Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

T.F. v. Hennepin County

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

February 16, 2018

T.F., by his next friend Tracy Keller; K.D., by his next friend Laura Ferenci; C.O, by her next friend Laura Ferenci; L.L, by his next friend Gerald Kegler; T.T., by their next friend Dr. Caryn Zembrosky; M.T., by their next friend Dr. Caryn Zembrosky; T.M., by their next friend James Dorsey; T.E., by their next friend James Dorsey; A.T., by their next friend James Dorsey; A.W., by his next friend Margaret Shulman; I.W., by their next friend Gloria Anderson; D.W., by their next friend Gloria Anderson; and B.W., by their next friend Gloria Anderson; individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
Hennepin County; Hennepin County Department of Human Services and Public Health; David J. Hough, Hennepin County Administrator; Jennifer DeCubellis, Hennepin County Deputy Administrator for Health and Human Services; Jodi Wentland, Hennepin County Director of Human Services; Janine Moore, Director, Hennepin County Child and Family Services; and Emily Piper, Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Paul A. Magnuson Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motions to Dismiss. For the following reasons, the Motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are thirteen children[1] who are currently or who have been under the care of Hennepin County's child-protection system. Many of them have suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of both their biological and foster families. Plaintiffs allege that Hennepin County's child-protection system is not doing all that it should to protect children in the system, by failing to have a sufficient number of caseworkers to handle the caseload, failing to investigate or assess reports of alleged abuse or neglect, failing to conduct complete investigations when it does investigate those reports, and offering services to families that are inadequate to protect the children in those families. (Am. Compl. (Docket No. 45) ¶ 6.) Indeed, all parties acknowledge that a 2015 report by Casey Family Services found serious and systemic problems in Hennepin County's system. (Id. ¶¶ 263-66.)

         Plaintiffs seek to represent two classes of children: the “special relationship” class, which consists of all children who are or will be under the protection of the County's child-protection system, and the “maltreatment” class, which consists of children who are or will be the subject of maltreatment reports in Hennepin County. (Id. ¶ 33.) Named as Defendants are the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Hennepin County, Hennepin County's Department of Human Services and Public Health, and officials in Hennepin County's Department of Human Services.

         Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint raises four claims. The first cause of action, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contends that Defendants violated Plaintiffs' substantive due process rights by maintaining a policy, pattern, practice or custom that amounts to deliberate indifference to Plaintiffs' constitutional rights to care and protection from harm. (Id. ¶ 367.) The second cause of action, also brought under § 1983, contends that Defendants violated the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by failing to “take all reasonable efforts toward securing a permanent home” for Plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 373.) Plaintiffs' third cause of action claims a violation of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (“CWA”), 42 U.S.C. § 670 et seq. (Id. ¶ 376.) The final cause of action alleges that Hennepin County and the County officials were negligent in the investigation and intervention of child abuse and neglect, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 626.556. (Id. ¶¶ 378-87.) Plaintiffs seek declaratory judgments that Defendants are violating their rights and the rights of the class members, and ask that the Court appoint a special master to ensure that the problems with the system are fixed. (Id. at 92-93.)

         The Commissioner and the County Defendants have separately moved to dismiss the claims against them, but the majority of their arguments are the same. They contend that abstention principles prevent the Court from exercising jurisdiction, that Plaintiffs rely on a right that does not exist, that Plaintiffs have not pled sufficient facts to support their substantive due process claims, and that there is no private right of action under the CWA. The Commissioner also contends that Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims against her fail because they rely on supervisory liability, which is not available under § 1983. And the County Defendants assert that the negligence claim is not well pleaded.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Common Issues

         1. Abstention

         Defendants argue that the Court should abstain from hearing all of Plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), or O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974). Defendants note that Minnesota's juvenile courts are heavily involved in all child-protection decisions and exercise ongoing jurisdiction over children in the foster-care system. Indeed, under Minnesota law, the juvenile courts have “original and exclusive jurisdiction” over children in foster care. Minn. Stat. § 260C.101, subd. 1. Minnesota's juvenile courts are responsible for placing children in the child-protection system. See id. § 626.556, subd. 10m(b) (providing framework for child-in-need-of-protection petitions); id. § 260C.202(a) (stating that a court orders placement of children in foster care). The juvenile courts are also charged with reviewing a child's foster-care placement every 90 days. Id. § 260C.202(b). Defendants contend that the juvenile courts' involvement in all aspects of the County's child-protection system counsels against federal-court interference in that system.

         a. Younger abstention

         Younger requires federal courts to decline to hear challenges to pending state actions involving important state interests. See, e.g., Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982) (dismissal appropriate in light of pending attorney disciplinary proceeding); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415 (1979) (dismissal appropriate in light of pending child-custody proceedings). Younger abstention applies in three circumstances: pending state criminal proceedings, pending state civil proceedings “that are akin to criminal prosecutions, ” or “civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions.” Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S.Ct. 584, 588 (2013) (citing New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc., v. Council of City of New Orleans (“NOPSI”), 491 U.S. 350, 367-68 (1989)). To determine whether abstention is appropriate, “[t]he question . . . is threefold: first, do [the proceedings] constitute an ongoing state judicial proceeding; second, do the proceedings implicate important state interests; and third, is there an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges.” Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm., 457 U.S. at 432 (emphasis omitted).

         Defendants argue that federal courts routinely apply Younger to abstain in matters concerning a state's child welfare system. But the cases on which Defendants rely are not on point. A request to intervene in a child-custody dispute between divorced or divorcing parents involves a different kind of state judicial proceeding than that at issue here, where the juvenile court conducts a quasi-administrative review of each county's child-protection decisions. See, e.g., Carlson v. Cty. of Ramsey, No. 16cv765, 2016 WL 3352196, at *6 (D. Minn. June 15, 2016) (Nelson, J.) (finding Younger abstention appropriate in parent's challenge to state court's custody and visitation-rights ruling); see also Tony Alamo Christian Ministries v. Selig, 664 F.3d 1245, 1247 (8th Cir. 2012) (determining that Younger abstention precluded federal court from ruling on child custody dispute). As these decisions imply, a federal court ruling that a state court's custody determination is erroneous constitutes the sort of “interference” with state court proceedings that Younger prohibits.

         There can be no dispute that there are ongoing state judicial proceedings here. The relevant question, however, is “whether the federal proceeding will interfere with” those proceedings. 31 Foster Children v. Bush, 329 F.3d 1255, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003). Plaintiffs argue that their claims seek relief against executive-branch officials, not against any judicial proceeding, and thus that this proceeding will not interfere with any pending juvenile court proceeding. See NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 368 (stating that Younger does not “require[] abstention in deference to a state judicial proceeding reviewing legislative or executive action”). And the Supreme Court has cautioned that “[c]ircumstances fitting within the Younger doctrine . . . are ‘exceptional.'” Sprint Commc'ns, 134 S.Ct. at 588 (quoting NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 367-68).

         The judicial proceedings underlying this case do not fit within the narrow categories outlined in NOPSI. They are not criminal prosecutions, civil enforcement proceedings, or proceedings “that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions.” NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 368. In the absence of these circumstances, “the pendency of an action in [a] state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction.” Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (quotation omitted). Nor will Plaintiffs' requested relief interfere directly with any pending judicial proceedings. Plaintiffs ask for declaratory judgments that various actions or inactions on the part of Hennepin County's child protection officials violate their constitutional and statutory rights (Am. Compl. at 92), and also seek the appointment of a special master to oversee the County's compliance with federal and state law. (Id. at 92-94.) While the special master's work might duplicate the work of a juvenile court proceeding, it will not interfere with that proceeding.

         Defendants have not established that abstention is appropriate under the principles espoused in Younger and its progeny. The Motion on this basis is therefore denied.

         b. O'Shea abstention

         In O'Shea v. Littleton, the Supreme Court counseled against federal audits of state judicial proceedings, accomplishing “the kind of interference that Younger . . . and related cases sought to prevent.” O'Shea, 414 U.S. at 500. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' request for a special master to oversee all aspects of the County's foster-care system amounts to the kind of “ongoing federal audit” that O'Shea prohibits. Id.

         O'Shea noted that “principles of equity, comity, and federalism . . . must restrain a federal court when asked to enjoin a state court proceeding. Id. at 499 (quoting Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 243 (1972)). Although Plaintiffs do not ask for an injunction, Defendants argue that the appointment of a special master would effectively enjoin Minnesota's juvenile courts. See Old Republic Union Ins. Co. v. Tillis Trucking Co., 124 F.3d 1258, 1261 (11th ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.