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Watley v. Department of Children & Families

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 23, 2019




         Plaintiffs Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann bring this action against the Connecticut Department of Children & Families (“DCF), former DCF Commissioner Joette Katz, and current Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes, claiming that DCF took custody of their children, and ultimately obtained a final court order terminating their parental rights, in violation of federal laws protecting persons with disabilities. The action has been remanded following sua sponte dismissal of the original complaint, which was filed pro se. See ECF Nos. 9 (dismissing case), 22 (order of Second Circuit vacating and remanding). The amended complaint, prepared by counsel, alleges violations of the plaintiffs' rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12134; the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”), 29 U.S.C. § 794; and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, made enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs seek money damages to redress DCF's alleged intentional discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodations. In addition, they seek injunctive relief requiring DCF to adopt certain institutional reforms.[1]

         Plaintiffs commenced this action in federal district court after more than a decade of litigation in the trial and appellate courts of Connecticut, including five neglect trials, four termination of parental rights (“TPR”) trials, and three appeals. Published decisions of state trial and appellate courts in the underlying proceedings frame the present action. See In re Joseph W., Jr., 53 Conn. Supp. 1 (2013)(describing procedural history in detail).[2] The decisions show the following:

- DCF obtained orders of temporary custody with regard to plaintiffs' children soon after each was born on the ground that the children would be in immediate physical danger if they were left in plaintiffs' care;
- DCF's subsequent actions affecting plaintiffs' parental rights were undertaken in conjunction with court orders requiring plaintiffs to take certain specific steps to regain custody;
- the court-ordered steps and their implementation took account of the requirement in the applicable state statute that DCF make “reasonable efforts” to reunite a parent and child, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-112(j);
- the reasonable efforts requirement in state law aligns with federal law, which prohibits a state from seeking to terminate parental rights without first making reasonable efforts to preserve the family, as required by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1305 (1980), and the Adoption and Safe Families Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1305 (1997);
- the reasonable efforts requirement under state law requires DCF to consider a parent's disabilities, including mental disabilities;
- in the course of the proceedings leading to termination of plaintiffs' parental rights (“TPR proceedings”), both plaintiffs denied having any disability and resisted having to cooperate with DCF and comply with court-ordered specific steps;
- plaintiffs asserted that the removal of the children from their custody constituted discrimination based on their perceived disabilities in violation of the ADA, that their lawyers were ineffective in failing to adequately present defenses under the ADA, and that an “ADA coordinator” should be present throughout court proceedings;
- plaintiffs were not given an ADA coordinator but they were given additional time and other assistance to meet the court-ordered steps and, on this basis, DCF was found to have met the reasonable efforts requirement before plaintiffs' parental rights were terminated.

         Pending for decision is defendants' motion to dismiss all the claims in the amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). Defendants contend that the claims for damages are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, [3]collateral estoppel, the statute of limitations, sovereign immunity and qualified immunity. They further contend that plaintiffs lack standing to seek injunctive relief. Discovery has been stayed at the request of the defendants over plaintiffs' objection pending a determination of whether plaintiffs have any legal basis on which they can proceed.

         In opposing dismissal of the amended complaint, plaintiffs emphasize that before their parental rights were terminated, they were denied the assistance of an ADA coordinator. They contend that the denial violated Title II of the ADA, which provides, “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation or denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. When plaintiffs requested an ADA coordinator, DCF took the position that Title II of the ADA did not apply in child protection proceedings, which was a common view, if not the prevailing view, at the time. See Michael Lanci, Note, In the Child's Best Interests? Rethinking Consideration of Physical Disability in Child Custody Disputes, 118 Colum. L. Rev. 875, 883 n.51 (2018) (citing In re Adoption of Gregory, 747 N.E.2d 120, 124 (Mass. 2001); In re Doe, 60 P.3d 285, 290-91 (Haw. 2002)).[4] The state trial court agreed with DCF that the ADA did not “create[] special obligations in a child protection proceeding.” In re Joseph W., 2011 WL 5842570, at *5. Plaintiffs sought appellate review of this issue without success. In re Joseph W., 305 Conn. at 653 (“[W]e reject the ADA claim of the father . . . .”); In re Joseph W., 146 Conn.App. at 476 (rejecting the ADA claim of the mother).

         In the amended complaint, plaintiffs allege that during the period 2002 to 2013, DCF violated the antidiscrimination provision of the ADA by removing their children, and later seeking termination of their parental rights, based on discredited stereotypes about the parenting ability of persons with mental disabilities. They also contend that DCF violated the ADA by failing to provide them with reasonable accommodations enabling them to regain custody. Because no state court squarely addressed these claims in the underlying proceedings, plaintiffs submit that they should be able to litigate them here.

         Defendants argue that plaintiffs cannot obtain relief on the claims in the amended complaint without asking this court to review and reject decisions made by the state courts. Defendants' assessment is accurate. A final termination of parental rights cannot occur unless a state court makes certain findings, including the crucial finding that “reasonable efforts” to achieve reunification have been made by the state with due regard for the parent's disabilities. A claim in federal court that parental rights have been unlawfully terminated due to discrimination on the basis of disability necessarily asks the federal court to review the state court's decision and either vacate it or award damages or both. But few principles are as firmly established as the rule that prohibits federal district courts from reviewing decisions of state courts. In our system of state and federal courts, the only federal court empowered to review state court decisions is the United States Supreme Court. This rule applies even when the state court has incorrectly decided an issue of federal law.

         I recognize the profoundly serious nature of the harm for which plaintiffs seek redress. I also appreciate the role and responsibility of the federal district court in ensuring access to a federal trial proceeding for persons whose federal rights have been violated by state officials. Nevertheless, I conclude that the amended complaint must be dismissed.

         The primary obstacle to adjudication of the claims in the amended complaint is the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which provides that federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to review state court judgments. Plaintiffs have the burden of demonstrating that subject matter jurisdiction exists, notwithstanding Rooker-Feldman. To meet this burden, it must be shown that they can obtain relief on the claims in the amended complaint without this court effectively reviewing and rejecting a state court decision. Unquestionably, had the state courts squarely confronted the claims in the amended complaint and rejected them on the merits, this court would lack jurisdiction to review those decisions. It is no different when, as here, the state courts rejected the ADA claims in substance.

         Not all of DCF's actions were undertaken pursuant to a court order, so Rooker-Feldman is not a complete bar to the claims in the amended complaint. But other obstacles prevent plaintiffs from proceeding on these claims: collateral estoppel bars relitigation of issues decided in state court; most of the actions complained of fall well outside the three-year statute of limitations; plaintiffs' claim for damages under § 1983 is unsupported by allegations necessary to state a claim for relief against former Commissioner Katz and cannot be maintained in any event because of qualified immunity; and plaintiffs lack standing to pursue injunctive relief. Accordingly, the amended complaint will be dismissed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are the biological parents of two sons, Joseph Jr. and Daniel. Ms. Hasemann is also the biological mother of a daughter, Kristina. DCF is the state agency responsible for responding to reports of child abuse and neglect, providing substitute care, and making efforts to reunite families before resorting to termination proceedings. Defendant Katz served as Commissioner of DCF from February 2011 to January 2019. Defendant Dorantes has been Commissioner of DCF since February 2019.[5]

         Between 2002 and 2013, DCF pursued neglect and termination proceedings against the plaintiffs, ultimately resulting in the termination of Ms. Hasemann's parental rights with respect to all three children and Mr. Watley's parental rights with respect to Joseph Jr. and Daniel. All three children have been adopted and are reportedly doing well and plaintiffs do not seek an order overturning the termination of their parental rights. Rather, they seek damages for emotional distress and injunctive relief in the nature of systemic reforms to ensure DCF's future compliance with the ADA in connection with neglect and TPR proceedings.

         Ms. Hasemann's interaction with DCF began in October 2002, when she gave birth to Kristina. Kristina was born prematurely at 34 weeks and required complex medical care. The hospital contacted DCF due to Ms. Hasemann's response to Kristina's birth. She “insisted the girl was a boy, [that the baby had] had a heart attack, and [that she] should be fed in an unusual and inappropriate pattern even though the food intake for this premature baby was crucial.” In re Kristina H, No. L15CP02007724A, 2004 WL 886937, at *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. Apr. 2, 2004). She also informed the hospital she suffered from narcolepsy.[6]

         On the basis of the hospital's report, DCF invoked a 96hour hold under Connecticut law, which authorizes DCF to remove a child without parental consent for up to 96 hours if it has probable cause to believe the child is in imminent risk of physical harm and immediate removal is necessary to ensure the child's safety. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 17a-101g(e) and (f). DCF simultaneously went to court and sought an Order of Temporary Custody (“OTC”), which was granted on the ground that Kristina would be in immediate physical danger if she remained under the care of her mother.

         The court issued preliminary “specific steps, ” which Ms. Hasemann was required to follow in order to regain custody. In re Kristina H., No. L15CP02007724A, 2007 WL 241218, at *1, *3, *7 (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 17, 2007) (citing Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-129). In 2004, “the court adjudicated Kristina neglected, ” and committed her “to the care, custody and guardianship of DCF.” Id. at *1. DCF later filed a termination of parental rights petition. After a trial in 2007, Ms. Hasemann's parental rights were terminated. Id. at *1, *27.

         Joseph Jr. and Daniel were born in July 2005 and July 2006, respectively. Soon after each was born, the state court issued an OTC.[7] In both cases, the court issued specific steps for both plaintiffs. In re Joseph W., Jr., 53 Conn. Supp. at 2, 5-6. DCF's neglect petitions alleged “predictive neglect, ” which requires a showing that under the parents' care, it is “more likely than not” that the child would be “denied proper care and attention physically, educationally, emotionally or morally.” Id. at 5 (citing In re Joseph W., 305 Conn. 633, 648-49 (2012)).[8]

         In December 2007, soon after Ms. Hasemann's parental rights were terminated with regard to Kristina, DCF filed termination of parental rights petitions with regard to Joseph Jr. and Daniel. Id. at 7. After a trial in October 2008, the court terminated plaintiffs' parental rights with respect to both children. Id. The Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court on the ground that Mr. Watley had not been given an adequate opportunity to contest a finding of neglect. Id. at 8 (citing In re Joseph W., Jr., 301 Conn. 245 (2011)). In 2011, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the decision of the Appellate Court and remanded the case for a new trial. In re Joseph W., Jr., 301 Conn. at 248.

         Following another trial in April 2012, the trial court again terminated plaintiffs' parental rights. See In re Joseph W., Jr., 53 Conn. Supp. at 9. This judgment also was reversed on appeal. The Connecticut Supreme Court held that a third trial was necessary because the trial court had applied the wrong standard of proof for determining “predictive neglect.” In re Joseph W., 305 Conn. at 645, 648.

         After a third trial in December 2012, the trial court terminated plaintiffs' parental rights, the Appellate Court affirmed, and the Connecticut Supreme Court denied certiorari. See In re Joseph W., Jr., 53 Conn. Supp. 1, 192, aff'd, 146 Conn.App. at 477, cert. denied, 310 Conn. at 950.

         In the course of the underlying proceedings, plaintiffs were evaluated by a number of professionals, sometimes at the direction of DCF and sometimes by court order. See, e.g., Id. at 17, 21-23, 29, 42-43, 146. Ms. Hasemann was found to have severe narcolepsy, schizotypal personality disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, chronic functional impairments, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified, cognitive deficits, antisocial personality disorder, and major depression. She also may suffer from the residual effects of a frontal lobe brain tumor removal that occurred when she was sixteen. Mr. Watley has been found to have “a personality disorder not otherwise specified.” He receives Social Security Disability Insurance benefits because of a spinal injury resulting from a car accident.

         II. Legal Standard

         “A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it.” Nike, Inc. v. Already, LLC, 663 F.3d 89, 94 (2d Cir. 2011) (quotation marks and citation omitted), aff'd, 568 U.S. 85 (2013). The party asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving its existence by a preponderance of the evidence. Luckett v. Bure, 290 F.3d 493, 497 (2d Cir. 2002).

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must plead “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 satisfies the plausibility standard if it is supported by “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).

         III. Discussion

         In the following sections, I first address the issue of sovereign immunity and conclude that the state has waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity under the RA, which makes it unnecessary to decide whether the ADA abrogates a state's sovereign immunity. I then address the claims for money damages, first under the ADA and RA, then under § 1983. I conclude that the claims under the ADA and RA are barred by Rooker-Feldman, collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations, and that the claim under § 1983 is similarly barred. I also conclude that plaintiffs cannot recover damages under § 1983 because they do not plausibly allege that former Commissioner Katz was personally involved in the alleged deprivation of federal rights. I further conclude that even if plaintiffs could plausibly state such a claim, it would have to be dismissed based on qualified immunity. Finally, I address the issue of plaintiffs' standing to seek injunctive relief and conclude that their allegations are insufficient to support standing under Article III to seek the injunctive relief set forth in the amended complaint.

         A. Sovereign Immunity

         The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution “generally bars suits in federal court by private individuals against non-consenting states.” Leitner v. Westchester Cmm'ty Coll., 779 F.3d 130, 134 (2d Cir. 2015) (citing Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp. v. Feeney, 495 U.S. 299, 304 (1990)). Eleventh Amendment immunity “encompasses not just actions in which the state is actually named as a defendant, but also certain actions against state agents and instrumentalities, including actions for the recovery of money from the state.” Id. (quoting Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997)). Eleventh Amendment immunity is subject to the exception articulated in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 23 (1908), which allows for injunctive relief. See Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267, 289 (1977) (noting that the Ex parte Young exception “permits federal courts to enjoin state officials to conform their conduct to requirements of federal law”).[9]

         DCF (and Commissioner Dorantes in her official capacity) may invoke Eleventh Amendment immunity. Bhatia v. Conn. Dep't of Children & Families (DCF), 317 Fed. App'x 51, 52 (2d Cir. 2009). Therefore, plaintiffs cannot obtain money damages under the ADA and RA unless the state has consented to suit or Congress has validly abrogated the state's immunity. NAACP v. Merrill, 939 F.3d 470, 475 (2d Cir. 2019). Congress may override the Eleventh Amendment when it legislates pursuant to § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445 (1976). The ADA contains a purported abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity, and the RA contains a purported waiver clause for state agencies that accept federal funding. See Garcia v. S.U.N.Y. Health Sci. Cent. of Brooklyn, 280 F.3d 98 (2d Cir. 2001).[10]

         In Garcia, the Court of Appeals examined the ADA and RA to assess their impact on a state's sovereign immunity. The Court concluded that the ADA's abrogation is valid as to conduct motivated by “discriminatory animus or ill will due to disability.” See 280 F.3d at 112. The Court also stated that the RA expresses Congress's clear “intent to condition acceptance of federal funds on a state's waiver of its Eleventh Amendment immunity.” Id. at 113.

         The Garcia court concluded that, under the circumstances presented there, the defendant could have believed it had already lost its immunity under the ADA's abrogation, so its acceptance of federal funds was not a knowing waiver of immunity under the RA; the state agency could not have knowingly waived a right it did not believe it possessed. See id. at 113-15.

         After Garcia, a state accepting federal funds would know that the validity of the ADA's abrogation was “far from clear.” Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 495-96 (4th Cir. 2005). DCF accepted federal funding in that context, thereby waiving its immunity under the RA. Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar plaintiffs' suit. See Garcia, 280 F.3d at 113-14; Ross, 211 F.Supp.3d at 528.[11]

         B. Claims for Damages

         1. Count One: Intentional Discrimination Under the ADA/RA

         In count one, plaintiffs allege that they are each disabled, or regarded by defendants as disabled, and that DCF intentionally discriminated against them by

(1) placing Joe Jr. and Daniel into foster care based on stereotypes and assumptions based on Plaintiffs' disabilities, (2) failing to provide Plaintiffs with family supports even though Mr. Watley and Ms. Hasemann had good family supports, (3) denying Plaintiffs equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from its services, programs, and activities; (4) utilizing criteria and methods of administration having the effect of discriminating against Plaintiffs on the basis of disability and defeating or substantially impairing accomplishment of the objectives of its rehabilitation and/or reunification program with respect to Plaintiffs; and (5) failing to reasonably modify its policies, practices, and procedures where necessary to avoid discriminating against Plaintiffs on the basis of their disability.

Am. Compl. ¶ 95 (citations omitted). They further allege that DCF “failed to (1) implement appropriate reunification services . . . (2) identify appropriate tasks; [and] (3) assist Plaintiffs in meeting tasks to achieve rehabilitation reunification, ” as well as failing to impose “only necessary and legitimate safety requirements.” Id. ¶ 97. They also claim DCF acted with deliberate indifference. Id. ¶ 100.

         a. Legal Standards

         To establish a violation under the ADA or RA, “plaintiffs must demonstrate that (1) they are ‘qualified individuals' with a disability; (2) that the defendants are subject to the ADA; and (3) that plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to participate in or benefit from defendants' services, programs, or activities, or were otherwise discriminated against by defendants, by reason of plaintiffs' disabilities.” Henrietta D. v. Bloomberg, 331 F.3d 261, 272 (2d Cir. 2003).[12]

         To establish that discrimination occurred “by reason of” their disabilities, plaintiffs must demonstrate that disability discrimination was a “but-for cause of any adverse” action. Natofsky v. City of New York, 921 F.3d 337, 348 (2d Cir. 2019); see also id. at 349 (“We conclude that ‘on the basis of' in the ADA requires a but-for causation standard.”).[13] Using this but- for standard, plaintiffs can pursue three theories of discrimination: disparate impact, disparate treatment, and failure to make reasonable accommodations. See Reg'l Econ. Cmty. Action Program, Inc. v. City of Middletown, 294 F.3d 35, 48 (2d Cir. 2002) (recognizing availability of all three theories under ADA, RA, and Fair Housing Act), superseded by statute on other grounds. “Regardless of a plaintiff's theory of liability, ” they must show but-for causation. H.P. ex rel. W.P. v. Naperville Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist. #203, 910 F.3d 957, 960 (7th Cir. 2018).

         b. Analysis

         I conclude that the claims of direct discrimination in count one are precluded by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations.

         i. Rooker-Feldman

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents a party who has lost in state court from obtaining review of the state court judgment by a federal district court. See Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459 (2006); Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005). The doctrine applies if four requirements are met: 1) the plaintiff must have lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff must complain of injuries caused by the state court judgment; (3) the plaintiff must ask the district court to review and reject that judgment; and (4) the state court judgment must have been rendered before the district court proceedings commenced. Green v. Mattingly, 585 F.3d 97, 101 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing Hoblock v. Albany Cty. Bd. of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 85 (2d Cir. 2005)).

         Rooker-Feldman applies broadly to any suit that, in effect, seeks review of or damages based on a state court judgment. It precludes, for example, any claim “seek[ing] vacatur or rejection of [an] order terminating [plaintiffs'] parental rights.” Voltaire v. Westchester Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., No. 11-cv-8876 (CS), 2016 WL 4540837, at *9 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 29, 2016). But it also precludes an award of damages stemming from an injury sustained as a result of a state court determination. See id. at *11 (citing Lomnicki v. Cardinal McCloskey Servs., No. 04-cv-4548, 2007 WL 2176059, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2007) and McClean v. City of N.Y., No. 04-cv-8353, 2007 WL 415138, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 6, 2007)); Sample v. Monterey Cty. Family & Children Servs., No. C09-01005 HRL, 2009 WL 2485748, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 7, 2009) (“Although [plaintiff] asks for monetary damages, she would only receive a damage award if this court determined that the Dependency Court's decisions pertaining to the custody of her children - including any review or authorization of defendants' actions - were in error.”); Lomnicki v. Cardinal McCloskey Servs., No. 04-CV-4548 (KMK), 2007 WL 2176059, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2007) (“Plaintiff does not avoid Rooker-Feldman by seeking damages instead of injunctive relief. In order to award damages to Plaintiff, the Court would have to review the decision of the Family Court.”).

         Rooker-Feldman can apply even if the claim presented in federal court was not presented in state court. The doctrine bars “not only claims that involve direct review of a state court decision, but also claims that are ‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court decision.” See Swiatkowski v. Bank of Am., NT & SA, 103 Fed.Appx. 431, 432 (2d Cir. 2004). When a federal plaintiff relies on a legal theory not raised in state court, Rooker-Feldman will apply if the federal suit “complains of injury from a state-court judgment and seeks to have that state-court judgment reversed.” Hoblock, 422 F.3d at 86.

         In Hoblock, the Court of Appeals stated that a father whose parental rights have been terminated in state court “may not” sue in federal court on the theory that the judgment violates his substantive due process rights “regardless of whether he raised any constitutional claims in state court.” Id. at 87. That observation is consistent with decisions of the Second Circuit concerning the impact of Rooker-Feldman in cases brought to federal court following child custody proceedings in state court.[14] District courts in this Circuit have likewise applied Rooker-Feldman to ADA claims that required review of state court decisions concerning child custody.[15]

         The issue, then, is whether plaintiffs complain of injuries sustained as a result of decisions of state courts. Plaintiffs contend their injuries were caused by DCF rather than any judicial decision.[16] Defendants disagree. They ...

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