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Mitchell v. Dakota County Social Services

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 28, 2019

Dwight D. Mitchell, individually and on behalf of his children X.M. and A.M.; Bryce Mitchell; and Stop Child Protection Services from Legally Kidnapping, Plaintiffs,
v.
Dakota County Social Services et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          Wilhelmina M. Wright United States District Judge

         In this dispute arising from Defendants' temporary removal of Plaintiff Dwight D. Mitchell's children from his custody, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' 25-count amended complaint. (Dkts. 15, 24.) For the reasons addressed below, the Court grants Defendants' motions to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are New Jersey residents Mitchell and his three children, X.M., A.M., and B.M. (collectively, the individual plaintiffs) and Stop Child Protection Services from Legally Kidnapping (SCPS), an association of parents who have been affected by Minnesota's child-protection services. The individual plaintiffs, along with Mitchell's then-wife Tatiana Litvinenko and her child, M.L., lived in Minnesota from at least February 2014 to July 2014. Defendants are Dakota County, Dakota County Social Services (DCSS), nine Dakota County officials, and three State of Minnesota officials.

         Plaintiffs' claims arise from a February 16, 2014 incident in which police responded to a call from the Mitchell family's babysitter. The babysitter relayed to police X.M.'s allegations that Mitchell had inflicted corporal punishment on him. Police took the children from their home to the police station for questioning, where both X.M. and A.M. alleged that Mitchell had spanked them on prior occasions. County officials also reached out to Eva Campos, Mitchell's ex-wife and the biological mother of X.M., A.M., and B.M.[1]Campos alleged that Mitchell had abused the children, and she encouraged officials to pursue legal action against Mitchell in Minnesota, instead of in the children's home state of New Jersey. In response to Campos's allegations, DCSS removed X.M., A.M., and B.M. from Mitchell's custody.[2]

         Defendant Susan Boreland subsequently commenced a Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) proceeding.[3] Mitchell accepted service of the CHIPS petition and attended an emergency protective hearing on February 26, 2014. In May 2014, Mitchell entered an Alford plea[4] in response to a criminal charge for malicious punishment of a child. At a July 10, 2014 settlement conference for the CHIPS proceeding, Mitchell agreed to a court order prohibiting him from using corporal punishment in exchange for regaining physical custody of A.M. and B.M. On July 21, 2014, Mitchell and his family returned to New Jersey without X.M. On December 4, 2015, the state court dismissed the CHIPS petition against Mitchell. The following day, DCSS returned X.M. to Mitchell's custody.

         Plaintiffs allege numerous instances of misconduct by Defendants between February 2014 and December 2015. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants were unlawfully motivated to separate Mitchell from his children, conspired to transfer custody to Mitchell's ex-wife, and made racially disparaging comments during their interactions with Mitchell.[5] Plaintiffs also allege that Defendants forced Litvinenko to move out of Mitchell's Minnesota house during the CHIPS proceeding, threatening that Litvinenko would lose custody of her child, M.L., if she did not leave. Finally, according to Plaintiffs, Defendants submitted unreliable accusations to the Minnesota court in the CHIPS proceeding and concealed a court order indicating that New Jersey-not Minnesota-was the proper jurisdiction for the CHIPS proceeding.

         In the present action, Plaintiffs' amended complaint alleges 25 counts against Defendants, including constitutional, federal, and state law claims. Counts 1 through 6, advanced by all plaintiffs, allege that several Minnesota child-protection statutes are facially unconstitutional because they are void for vagueness and violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution.[6] The remaining 19 counts are advanced only by the individual plaintiffs. Counts 7 through 12 allege that the same Minnesota child-protection statutes challenged in Counts 1 through 6 are unconstitutional as applied to the individual plaintiffs. Counts 13 and 14 allege that Dakota County's policies caused civil rights violations. Counts 15 through 17 allege that state and county officials engaged in conspiracies to terminate Mitchell's parental rights. Counts 18 through 24 are state law claims, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and false imprisonment. Count 25 is a request for declaratory relief against Dakota County.

         ANALYSIS

         Defendants move to dismiss the amended complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). A defendant may challenge the plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction either on its face or on the factual truthfulness of its averments. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1); see, e.g., Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 593 (8th Cir. 1993). Here, Defendants assert a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction.[7] In a facial challenge, the nonmoving party “receives the same protections as it would defending against a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6).” Osborn v. United States, 918 F.2d 724, 729 n.6 (8th Cir. 1990).

         A complaint must be dismissed if it fails to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must allege sufficient facts that, when accepted as true, state a facially plausible claim to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). When determining whether the complaint states such a claim, a district court accepts as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Blankenship v. USA Truck, Inc., 601 F.3d 852, 853 (8th Cir. 2010). The factual allegations need not be detailed, but they must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007). A plaintiff, however, must offer more than “labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Id. at 555. Legal conclusions that are couched as factual allegations may be disregarded by the district court. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

         I. Subject-Matter Jurisdiction over Federal Claims

          Defendants argue that this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Counts 1 through 6 because Plaintiffs lack constitutional standing.

         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1; Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992); Hargis v. Access Capital Funding, LLC, 674 F.3d 783, 790 (8th Cir. 2012). Before a district court can reach the merits of a claim, the court must determine the jurisdictional question of standing. City of Clarkson Valley v. Mineta, 495 F.3d 567, 569 (8th Cir. 2007). If a federal district court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). When the district court or a party challenges standing, the party invoking federal jurisdiction has the burden to establish that the requirements of standing have been satisfied. Mineta, 495 F.3d at 569. Standing is determined based on the facts as they existed when the complaint was filed. Lujan, 504 U.S. at 569 n.4.

         A. Individual Plaintiffs' Standing for Counts 1 through 6

          Defendants argue that the individual plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the facial validity of the Minnesota statutes because there is no real and immediate threat of repeated injury.

         To have standing, a plaintiff must (1) have suffered an injury in fact, (2) establish a causal relationship between the defendant's conduct and the alleged injury, and (3) show that the injury would be redressed by a favorable decision. Id. at 560-61; Mineta, 495 F.3d at 569. When, as here, a plaintiff seeks prospective relief, a plaintiff also must establish a “real and immediate threat” that the injury will be repeated. See City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 102-05 (1983); Mosby v. Ligon, 418 F.3d 927, 933 (8th Cir. 2005).

         Here, the individual plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief in Counts 1 through 6.[8] When the suit was commenced, the individual plaintiffs had returned to their home state of New Jersey and Defendants no longer had custody over Mitchell's children. As they live in New Jersey, the individual plaintiffs are no longer subject to Minnesota's laws. And there is no allegation in the amended complaint that demonstrates a real and immediate threat that Minnesota's child-protection statutes will interfere with the individual plaintiffs' familial relationship again. Accordingly, the individual plaintiffs lack standing to bring Counts 1 through 6.

         B. SCPS's Standing for Counts 1 through 6

         Defendants argue that SCPS also lacks standing to bring Counts 1 through 6 because SCPS's members do not have standing in their own right. Plaintiffs counter that SCPS's members have standing because they have been affected by Minnesota's child-protection statutes.

         An association has standing when three conditions are met: at least one of its members has standing, the asserted interests are germane to the association's purpose, and the individual members' participation in the lawsuit is unnecessary. Hunt v. Wash. State Apple Advert. Comm'n, 432 U.S. 333, 342-43 (1977). A member's interest must be more than an “abstract concern” or “unadorned speculation.” Simon v. E. Ky. Welfare Rights Org., 426 U.S. 26, 40, 44 (1976).

         Here, Defendants argue that no SCPS member has standing in his or her own right. The amended complaint alleges that SCPS is “an association of parents who have been affected or may be affected” by Minnesota's child-protection system. This abstract concern does not establish that any SCPS member has suffered an injury in fact. See Id. at 40. Nor does the amended complaint provide any allegations linking the Minnesota statutory provisions at issue to SCPS's members.[9] Moreover, there is no indication that SCPS's members face a real and immediate threat of being harmed by Minnesota's child-protection statutes again. Lyons, 461 U.S. at 102-05. Accordingly, SCPS does not have standing to bring Counts 1 through 6.

         For these reasons, the Court grants Defendants' motions to dismiss Counts 1 through 6, as both the individual plaintiffs and SCPS lack standing to bring these claims.

         II. Failure to State a Claim

          Defendants argue that Counts 7 through 17, the remaining constitutional and federal claims, fail to state claims on which relief can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

         A. Constitutional Claims

         The individual plaintiffs allege four categories of constitutional claims: procedural due process, substantive due process, equal protection, and freedom of association claims. The Court addresses each category of claims in turn.[10]

         1. Procedural Due Process (Counts 7, 8 and 12)

         Defendants argue that Counts 7, 8 and 12 fail to state a claim for violation of procedural due process. The amended complaint alleges that Defendants failed to provide adequate procedural safeguards during the CHIPS proceeding and in Mitchell's separation from Litvinenko.

         To state a claim for a violation of procedural due process, a plaintiff must allege that defendants deprived the plaintiff of a protectible liberty or property interest without providing adequate procedural safeguards. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332-33 (1976). Natural parents have a fundamental liberty interest “in the care, custody, and management” of their children. Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753 (1982). When the government attempts to interfere with this liberty interest, a parent must be afforded “fundamentally fair procedures.” Id. at 754. Procedural due process requires that parties have “a meaningful opportunity to present their case.” Eldridge, 424 U.S. at 349. The extent of procedural safeguards required depends on the nature of the interest ...


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