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Kloth-Zanard v. Department of Social Services

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 11, 2019

JOAN T. KLOTH-ZANARD, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, et al., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          Donna F. Martinez, United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiff, Joan T. Kloth-Zanard, brings this § 1983 action against Connecticut Department of Children and Families ("DCF") employees Jean Norvig, Christine Lupke, and Carl Graham-Leichner, alleging that they improperly placed her on DCF's child abuse and neglect registry in 1997 and failed to give her notice and an opportunity to challenge her placement. She asserts a "stigma-plus" procedural due process claim and state law claims of breach of fiduciary duty, defamation, and slander and libel. Pending before the court are the defendants' motions to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Doc. ##134, 147.) For the reasons that follow, the motions are granted.[1]

         I. Facts

         The following facts are taken from the plaintiff's fourth amended complaint[2] and are assumed to be true for purposes of the motions to dismiss.

         The defendants were DCF employees. Jean Norvig ("Norvig") was a social worker; defendant Christine Lupke ("Lupke") was a social worker supervisor and Norvig's supervisor; and Carl Graham-Leichner ("Graham-Leichner") was a program supervisor and Norvig and Lupke's supervisor. (Doc. #114, Fourth Amended Compl. ¶¶9-11.) In August 1997, the defendants "prepared and submitted" to Connecticut superior court "a summary of facts substantiating allegations of neglect" as to the plaintiff. (Compl. ¶¶15-16.) Graham-Leichner filed "a petition for neglect against the plaintiff in Connecticut superior court." (Compl. ¶17.) Connecticut maintains a central registry for child abuse and neglect ("registry") pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-101k. (Compl. ¶7.) The defendants "falsely and without cause or justification" placed the plaintiff's name on the registry. (Compl. ¶12.) They did not inform the plaintiff of her placement on the registry. (Compl. ¶14.) As a result, she had no opportunity to challenge her placement on the registry. (Compl. ¶14.)

         At a hearing in November 1997, the superior court concluded that the petition for neglect was "unsubstantiated and should be withdrawn." (Compl. ¶17.) Graham-Leichner "withdrew the petition without a finding of neglect against the plaintiff and informed Norvig and Lupke of that outcome." (Compl. ¶17.) The defendants failed to remove the plaintiff's name from the registry. (Compl. ¶18.) Between 1997 and 1998, the plaintiff "communicate[d] . . . with the State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families but was never informed that she had been placed and remained" on the registry.[3] (Compl. ¶22.) From 1997 through 2012, the plaintiff sought, but did not obtain, employment with employers "who would have and/or did perform background checks upon her to check for her placement on the central registry for abuse and neglect." (Compl. ¶23.) In June 2012, the plaintiff discovered that she was on the registry when a prospective employer informed her that a background check indicated that she was on the registry. (Compl. ¶24.) On June 26, 2012, the plaintiff "made a request of the State of Connecticut for removal from the registry and the State of Connecticut removed the plaintiff's name . . . ." (Compl. ¶¶25-26.)

         The plaintiff sues the three defendants in their individual capacities asserting a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim (count 1) and state law claims of breach of fiduciary duty (count 2); defamation (count 4)[4] and slander and libel (count 5).

         II. Legal Standard

         When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court must determine whether the plaintiff has alleged "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The court accepts the complaint's factual allegations as true, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 572, and "draw[s] all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party." Vietnam Ass'n for Victims of Agent Orange v. Dow Chem. Co., 517 F.3d 104, 115 (2d Cir. 2008). However, a court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation" or "to accept as true allegations that are wholly conclusory." Krys v. Pigott, 749 F.3d 117, 128 (2d Cir. 2014).

         III. Discussion

         A. Stigma-Plus Due Process Claim

         In count one, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants deprived her of a liberty interest without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment when "in 1997 and continuing thereafter until 2012 [they] failed and refused to provide the plaintiff" with notice of her placement on the registry and denied her an opportunity to challenge her placement or seek removal. (Compl. ¶29.) As a result of her placement on the registry, she was denied employment opportunities because prospective employers consulted the registry. (Compl. ¶23.)

         "A 'stigma-plus' claim is a subset of procedural due process.'" Grasson v. Bd. of Educ. of Town of Orange,24 F.Supp.3d 136, 147 (D. Conn. 2014). "To formulate a claim under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he or she possesses a constitutionally protected interest in life, liberty, or property, and that state action has deprived him or her of that interest." Valmonte v. Bane, 18 F.3d 992, 998 (2d Cir. 1994). "'Stigma plus' refers to a claim brought for injury to one's reputation (the stigma) coupled with the deprivation of some 'tangible interest' [e.g., the loss of government employment] or property right (the plus), without adequate process." DiBlasio v. Novello,344 F.3d 292, 302 (2d Cir. 2003). "Although damage to one's reputation is not by itself sufficient to invoke the procedural protection of the Due Process Clause, [a plaintiff] can demonstrate infringement of ...


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