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Dawson v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Delaware

January 3, 2020

ANGELINA SMITH, et al., Defendants.

          Neonza Dawson, Wilmington, Delaware; Pro Se Plaintiff.

          Allison Jean McCowan, Deputy Attorney General, Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware. Counsel for Defendants Angelina Smith, Keith Taylor, Porter Service Center, Tara Lattomus, Islanda Finamore, and Delaware Division of Family Services.

          Mark L. Reardon, Esquire, and Matthew P. Donelson, Esquire, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, Wilmington, Delaware. Counsel for Defendants Nykeisha Sewell and Pressley Ridge.


          CONNOLLY, U.S. District Judge

         Plaintiff Neonza Dawson ("Plaintiff") alleges in this action violations of her rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.[1] She proceeds pro se and has paid the filing fee. Plaintiff has filed a motion for leave to amend, motions for default judgment, and a motion for summary judgment. (D.I. 11, 18, 28, 30) State Defendants Angelina Smith ("Smith"), Keith Taylor ("Taylor"), Porter Service Center ("Porter Center"), [2] Tara Lattomus ("Lattomus"), Islanda Finamore ("Finamore"), [3] and the Delaware Division of Family Services ("DFS") (collectively "State Defendants") move for dismissal. (D.I. 24) Defendants Pressley Ridge ("Pressley Ridge") and Nykeisha Sewell ("Sewell")[4] (together "Pressley Ridge Defendants") also move for dismissal.[5] (D.I. 36).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff commenced this action against a host of individuals, agencies, and entities, alleging violations of her constitutional rights following entry of a September 24, 2018, ex parte emergency custody order in the Delaware Family Court that resulted in the removal of Plaintiff's three minor children from her custody.[6] (See D.I. 1; D.I. 26, Ex. A) Plaintiff alleges there "was no proof of immediate danger with the exception of false allegations knowingly made by Keith Taylor to receive an ex parte [order] and award DFS custody of [her] 3 children." (D.I. 1 at 4) The Complaint contains wholesale and similar allegations of violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights by Defendants Smith, Taylor, Sewell, Rebecca Wheeler ("Wheeler"), Sarah Brunson ("Brunson"), Phillip Renzulli ("Renzulli"), Lattomus, and Finamore, such as: engaging in egregious behavior to manipulate rulings and instructions to defraud the court; lying and perjury; fabricating evidence; slander/defamation; deceptive practices including trickery, duress, fabrication and/or false testimony or evidence, failing to disclose exculpatory evidence and documents; withholding material information; misrepresenting facts to the court; violating the Americans with Disabilities Act; lying in an attempt to criminalize a civil matter; lying and intimidation in retaliation for Plaintiff exercising her right to due process; unlawful and wrongful removal of the children and placing them in state custody through false imprisonment based on fabrications; investigating a false abuse allegation; violations of the Fourth Amendment; helping to incriminate Plaintiff; failing to properly represent Plaintiff; misleading representation; and financial loss. (Id. at 8-13) The body of the Complaint does not refer to Porter Center, DFS, Pennsylvania Office of Children and Youth ("Office of Children & Youth") or Pressley Ridge.

         Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages. (Id. at 14) She also wants "these people criminally charged for all of these criminal acts along with the malicious prosecution." (Id.)

         The Court takes judicial notice of the following facts gleaned from the Family Court Case. On September 24, 2018, Plaintiff went to the Porter Center seeking housing assistance, but was deemed ineligible because she was already receiving benefits from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (D.I. 26, Ex. B) Plaintiff left the Porter Center before a DFS case worker could arrive. (Id.) DFS contacted Plaintiff by telephone, and Plaintiff informed DFS that she was driving to Pennsylvania to have her benefits transferred to Delaware. (Id.) While driving to Pennsylvania to close her services, Plaintiff's vehicle became inoperable on I-95, and DFS contacted the police. (Id.) DFS transported Plaintiff and her three children to the DFS office in New Castle, Delaware. (Id.) There, DFS determined that Plaintiff was homeless and took steps to obtain an emergency ex parte custody order. (Id.) On the evening of September 24, 2018, the Delaware Family Court entered an order for the immediate removal of the children from Plaintiff and an award of emergency temporary custody to DFS. (Id. at Ex. A)

         On September 25, 2018, Taylor, then employed as a DFS caseworker, filed a Dependency/Neglect Petition for Custody against Plaintiff. (Id. at Ex. B) The petition sought placement of the minor children into a foster home. (Id.) The minor children were placed in a foster home pending evaluations. (Id.)

         On July 22, 2019, Plaintiff filed the Complaint that initiated this action. On August 19, 2019, Plaintiff filed a motion to amend the complaint to add as defendants Jennie Conrad ("Conrad") of Children's Choice ("Children's Choice"); Merle Clearfield ("Clearfield"), a psychologist at JPA Center for Integrative Health; Children's Choice; and the Office of Pennsylvania State Representative Jared Soloman ("Office of Soloman"). (D.I. 11) The proposed amended complaint's allegations against Conrad, Clearfield, and Office of Soloman are similar to those made in the original complaint. There are no allegations in the proposed amended complaint directed towards Children's Choice.

         State Defendants and Pressley Ridge Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (D.I. 24; D.I. 36)


         In reviewing a motion to dismiss filed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, her pleading is liberally construed and her Complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94. A court may consider the pleadings, public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint, and documents incorporated into the complaint by reference. Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion may be granted only if, accepting the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the complainant, a court concludes that those allegations "could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 558 (2007).

         "Though 'detailed factual allegations' are not required, a complaint must do more than simply provide 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action."' Davis v. Abington Mem'l Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 241 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The Court is "not required to credit bald assertions or legal conclusions improperly alleged in the complaint." In re Rockefeller Ctr. Props., Inc. Sec. Litig., 311 F.3d 198, 216 (3d Cir. 2002). A complaint may not be dismissed "for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted." Johnson v. City of Shelby, 574 U.S. 10 (2014).

         A complainant must plead facts sufficient to show that a claim has "substantive plausibility." Id. at 347. That plausibility must be found on the face of the complaint. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "A claim has facial plausibility when the [complainant] pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the [accused] is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Deciding whether a claim is plausible will be a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.


         A. Claims Made on Behalf of Plaintiffs Children

         While not clear, it appears that Plaintiff attempts to raise claims (i.e., false imprisonment) on behalf of her children. As a non-attorney, Plaintiff may not act as an attorney for other individuals and may only represent herself in this court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1654; see also Osei-Afriye v. The Medical Coll. of Pennsylvania, 937 F.2d 876 (3d Cir. 1991) (non-lawyer appearing pro se may not act as attorney for his children).

         B. Immunity

         All moving Defendants seek dismissal on the grounds that they are immune from suit.

         1. Claims Against DFS and Porter Center

         State Defendants seek dismissal of Porter Center and DFS as barred by the Eleventh Amendment. "Absent a state's consent, the Eleventh Amendment bars a civil rights suit in federal court that names the state as a defendant." Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 661 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781 (1978)). The Eleventh Amendment protects states and their agencies and departments from suit in federal court regardless of the kind of relief sought. Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984).

         This Court has previously determined that claims against the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youths and Their Families are barred by the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity. See Watson v. Department of Services for Children, Youths and Their Families, 2012 WL 1134512, at *3 (D. Del. Mar. 30, 2012). In addition, the Porter Center (more properly called the Winder Laird Porter State Service Center) falls under the umbrella of the Delaware Health and Social Services, a state agency, that also has immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. See Jones v. Delaware Health, 2017 WL 6403014, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2017); see also (last visited Dec. 6, 2019).

         Delaware has not waived its immunity from suit in federal court. Although Congress can abrogate a state's sovereign immunity, it did not do so through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Brooks-McCollum v. Delaware, 213 Fed.Appx. 92, 94 (3d Cir. 2007). In addition, dismissal is proper because neither DFS nor Porter Center are persons for purposes of § 1983. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); Calhoun v. Young, 288 Fed.Appx. 47 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, the Court will grant State Defendants' motion to dismiss the claims against DFS and Porter Center.

         2. Claims against Smith, Taylor, ...

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