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Simon v. Anoka County Social Services

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 21, 2014

Janice E. Simon, Plaintiff,
v.
Anoka County Social Services and Lisa Gray, individually and in her representative capacity, Defendants.

Margaret O'Sullivan Kane, Kane Education Law, LLC, St. Paul, MN for Plaintiff.

Andrew T. Jackola, Bryan D. Frantz, David A. Cossi, Nancy Norman Sommer, Robert D. Goodell, Anoka County Attorney's Office, Anoka, MN for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 47]. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants Defendants' Motion.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Parties

On October 26, 2012, Plaintiff Janice E. Simon ("Plaintiff" or "Simon") filed this action against Anoka County Social Services and Lisa Gray, in her individual and representative capacity, for alleged violations of the Due Process Clause of the United States and Minnesota State Constitutions stemming from maltreatment and disqualification decisions made by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. (Compl. ¶ 1 [Doc. No. 1].)

Simon is the mother of nine adopted children, including her son "M.R."[1] (Compl. ¶ 9 [Doc. No. 1]; Jackola Aff., Ex. E "Simon Dep." at 15 (hereinafter "Simon Dep.") [Doc. No. 49-1].) Simon adopted M.R. from India when he was six and one half years old. (Simon Aff. ¶ 2 [Doc. No. 54].) When Simon adopted M.R., she was aware that he had "significant special needs." (Id.) Currently, M.R. is an adult with developmental disabilities. (Compl. ¶ 5 [Doc. No. 1].) Under Minnesota state law, M.R. is an "incapacitated person" or a "vulnerable adult." (Exhibits in Support of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 1 [Doc. No. 21-1]; Ex. 5 [Doc. No. 21-2].) Due to his developmental disabilities, a Minnesota state court appointed guardians to care for M.R. soon after his eighteenth birthday. (Id.) Simon was appointed as one of M.R.'s guardians on March 13, 2006. (Compl. ¶ 10 [Doc. No. 1].) According to M.R.'s Individualized Service Plan from Anoka County Social Services, M.R. has two other state appointed guardians - his brother, Jared Simon, and his sister, Kyla Reinholdson. (Kane Aff., Ex. 4 [Doc. No. 56].)

Defendant Anoka County Social Services (ACSS) is a sub-division of Anoka County, which is responsible for administering several social service programs, including vulnerable adult protective services. (See Compl. ¶ 6 [Doc. No. 1].) Defendant Lisa Gray is employed by ACSS as a social worker. (Id. ¶ 7.) Gray has worked at ACSS for nearly twenty years. (Jackola Aff., Ex. F "Gray Dep." 115:6-9 (hereinafter "Gray Dep.") [Doc. No. 49-2].) Gray was assigned as M.R.'s case manager in 2006. (Id. at 8:8-13.)

B. Simon's Children's Caretakers

Jody Mason began serving as M.R.'s personal care assistant in the summer of 2007, after M.R. graduated from high school. (Simon Aff. ¶ 6 [Doc. No. 54].) Mason continued providing care for M.R. through 2011. (Id.) Mason would regularly care for M.R. in Simon's home three to five hours a day, five days a week. (Id.) Additionally, Mason provided M.R. with respite care on occasional weekends. (Id.) Respite care services are "temporary services provided to a person due to the absence or need for relief of the primary caregiver, the person's family member, or legal representative who is the primary caregiver and principally responsible for the care and supervision of the person." Minn. Stat. § 245A.02, subd. 15. In this case, Mason offered temporary relief for Simon when Mason cared for M.R. over the weekends.

Michael Howe served as a personal care assistant for one of Simon's minor daughters, Rose. (Simon Aff. ¶ 4 [Doc. No. 54].) Like M.R., Rose also has developmental disabilities. (See id.) Howe began caring for Rose in Fall 2009. (Id.) Around that time, Howe entered into a romantic relationship with one of Simon's adult daughters, Sunita Reinholdson. (Id. ¶ 5.) Sunita and Howe's relationship has continued off and on through the present day. (Id.) For the purposes of this litigation, Sunita created a chronology of her relationship with Howe. (Kane Aff., Ex. 15 at 1 [Doc. No. 63].) In this document, she explains that Howe became physically aggressive toward her in July 2010. (Id.) Sunita also alleges that Howe told her that he was planning on reporting her mother, Simon, "because he didn't like her." (Id. at 2.) Although Sunita's signature appears at the end of the typed chronology, her signature is not notarized.[2]

C. Maltreatment Allegations and DHS Findings

On March 22, 2011, ACSS received a report that Plaintiff was verbally and physically abusing M.R., and was financially exploiting him. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 2 "Vulnerable Adult Maltreatment Report" at 10 [Doc. No. 21-1].) The report identifies the individual who reported the alleged abuse as "caller." (Id. at 18.) The Chronology Summary of the Vulnerable Adult Maltreatment Report later identifies the caller as "Michael Howe." (Id. at 10.) Howe alleged that Simon yells at M.R., slapped M.R. on more than one occasion, and calls M.R. names. (Id.) Howe also claimed that Simon denies M.R. access to any of his money. (Id.) Howe explained that he knew of this maltreatment because he "was working at the house at the same time for a younger child." (Id.)

Mary Banister, an ACSS investigator, was assigned the task of investigating the maltreatment allegations. (Id.)[3] On April 11, 2011, Banister called Gray, M.R.'s case manager, to ask about Simon's relationship with M.R. (Id. at 13.) Gray informed Banister that while Simon "has a very strong personality and is sometimes inappropriate" with M.R., Gray has "never heard before that [Simon] slapped [M.R.]." (Id.)

Banister also interviewed M.R. about the allegations of abuse. (Id. at 15.) M.R. allegedly reported that he "yells and screams if he doesn't get his way" with his mother, Simon. (Id.) He stated that he did not recall his mother slapping him, calling him names, or swearing at him. (Id.) However, he did recall one incident in which he plugged the toilet and his mother yelled at him stating that M.R. "should have told someone right away that he plugged [the toilet] and that he couldn't fix it himself." (Id.) Nonetheless, M.R. reported that "he got along good with his mother and had no complaints." (Id.)

As part of her investigation, Banister interviewed M.R.'s personal care assistant, Mason, on April 15, 2011. (Id. at 17.) Mason reported that she had witnessed Simon verbally abusing her son, and she once witnessed Simon slapping M.R. (Id.) Mason also explained to Banister that M.R. is often reprimanded by Simon and his sisters if he does not follow strict rules which are in place in the house. (Id.) For instance, M.R. is "yelled at for eating his sister[, ] Rose's food." (Id.) M.R. is also required to complete his homework in Simon's cold basement. (Id.) On April 21, 2011, Mason emailed Banister expressing her concern about Simon's mismanagement of M.R.'s finances and alleged that while Simon's daughters are not required to pay Simon rent for living in her house, M.R. is required to pay rent. (Id. at 26.)

Banister also interviewed Howe on April 15, 2011. (Id. at 18.) Howe reported that he had witnessed Simon yelling at M.R. and was also present when Simon stated that she "hate[s] [her] son to the core." (Id.) Howe also reported that on one occasion he entered a room after hearing a "scuffle" between Simon and M.R., and M.R.'s cheek appeared as though it had been slapped. (Id.) Additionally, Howe alleged that Simon permits M.R.'s sisters to be verbally abusive to M.R. (Id.) Howe characterized the punishments that M.R. receives for certain behavior as "unfair, " and echoed Mason's concerns about M.R. being forced to complete homework in Simon's cold basement. (Id.)

On April 20, 2011, Banister interviewed Simon as part of her investigation of M.R.'s maltreatment. (Id. at 23.) Simon admitted to yelling at M.R. and being a "disciplinarian, " but denied calling M.R. stupid or an idiot. (Id.) She explained that she instructs M.R. to complete his homework in the basement not as a punishment, but rather to enable him to focus on his work. (Id. at 24.) Simon also explained how she uses M.R.'s finances to pay herself for his rent, to pay for his medical co-pays, and to pay for any activities during respite care. (Id.) She also explained that the reason why she does not allow M.R., or anyone else in the home, to eat food that is designated for Rose is because Rose may only consume pureed food. (Id.) During the interview on April 20, Simon stated that she did not recall slapping M.R (id. at 24); however, the next day Simon called Banister to report that she recalled slapping M.R. once when he spit on her face and in her hair (id. at 26). Simon informed Banister that she called M.R.'s pediatrician after this incident in order to address how she reacted to the spitting. (Id.)

Banister also interviewed Sunita Reinholdson, M.R.'s sister and Howe's on-and-off girlfriend, on April 20, 2011. (Id. at 25.) Sunita reported that while her mother is "strict, " she has never heard her mother call M.R. names. (Id.) Sunita also explained that while M.R.'s bedroom door was removed from the hinges for a couple days, this was a form of punishment that all of Simon's children have been subject to from time to time. (Id.) She also stated that she witnessed her mother slap M.R. when he talks back to Simon. (Id.) As for Simon's management of M.R.'s finances, Sunita explained that Simon gives M.R. money when it is needed and M.R. is otherwise not required to pay for any household expenses. (Id.) Two of M.R.'s other sisters, Kaiti and Kyla Reinholdson, also provided interviews for Banister's investigation. (Id. at 29-30.) Neither sister was able to corroborate the physical abuse and both reported that although their mother used swear words and often yelled, she treated all of her children equally. (Id.)

On April 26, 2011, Banister consulted with Harry Reynolds, an ACSS employee, and Lisa Gray. (Id. at 34.) Based on the ACSS Chronology Summary provided, it appears that initially, Banister concluded that only the verbal abuse and financial exploitation allegations were substantiated by the investigation. (Id.) After further discussion with Gray, however, Banister concluded that the physical abuse claim was also substantiated because three individuals confirmed that Simon slapped M.R. (Id. at 36.) Simon expresses deep concern for the fact that Banister changed her opinion about whether the physical abuse claim was substantiated after speaking with Gray. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9 [Doc. No. 53].) She considers this conversation evidence of Gray's and Banister's bias against Simon and Simon's family. (Id.)

On April 29, 2011, Banister entered her final disposition in the case and concluded that the physical abuse, verbal abuse, and financial exploitation allegations were substantiated. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 2 at 37-38 "Vulnerable Adult Maltreatment Report" [Doc. No. 21-1].) However, the allegation of caregiver neglect was "found to be inconclusive." (Id. at 38.) Although Gray contributed to the investigation by providing Banister with information and consulting with Banister after the interviews were concluded, Defendants claim that Gray was not responsible for making any final determinations. (Defs.' Mem. at 6 [Doc. No. 48].)

On May 3, 2011, Banister, Gray, and Gray's supervisor, Morry Akinwale, informed Simon of the maltreatment findings. (Gray Dep. 51-52 [Doc. No. 49-2].) Simon was told that pursuant to administrative procedures, M.R. would be moved to a temporary respite facility. (Simon Dep. 138-39 [Doc. No. 49-1].) During the meeting, Plaintiff did not object to Gray picking up M.R. and taking him to the new respite care facility. (Simon Dep. 140:2-7 [Doc. No. 49-1].) Simon signed an authorization form permitting the release of M.R.'s private information to the respite facility. (Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 4 [Doc. No. 16-2].) Gray explained to Simon that the parties would need to reconvene to execute a "placement plan" to identify M.R.'s new permanent residence and finalize his ongoing care. (Gray Dep. 130-34 [Doc. No. 49-2].) Simon and Gray made plans to complete the plan on May 20, 2011. (Jackola Aff., Ex. D "Simon Emails" at 2 [Doc. No. 49-2].)

D. DHS Administrative Hearings

During Simon's meeting with Banister on May 3, 2011, Simon formally requested reconsideration of the maltreatment finding. Simon's request for reconsideration was reviewed by Jerry Pederson, Manager of Anoka County Adult and Disability Services. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 3 "Reconsideration Letter" [Doc. No. 21-1].) Pederson reviewed the findings, case notes, and supporting documentation and concluded on May 13, 2011 that he was "unwilling to change the finding." (Id.) Seven days later, on May 20, 2011, Simon canceled the meeting that was scheduled to take place that day between her and Gray. (Jackola Aff., Ex. D "Simon Emails" at 3 [Doc. No. 49-2].) M.R. remained in the temporary respite care facility during this time. Simon did not attempt to remove him from the facility. (Simon Dep. 148:8-19 [Doc. No. 49-1].)

On June 10, 2011, Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) challenging the maltreatment determination. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 5 at 2 [Doc. No. 21-2].) "Due to the state shutdown, the matter was postponed for several months." (Id.) In the meantime, DHS disqualified Plaintiff from working in licensed care facilities and with vulnerable adults. ( Id., Ex. 14 at 1-2 [Doc. No. 21-3].)

DHS Judge Kelly A. Vargo eventually heard Simon's appeal over the course of five days in January and February, 2012. ( Id., Ex. 5 at 2 [Doc. No. 21-2].) Judge Vargo determined that Simon had maltreated M.R. physically and verbally. (Id. at 5-6.) However, Judge Vargo concluded that "the appellant did not maltreat [M.R.] by financial exploitation." (Id. at 6.) Judge Vargo's ruling was based on the following factual findings: (1) Simon frequently shouted at M.R. and used profanity; (2) Simon called M.R. "stupid" or "stupid idiot;" (3) Simon called M.R. "dumb" or a "fucking idiot;" (4) Simon told M.R. to "shut up;" and (5) Simon slapped M.R. across the face. (Id. at 2-3.) The court determined that Simon's "denial that she never called [M.R.] derogatory names is not credible and not supported by the totality of the record including [her] own testimony." (Id. at 5.) On March 26, 2012, the DHS Commissioner adopted Judge Vargo's findings, legal conclusions, and maltreatment determination. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 6 [Doc. No. 21-2].)

On July 12, 2012, DHS Judge Douglass C. Alvarado held an evidentiary hearing on Simon's disqualification to work in licensed care facilities. (Exhibits in Supp. of Defs.' Mem. in Opp'n, Ex. 17 [Doc. No. 21-3].) Judge Alvarado affirmed the disqualification determination based on similar findings of fact that supported the maltreatment decision. (Id. at 17.) The DHS Commissioner adopted Judge Alvarado's findings and recommendation on September 26, 2012. (Id. at 18.)

As a result of the maltreatment and disqualification findings, Simon was terminated by her employer, Children's Home Society. (Simon Aff. ¶ 10 [Doc. No. 54].) Simon worked for Children's Home Society from April 17, 2000 to August 1, 2011. (Id.) Simon alleges that, with the exception of the allegations of abuse underpinning this lawsuit, she was never disciplined nor received a complaint while she was an employee at Children's Home Society. (Id.)

E. Plaintiff's Claims

Pursuant to Minnesota state law, a party may seek judicial review of a DHS administrative decision by bringing a state court action within thirty days of the decision. See Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subd. 7. However, Plaintiff failed to file a state court action within this time frame to challenge either Judge Vargo's or Judge Alvarado's rulings. Instead, Simon filed this lawsuit against Defendants on October 26, 2012. (See generally Compl. [Doc. No. 1].)

Plaintiff's Complaint states three counts against Defendants ACSS and Lisa Gray. In Count One, Plaintiff claims that Defendants "intentionally and deliberately deprived Plaintiff of her civil rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by depriving her of [her] liberty interest in her familial integrity." (Compl. ¶ 26 [Doc. No. 1].) In Count Two, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants' actions violated Plaintiff's civil rights guaranteed by Article 1, Section 7 of the Minnesota Constitution. (Id. ¶ 31.) Finally, in Count Three, Plaintiff appeals the DHS's maltreatment and disqualification decisions. (Id. ¶ 36.)

Plaintiff's three counts rest upon a single set of factual allegations. First, Simon takes issue with the process by which Banister completed her investigation. (Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n at 6 [Doc. No. 53].) Simon contends that Banister failed to follow the DHS Guidelines. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that Banister failed to collect M.R.'s relevant medical records or speak with M.R.'s physician. (Id. at 6-8.)

Second, Simon claims that she was denied pre-deprivation due process since M.R. was removed from her care before the DHS administrative hearings took place. Simon contends that Banister's conclusions were not driven by her own investigation, but instead were a result of Gray manipulating Banister to find that the physical abuse allegation was substantiated. (Id. at 9.) Additionally, Simon argues that Gray's bias against Plaintiff and her family is evidenced by the fact that Gray uses reporting as a technique to penalize M.R.'s legal guardians unfairly or without cause. For instance, Gray reported Kyla Reinholdson, one of M.R.'s other guardians, on two occasions. Once, Gray reported Kyla for failing to report the alleged abuse taking place in her home. (Id. at 27.) Simon argues that this particular report was unfair because Gray did not report Mason, M.R.'s personal care assistant, even though Mason also allegedly witnessed abuse in the home. (Id.) Gray also reported Kyla after she declined to sign paperwork approving M.R.'s removal from Simon's home and placement in a different facility. (Id.)

Third, Plaintiff also alleges that she received insufficient and untimely post-deprivation due process. Plaintiff contends that the DHS administrative hearings were procedurally flawed for several reasons. Simon argues that she was unable to present evidence substantiating Howe's bias against Simon's family, which stems from his abusive relationship with Simon's daughter, Sunita. (Id. at 12). She also claims that she did not receive a fair maltreatment hearing because certain documents were not admitted (Simon Dep. 62:5-6 [Doc. No. 49-1]); portions of the recorded hearing were "taped over" (id. at 62:6-9); the DHS judge who presided over the first two days of the hearing, Judge Johnson, did not render the final decision (id. at 63-64); Judge Vargo, the DHS judge who rendered the final decision, based her decision on an incomplete transcript of the hearing since portions of the hearing were taped over (id.); and Judge Vargo misidentified Simon in her findings of fact, which reflects her lack of knowledge about the facts of ...


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