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Collier v. Buckner

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 27, 2018

TONYA COLLIER, DONALD LEE ALEXANDER, GINGER LOWREY, R.L.P., a minor who sues by his mother and next friend, L.S.M., BRIAN BURROUGHS, and MARLO SAUNDERS, Plaintiffs,
v.
NANCY BUCKNER, in her individual capacity and in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, KIM MASHEGO, in her individual capacity and in her official capacity as Director of the Shelby Department of Human Resources, CORRINE MATT, in her individual capacity, LESLIE HENDERSON, in her individual capacity, SARA HAAG, in her individual capacity, KATIE WALTER, in her individual capacity, and TONI DOLLAR, in her individual capacity and in her official capacity as a supervisor for the Jefferson County Department of Human Resources, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs Tonya Collier, Donald Lee Alexander, Ginger Lowrey, R.L.P., Brian Burroughs, and Marlo Saunders allege that Alabama Department of Human Resources (“DHR”) officials deprived them of procedural due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and committed several state law torts. Plaintiffs' claims arise out of DHR placing their names on a Central Registry that catalogues the outcome of child abuse allegations, disclosing information from the Central Registry to third parties, and failing to provide Plaintiffs with due process hearings to challenge the information on the Central Registry. Before the court is Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. # 31), which is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         II. INDEX

         This Memorandum Opinion is necessarily lengthy for three reasons: less than stellar pleading, less than stellar briefing by all parties on the motion to dismiss, and unduly complicated applicable law. The last reason is likely a partial cause of the first two.

         The claims of the six Plaintiffs share some legal and factual issues and concern some of the same Defendants. However, not all Plaintiffs assert claims that arise out of the same transactions and occurrences, and, in many instances, not all Plaintiffs' claims are subject to the same legal standards. Not all of the seven Defendants are implicated in every claim of every Plaintiff. Some defenses apply to multiple counts in the amended complaint; some counts in the amended complaint are the target of multiple defenses; and some defenses are pertinent to only some Defendants.

         To avoid the impossible exponential burden of considering each defense in the context of each relevant claim by each relevant Plaintiff against each relevant Defendant, the court limited its analysis by first determining which claims survive the most broadly applicable defenses, then considering more narrowly applicable defenses only with respect to claims that survived the broader analysis. Further, the court considered only defenses to claims that had not already been eliminated at an earlier point in the analysis. As a result, many of Defendants' numerous defenses are not discussed in this Memorandum Opinion because they pertain to claims that are due to be dismissed on other grounds.

         To aid the reader, the following index is provided:

I. INTRODUCTION - 2
II. INDEX - 2
III. JURISDICTION AND VENUE - 7
IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW - 7
A. Rules 8(a) and 10(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure - 7
B. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim - 8
V. LEGAL CONTEXT - 9
III. FACTS - 15
A. Plaintiff Tonya Collier, a Teacher and Day Care Worker - 15
B. Plaintiffs Donald Lee Alexander, Ginger Lowrey, and R.L.P.: Non-educator Plaintiffs With “Indicated” Dispositions - 18
1. Plaintiff Alexander's “Indicated” Disposition -19
2. Plaintiff Lowrey's “Indicated” Disposition - 20
3. Plaintiff R.L.P.'s “Indicated” Disposition - 21
C. Plaintiffs Alexander, Brian Burroughs, and Marlo Saunders: Non-educator Plaintiffs With “Not Indicated” Dispositions - 22
IV. DISCUSSION - 24
A. The Amended Complaint - 24
B. Jurisdictional Considerations: Mootness, Standing, and Ripeness - 25
1. Mootness: Plaintiff Collier - 25
2. Jurisdictional Issues Concerning Claims Arising From “Indicated” Dispositions of Non-educator Plaintiffs Alexander, Lowrey, and R.L.P. - 27
i. Claims for Monetary Damages Connected with “Indicated” Dispositions of Non-educator Plaintiffs Alexander, Lowrey, and R.L.P. - 27
ii. Claims for Prospective Relief of Plaintiffs Alexander and Lowrey Against Defendants Haag, Walter, and Dollar With Respect to “Indicated” Dispositions - 28
iii. Claims for Prospective Relief Against Defendants Buckner and Mashego with Respect to “Indicated” Dispositions of Plaintiffs Alexander, Lowrey, and R.L.P.- Constitutional (Article III) Standing - 30
iv. Claims for Prospective Relief Against Defendants Buckner and Mashego with Respect to “Indicated” Dispositions of Plaintiffs Alexander and R.L.P.- Prudential Standing - 39
3. Standing as to Plaintiffs with “Not Indicated” Statuses: Plaintiffs Alexander, Burroughs, and Saunders - 43
C. Res Judicata/Collateral Estoppel: Plaintiff Lowrey's Remaining Claims - 44
D. Statute of Limitations: Plaintiff Collier's Claims for Monetary Relief and Plaintiff R.L.P.'s Claim for Prospective Relief - 47
1. Plaintiff Collier's Claims for Monetary Relief - 47
2. Plaintiff R.L.P. - 51
E. Count I - 53
F. Count II - 54
G. Count III - 56
1. Policy of Refusal to Schedule Hearings Upon Request; Policy Resulting in Failure to Forward Hearing Requests to the Office of Administrative Hearings - 57
a. Plaintiffs Alexander and R.L.P. - 58
i. What Process is Due - 58
ii. Whether Plaintiffs Alexander and R.L.P. Allege Injury to a Constitutionally Protected Interest - 62
b. Plaintiff Collier - 66
i. What Process is Due - 66
ii. Supervisor Liability of Defendants Buckner and Mashego - 68
2. Policy of Informing Those Requesting Hearings that They Are Only Entitled to a Record Review; Policy of Failing to Provide Information Regarding Methods For Challenging DHR Findings - 70
3. Introduction of Evidence of Dispositions in Juvenile and Family Courts - 71
4. Failure to Establish Adequate Expungement Procedures - 72
5. Failure to Provide Adequate Training and Supervision in Investigation and Intitial Dispositions of Child Abuse Reports - 72
6. Failure of DHR Social Workers to Forward Hearing Requests - 74
H. Count IV - 75
I. Qualified Immunity and Plaintiff Collier's § 1983 Claims for Monetary Relief - 77
J. Count V- State Law Negligence and Wantonness Claims - 82
K. Count VI - 88
L. Count VII - 88
M. Counts VIII and IX - 92
N. Count X - 93
V. CONCLUSION - 96

         III. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         Subject matter jurisdiction is exercised pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Personal jurisdiction and venue are not contested.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Rules 8(a) and 10(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

         “[T]he district court's inherent authority to control its docket and ensure the prompt resolution of lawsuits . . . in some circumstances includes the power to dismiss a complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) and Rule 10(b)” of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1320 (11th Cir. 2015). In exercising that discretion, the court is mindful of the overarching principle that “[p]leadings must be construed so as to do justice.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e).

         Pursuant to Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Rule 10(b) requires the following:

A party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. A later pleading may refer by number to a paragraph in an earlier pleading. If doing so would promote clarity, each claim founded on a separate transaction or occurrence-and each defense other than a denial-must be stated in a separate count or defense.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(b).

         Rules 8(a) and 10(b) are not intended to serve as a difficult hurdle requiring pleading perfection. Instead, they impose a minimum, common sense drafting requirement. A complaint must simply be sufficiently

“discrete[ ] and succinct[ ] so that [the defendant] can discern what [the plaintiff] is claiming and frame a responsive pleading, the court can determine which facts support which claims and whether the plaintiff has stated any claims upon which relief can be granted, and, at trial, the court can determine that evidence which is relevant and that which is not.”

Weiland, 792 F.3d at 1320 (quoting T.D.S. Inc. v. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co., 760 F.2d 1520, 1544 n.14 (11th Cir. 1985) (Tjoflat, J., dissenting)).

         B. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

         When evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court must take the facts alleged in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Resnick v. AvMed, Inc., 693 F.3d 1317, 1321-22 (11th Cir. 2012). To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “[F]acial plausibility” exists “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         V. LEGAL CONTEXT

         With certain exceptions not applicable in this case, DHR is the state agency in Alabama responsible for investigation of all reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Ala. Code § 26-14-6.1. Pursuant to its statutory authority, DHR has propounded regulations and established procedures for investigation and disposition of child abuse reports and for review, recording, and disclosure of the outcome of child abuse investigations. Ala. Code § 26-14-12; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-34-.01, et seq.

         “Once a report of suspected child abuse/neglect has been received, it must be investigated.”[1] Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.04(3). Upon receipt of a report of child abuse or neglect, the state or county DHR promptly begins an investigation, which includes research into previous reports, home visits, interviews with the child and custodial parents, and so forth. Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-05. DHR also evaluates the safety of the alleged victim and other children living in the home and determines whether a safety plan is needed or whether, in extreme circumstances, the child or children should be removed from the home prior to completion of the investigation. Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.06.

         After completing the investigation, the investigating DHR social worker reaches a disposition as to whether the child experienced abuse or neglect and the identity of the person responsible for the abuse or neglect. Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.06. The worker assigns one of the following dispositions to the report of abuse and to the person alleged to be responsible for the abuse: (1) “Indicated, ” which means that “a preponderance of the credible evidence . . . and the professional judgment of the worker indicate that abuse/neglect has occurred;” (2) “Unable to Complete;” or (3) “Not Indicated, ” which means that “a preponderance of the credible evidence and professional judgment does not substantiate that abuse/neglect has occurred.” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.07; see also Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-8 (defining “indicated” and “not indicated”).

         The county DHR submits a complete written report of the investigation and disposition to DHR's statewide Central Registry for reports of child abuse and neglect. Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7(d); Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-8; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.09. Cases in which child abuse or neglect has been determined to be “not indicated” are listed on the Central Registry without further ado.[2] Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7.1; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.09. A “not indicated” disposition “shall not be used or disclosed for purposes of employment or other background checks.” Ala. Code § 26-14-8(c)(1).

         All persons who have been assigned an “indicated” disposition are given an opportunity to disagree with DHR's findings “through either a CA/N hearing or an administrative record review.” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(1), (4). Some individuals qualify for a CA/N hearing based on the nature of their employment; the rest qualify only for administrative record review. Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(4). The accused is afforded ten DHR working days from receipt of the notice to submit a written request for either a CA/N hearing or an administrative record review, whichever of the two is available to that person. Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(4). If DHR receives no written request for review by the end of the ten-day period, the accused is considered to have waived review, and the “indicated” disposition is entered on the Central Registry. Id. Once an “indicated” disposition is entered on the Central Registry, it is confidential, but it may be released under certain circumstances to employers, prospective employers, licensing and certifying agencies, etc. Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-8; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(4); Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.09.

         Only certain persons-for example, those certified to care for children, such as teachers and educators, and those employed by certified child care facilities, such as day care workers-are entitled to a CA/N hearing.[3] A CA/N hearing is “an internal investigatory hearing that is fact finding in nature and designed to elicit the facts in an atmosphere that allows the person responsible for the abuse/neglect to contest the evidence presented against him [or her].” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(6); see also Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7.1 (providing due process rights for certain persons (such as educators) who have come under DHR investigation for child abuse or neglect). DHR bears the burden of persuasion at the CA/N hearing. Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7.1; Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(6). At a CA/N hearing, the accused has the following rights:

a. The right to present his case himself or be represented by legal counsel or any other person.
b. The right to present written evidence, oral testimony, and witnesses.
c. The right to be provided by the department a short and plain written statement of the matters asserted which will be presented at the hearing.
d. The right to review and copy at cost any written or recorded statement made by the alleged perpetrator to departmental personnel in the course of the child abuse/neglect investigation.
This request must be made prior to the date for the hearing.
e. The right to review and copy at cost, before or during the hearing, the written material and other evidence in possession of the department which will be placed into evidence at the hearing.
f. The right to inspect any exculpatory evidence which may be in the possession of departmental investigators, and the right to be informed of such evidence if known by departmental investigators before the hearing; provided, that a request for such evidence is made at least five working days prior to the date set for the hearing.
g. The right to review and copy at cost all non-confidential department documents pertinent to the case, including written policies and rights.
h. The right to cross-examine witnesses testifying at the hearing.
i. The right to request issuance of subpoenas to witnesses and compel attendance. This request must be received no later than ten calendar days prior to the hearing, unless a shorter time is agreed upon by the hearing officer.
j. The right to review and copy at cost all documents in the official hearing file maintained by the hearing officer.
k. The right to have a hearing officer appointed who shall be disinterested, fair, and impartial.

Ala. Code 1975 § 26-14-7.1.

         For the majority of Alabama citizens (everyone who is not a teacher, day care worker, or other person who falls within the narrow qualifications for entitlement to a CA/N hearing), only an administrative record review is available to challenge an “indicated” disposition.[4] Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(3)-(4). Unlike a CA/N hearing, which is “fact finding in nature” and allows the accused to directly challenge the “indicated” disposition using evidence outside the administrative record, an administrative record review is limited to consideration of whether the DHR's own administrative record “contains sufficient documentation based on a preponderance of credible evidence to support the ‘indicated' disposition of child abuse/neglect.” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(3). Although the reviewer may consider prior abuse/neglect reports, the court has not found, and the parties have not cited, any specific law, regulation, or policy that would, during a record review, allow the accused to be presented with the evidence against him or her, or to contest the “indicated” listing by presenting his or her own evidence or argument. “Administrative record reviews are conducted by [DHR] staff who are not involved with the case.” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(7). “The [administrative record] reviewers have the authority to overturn the dispositional finding of the worker and supervisor, and their decision is final.” Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.08(7) (emphasis added).

         After the conclusion of the CA/N hearing or administrative record review, there are no further procedures available for challenging the merits of an “indicated” disposition. Limited procedures are available, however, for expungement from the Central Registry of “not indicated” and (in narrower circumstances) “indicated” listings. Ala. Code § 26-14-8(e) (providing for expungement of “not indicated” listings upon request if, after five years after placing the listing on the Central Registry, DHR has received no further reports of child abuse or neglect); Ala. Admin. Code r. 660-5-34-.09(5)(i)-(j) (procedures for expungement of “indicated” and “not indicated” listings); see also Ala. Code § 26-14-3(e) (“[I]f any agency or authority investigates any report pursuant to this section [pertaining to reports by mandatory reporters] and the report does not result in a conviction, the agency or authority shall expunge any record of the information or report and any data developed from the record.”); Slaton v. State, 71 So.3d 659, 661 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011) (holding that § 26-14-3(e) applied to the investigatory record of DHR because DHR was “the agency or authority that investigated an allegation” of child sex abuse).

         III. FACTS

         A. Plaintiff Tonya Collier, a Teacher and Day Care Worker

         Plaintiff Tonya Collier is a former educator who resides in Shelby County, Alabama. Plaintiff Collier alleges that DHR officials and social workers wrongfully deprived her of procedural due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and committed several state law torts in conjunction with disclosing an “indicated” disposition from DHR's Central Registry without affording her a due process hearing. Because of the nature of Plaintiff Collier's employment at the time DHR assigned an “indicated” disposition to her case, she is the only Plaintiff who, under existing Alabama law and DHR rules and regulations, [5] was entitled to a CA/N investigative administrative hearing to challenge the “indicated” disposition before DHR disclosed the “indicated” disposition to her employers.

         By letter dated April 17, 2012, DHR notified Plaintiff Collier that a report of child abuse had been lodged against her and that, upon investigation, DHR had concluded that the facts indicated child abuse had occurred. (Doc. # 28 ¶ 1, 21.) Defendants Corrine Matt and Leslie Henderson were the Shelby County DHR workers who made the “indicated” determination. (Doc. # 28 ¶ 3.)

         On April 24, 2012, in response to DHR's letter, Plaintiff Collier notified Defendants Matt and Henderson of her status as a school teacher and requested a hearing to review the “indicated” disposition. (Doc. # 28 ¶ 2; Doc. # 33-1 at 10.) Plaintiff Collier's hearing request was ignored or denied. (Doc. # 28 ¶¶ 16-17.) On November 29, 2012, DHR notified Plaintiff Collier that an administrative record review had resulted in an affirmance of the “indicated” disposition and that the “indicated” status would be placed on the Central Registry. (Doc. # 33-1 at 10; Doc. # 31-4 at 1.)

         “At the time the ‘indicated' disposition was made by Defendants Matt and Henderson, ” i.e., sometime in 2012, Plaintiff Collier was terminated from her teaching position after the “indicated” disposition was disclosed to her employer. (Doc. # 28 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff Collier subsequently obtained employment at a day care center, but, in October 2014, she was terminated from that position after DHR notified the day care of the “indicated” disposition and warned that the day care's license to operate was in jeopardy because of it. (Doc. # 28 ¶ 3.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff Collier retained an attorney, who secured her an administrative hearing approximately one month after she filed this action. (Doc. # 33-1 (May 12, 2015 letter from the Administrative Hearings Office notifying Plaintiff Collier that she would be given a hearing).) At the conclusion of the hearing, the administrative law judge reversed the “indicated” finding and concluded that child abuse was “not indicated.”[6] (Doc. # 28 ¶ 4.)

         B. Plaintiffs Donald Lee Alexander, Ginger Lowrey, and R.L.P.: Non-educator Plaintiffs With “Indicated” Dispositions

         Plaintiffs Donald Lee Alexander, Ginger Lowrey, and R.L.P. allege that DHR officials deprived them of procedural due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and committed several state law torts in conjunction with placing a final “indicated” disposition on DHR's Central Registry of “indicated” child abusers without affording them a due process hearing. Unlike Plaintiff Collier, Plaintiffs Alexander (who was the subject of both an “indicated” and a “not indicated” listing), Lowrey, and R.L.P. were not employed as teachers or in other jobs that qualified them for an administrative CA/N hearing. Instead, under Alabama law and DHR ...


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