states . . . a plausible claim for relief.” Id. at 679.[5]

         III. Analysis and discussion

         A. Plaintiffs’ request for monetary relief

         It is somewhat unclear whether Plaintiffs seek monetary relief from Governor Stitt and Mr. Brown. On one hand, Plaintiffs do not make an express request for money damages in their Complaint. On the other hand, Plaintiffs defend their claims from the arguments against imposition of such damages (see, e.g., Mot. 6, Doc. No. 9; Resp. 16, Doc. No. 15) asserted by Governor Stitt and Mr. Brown-implying that Plaintiffs are, in fact, seeking money damages. And Plaintiffs assert a breach of contract claim, the traditional remedy for which is money damages. To the extent they seek the imposition of money damages against Governor Stitt or Mr. Brown, Plaintiffs’ claims fail.

         The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars requests for “[r]elief that in essence serves to compensate a party injured in the past by an action of a state official in his official capacity that was illegal under federal law . . . even when the state official is the named defendant.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 278 (1986). Here, Both Governor Stitt and Mr. Brown have been sued in their official capacities. And the OKDHS clearly falls within the scope of the Eleventh Amendment immunity afforded to the State of Oklahoma (as, of course, does the State of Oklahoma itself). See McKinney v. Oklahoma, 925 F.2d 363, 365 (10th Cir. 1991). Thus, Governor Stitt and Mr. Brown are protected from the imposition of money damages against them in their official capacities by the Eleventh Amendment.[6]

         Both of Plaintiffs’ arguments against the application of Eleventh Amendment immunity fail. Plaintiffs attempt to avoid Eleventh Amendment immunity by pointing the Court to the special-relationship and danger-creation theories for § 1983 liability. See Resp. 17-20, Doc. No. 14; Resp. 13-15, Doc. No. 15. But these exceptions are to the otherwise applicable rule for § 1983 claims that “state actors are generally only liable under the Due Process Clause [of the Fourteenth Amendment] for their own acts and not for private violence.” Gray v. Univ. of Colo. Hosp. Auth., 672 F.3d 909, 917 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting Uhlrig v. Harder, 64 F.3d 567, 572 (10th Cir. 1995)); see Dahn v. Amedei, 867 F.3d 1178, 1180-81 (10th Cir. 2017) (“The special-relationship doctrine provides an exception to the general rule that states aren’t liable for harm caused by private actors.”). They are not exceptions to the application of Eleventh Amendment immunity. Expectedly, the ...


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