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Doe v. Spears

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 17, 2019

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
LINDA SPEARS, in her official and individual capacity, PATRICIA KELLY, in her official and individual capacity, JUDITH EDWARDS, in her official and individual capacity, Defendants.


          Nathaniel M. Gorton United States District Judge.

         This case arises from a family law dispute in which employees of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (“the DCF”) temporarily removed three minor children (identified as “A”, “B” and “C” in the amended complaint) from the residence of the anonymous plaintiff who is their father (identified as “D” or “Dad” in the amended complaint). Plaintiff claims that Linda Spears, the Commissioner of the DCF (“Commissioner Spears”), Patricia Kelly, a social worker employed by the DCF (“Kelly”) and Judith Edwards, Kelly's supervisor (“Edwards”) (collectively “defendants”) have, inter alia, intentionally violated his and his children's constitutional rights to liberty, freedom of association and familial integrity by separating him from his children without just cause or due process of law during the course of an investigation into allegations of child abuse.

         Before this Court is defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, this Court concludes that plaintiff's claims are barred by sovereign immunity, qualified immunity and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and otherwise lack merit.[1]

         I. Background

         A. Facts

         The pro se plaintiff is the father of “A”, “B” and “C” who, when the relevant child abuse investigation first began, were 14, 12 and 9 years old, respectively. Until December, 2014, the three minor children lived with plaintiff. He alleges that he and the children's mother were divorced and that she was not materially involved in the children's lives but did have visitation rights.

         In October, 2014, plaintiff received a call from Kelly (a social worker employed with the DCF) asking if she could meet with him and the children at his residence. In early November, 2014, Kelly came to the residence and spoke with each child individually. She also spoke to plaintiff for about 30 minutes and during that conversation he learned that before the visit Kelly had met with the children's mother several times. She also informed “D” that she was investigating an allegation that he had recently slapped and kicked “C”, the youngest child. Plaintiff immediately denied the allegation. He explained that “C” had a history of becoming physically aggressive and throwing tantrums and that on the date in question, “C” had become physically violent towards the family dog and his older brother, “B”, and that plaintiff had grabbed him by the wrist and taken him to his room to calm down. Plaintiff alleges that there were never any bruises or markings on “C” or any of the other children. Kelly told plaintiff, however, that “A”, the oldest child, confirmed that plaintiff had hit “C” in the face.

         Plaintiff contends that “C”'s mother prompted “C” to make up the story of physical abuse which was then reported to the DCF. He also asserts that “A” was lying because he was a teenage boy rebelling against his father. He submits that during “B”'s interview with Kelly, “B” told her that the allegations of abuse were false and that his father had not hit “C” or either of the other children.

         After Kelly left the home, neither he nor his children had any contact with the DCF for more than a month. In early December, 2014, Kelly called plaintiff at his work and told him that the three children were being removed from his house and placed in DCF custody and that he was prohibited from contacting them. The next day, plaintiff was informed that he had a right to a “72-hour hearing” (a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to support temporary removal) which was scheduled for the following week. He received a copy of a “petition” filed by the DCF with the Juvenile Court alleging that plaintiff had abused C by slapping and kicking him. The petition contained no allegations of physical abuse as to “A” or “B”.

         Plaintiff alleges that defendants coached the children to testify against him at the 72-hour hearing and that the Judge at the hearing did not permit plaintiff to be present or to cross-examine his children. He alleges, nevertheless, that his children testified that they were not afraid of their father and had not been physically abused. During the proceedings, Edwards also testified that

she knew nothing about the case and simply deferred all questions to be asked of Defendant Kelly who was “on vacation” and never testified.

         In January, 2015, the Juvenile Court determined that the DCF had satisfied its burden of proof and the children were temporarily placed in the custody of their mother. The DCF and the Juvenile Court allegedly never inquired into whether the mother was fit to care for the children. Plaintiff alleges that he was thereafter prevented by defendants from seeing or communicating with his children for “almost 500 days” despite being afforded restricted visitation rights by the Juvenile Court. He claims that on numerous occasions Kelly informed him that his children did not want to see him when, in fact, they did want to see him or they were already visiting with plaintiff surreptitiously. He specifies two such occasions in July, 2015, and July, 2018, when Kelly had emailed plaintiff regarding visitation with his children. Plaintiff alleges that throughout this period of separation, he was able to see and communicate with his children but only surreptitiously.

         Plaintiff alleges that during the period of separation, defendants submitted false reports to the Juvenile Court as to the children's health and well-being and their desire to see their father. He alleges that in October, 2015, the DCF reported that “A” was doing well academically and was happy but he dropped out of high school shortly thereafter. In November, 2015, the DCF allegedly submitted a false report notifying the court that plaintiff's therapist had concluded that plaintiff was unfit to see his children. In June, 2016, plaintiff's therapist testified in court that he had never made any such statement about plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleges that
[i]n February of 2016, Defendant DCF ostensibly closed its case on the children and the family . . . [and] [i]n March of 2016, the Probate court dismissed Defendant DCF from the case.

         Elsewhere in the complaint, however, plaintiff alleges that the DCF was involved in his children's lives as recently as July, 2018, and thus it is unclear exactly when, and if, the proceedings in the Juvenile Court and the DCF's involvement with plaintiff and his children were terminated. He also alleges that he and his children have since been reunited but does not specify when that reunification occurred or whether his involvement with his children is in any way restricted by order of the Juvenile Court.

         B. Procedural History

         In December, 2018, plaintiff filed the complaint with this Court as well as a sealed motion to impound and seal the information contained in the complaint. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff filed an amended complaint.[2]

         Plaintiff asserts sixteen claims against defendants, in both their official and individual capacities, for the following: 1) declaratory judgment that the “DCF and the other defendants have waived their qualified immunity and are held liable under the Federal laws” (Count I); 2) injunctive relief to prevent defendants and their agents “from acting to interfere with the rights of Dad, and from retaliating against Dad for bringing this action” (Count II); 3) various constitutional violations (including violations of the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts III, IV, V and VII); 4) “Waiver of the 11th Immunity” (Count VI); 5) attorneys' fees and expert fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (Count VIII); 6) violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Count IX); 7) violation of the Massachusetts Torts ...

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