United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING AND ORDER
N. CHATIGNY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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
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). 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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, 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.
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)). 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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Jr. and Daniel were born in July 2005 and July 2006,
respectively. Soon after each was born, the state court
issued an OTC. 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)).
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.
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,
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
(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).
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.
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.
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
Claims for Damages
Count One: Intentional Discrimination Under the
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
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. ¶
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.
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.”). 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).
conclude that the claims of direct discrimination in count
one are precluded by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,
collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations.
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)).
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
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.
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. District courts in this
Circuit have likewise applied Rooker-Feldman to ADA
claims that required review of state court decisions
concerning child custody.
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. Defendants disagree. They