160 F.3d 899 (2nd Cir. 1998), 754, Young v. County of Fulton

Docket Nº:754, Docket No. 98-7559
Citation:160 F.3d 899
Party Name:Tammy YOUNG, Individually and as parent and natural guardian of infants Matthew Young, Michael Young and Nicole Young, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COUNTY OF FULTON, Fulton County Department of Social Services, Karen Hasenfuss, Individually and in her official capacity as an employee of the County of Fulton, Kathleen Pape, Individually and in her offici
Case Date:November 16, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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Page 899

160 F.3d 899 (2nd Cir. 1998)

Tammy YOUNG, Individually and as parent and natural guardian

of infants Matthew Young, Michael Young and Nicole

Young, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

COUNTY OF FULTON, Fulton County Department of Social

Services, Karen Hasenfuss, Individually and in her official

capacity as an employee of the County of Fulton, Kathleen

Pape, Individually and in her official capacity as an

employee of the County of Fulton, Penny Lockwood,

Individually and in her official capacity as an employee of

the County of Fulton, Jeanne D. Johannes, Individually and

in her official capacity as Commissioner of the Department

of Social Services of Fulton County, John Doe, unknown

employee of the County of Fulton, and Jane Doe, unknown

employee of the County of Fulton, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 754, Docket No. 98-7559

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

November 16, 1998

Argued Oct. 20, 1998.

Page 900

V. Michael Liccione, Whitesboro, NY (Bond Schoeneck & King, Syracuse, NY, on the brief), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Stephen J. Rehfuss, Albany, NY, (Brennan & Rehfuss, P.C., on the brief) for Defendant-Appellee County of Fulton.

Timothy Horigan, Amsterdam, NY (Horigan, Horigan & Lombardo, P.C. on the brief), for Defendants-Appellees Fulton County Department of Social Services, Karen Hasenfuss, Kathleen Pape, Penny Lockwood, Jeanne D. Johannes, John Doe, and Jane Doe.

Before: NEWMAN and JACOBS, Circuit Judges and TSOUCALAS, Judge. [*]

JACOBS, Circuit Judge:

In September 1992 plaintiff-appellant Tammy Young voluntarily placed her twin boys in foster care under the supervision of the Fulton County Department of Social Services ("DSS"). Young brings this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1994) seeking damages against the County of Fulton, DSS, and several

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individual employees of DSS for allegedly denying her the right to visit her children for 39 days, without the prior hearing required by New York law. Young also argues that certain procedural failures evidence a conspiracy to take her children permanently in violation of her custodial rights.

Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) or alternatively for summary judgment in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Individual defendants argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity because at the time of the events in this case there was no clearly established right of a parent to visit children voluntarily placed in foster care, or alternatively that their actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances. The County and DSS argued that Young failed to make the necessary showing for municipal liability under § 1983 that the harm resulted from an official policy, custom, or practice. All defendants argued that the allegations of a conspiracy are conclusory and therefore insufficient to support a claim under § 1983. The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Hurd, M.J.), granted summary judgment: (A) for the individual defendants on the ground that there was no clearly established parental visitation right for a non-custodial parent; (B) for the County and DSS on the ground that Young could not show that the actions of the individual defendants were done pursuant to a policy, custom, or practice of the County or DSS; and (C) for all defendants on the conspiracy claim on the grounds that the allegations were conclusory. Young v. County of Fulton, 999 F.Supp. 282 (N.D.N.Y.1998). We affirm for the reasons stated herein.

BACKGROUND

In reviewing the grant of summary judgment against Young, we view the facts in the light most favorable to her and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2513, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

A. Facts

Young is the mother of three children. During 1989 and 1990, there were at least nine incidents of serious domestic violence between Young and her husband in which her twin boys were subjected to physical and emotional harm. On that basis DSS filed a neglect petition in the Family Court of the State of New York in December 1990. At the August 1991 hearing on this petition, Young (who was represented by counsel) admitted to negligence charges under N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act § 1012(f) (McKinney 1991). Young and her family were placed under DSS supervision for one year.

A month after the one-year period of supervision ended, Young came to DSS and voluntarily placed her twin sons in foster care. Young explained to the caseworker that she was having trouble controlling the twin boys and that they were a threat to their younger sister. The caseworker advised Young that as a result of her voluntary placement of the children in foster care, a second neglect petition would be filed. At a Family Court hearing on the second neglect petition in May 1993, the boys were ordered to be held in foster homes under DSS supervision until March 1994. The boys were originally placed in separate homes, but both were eventually placed under the foster care of defendant Karen Hasenfuss.

Young maintains that because she brought the twins to DSS voluntarily, DSS should have taken custody of the twin boys pursuant to a "voluntary petition" rather than a "neglect petition." Young claims that this was the first step in a conspiracy among DSS employees Penny Lockwood, Kathleen Pape, and Karen Hasenfuss to take custody of the boys from Young so that Hasenfuss could adopt them. According to Young, the filing of a neglect petition enabled DSS to remove the boys from her more quickly, and afforded defendant Hasenfuss (as foster parent) preference over the maternal grandparents in adoption proceedings. In support of her claim that DSS filed an improper petition, Young notes that only one of the eight alleged acts of neglect underlying the second neglect petition was recorded in the state register of child abuse, a recordation required by New York law.

During the latter part of 1993, DSS decided that the mother's relationship with the twins was continuing to deteriorate. The

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boys allegedly suffered from severe emotional trauma before and after her visits. Citing this phenomenon, and the failure of Young (now divorced) to provide a stable home environment, DSS decided to take custody of the boys permanently. On September 2, 1993, Young was notified that DSS intended to file a petition to keep the children in foster care indefinitely. DSS suspended Young's visitation rights eleven days later. In a contemporaneous letter, DSS employee Lockwood (the children's counselor for nearly two years) explained that decision to caseworker Pape on the basis that the children's behavioral problems decreased after placement in the foster home, but that they were exhibiting extreme reactions of distress before and after each visit with their mother. Lockwood expressed the view, which DSS has adopted, that the denial of visitation was in the best interests of the children.

B. State Court Proceedings

On September 21 (eight days after Young's loss of visitation privileges) DSS filed a permanent neglect petition in Family Court seeking permanent custody of the boys. Two days later, while this petition was still pending, Young filed a petition in Family Court demanding the right to visit her children. The Family Court conducted a preliminary hearing on Young's petition and, on October 21, ordered visitation to resume immediately. In December, the Family Court conducted a full hearing on the visitation dispute. The supervisor of DSS's foster care department admitted on cross-examination that although the decision to deny visitation was in the best interests of the children, the decision was made in violation of New York law. The court held that N.Y. Comp.Codes R. & Reg. tit. 18, § 430.12 required a court order before suspension of...

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