C.D.A. v. United States

Decision Date28 March 2023
Docket NumberCivil Action 21-469
PartiesC.D.A., minor child, and MR. A., his father; and E.A.Q.A., minor child, and MR. Q., his father, Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania


This case involves four undocumented immigrants-two fathers and their respective minor sons-who have sued the federal government after being subjected to President Donald Trump's administration's zero-tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings.

According to the allegations in their amended complaint, the four plaintiffs journeyed in 2018 to the United States-Mexico border from their respective home countries-one father-son pair from Honduras and the other from Brazil-to seek asylum in the United States after being allegedly targeted by local gangs. The plaintiffs crossed the border in the late spring of 2018, at the peak of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy that mandated the prosecution of all illegal border crossings. The federal government detained the plaintiffs upon their arrival to the United States, charged the father plaintiffs for illegal entry, and subsequently separated the son plaintiffs from their fathers. During their weeks-long separations, the father plaintiffs were afforded minimal contact with their sons. All plaintiffs allege poor conditions throughout their detainments at multiple facilities, including freezing temperatures, lack of privacy and sleep deprivation. Moreover, before reunification with their sons, the father plaintiffs claim that federal employees attempted to coerce them into signing forms to relinquish their and their sons' rights to seek asylum as a condition of reunification. Following reunification, one pair of plaintiffs spent additional time at a family detention center in Pennsylvania at which they purportedly experienced poor conditions as well. All plaintiffs claim to have experienced severe emotional and psychological trauma-including physical manifestations of said trauma-during and following their time being detained and separated.

The plaintiffs brought this action against the federal government in February 2021, raising eight claims in total. Five of the claims-intentional infliction of emotional distress negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence, abuse of process, and loss of consortium- are brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). The remaining three claims-torture, crime against humanity (persecution) and crime against humanity (inhumane acts)-are brought under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”). The federal government has now motioned for the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims, first raising the defense of federal sovereign immunity against all claims, and then asserting that, even if immunity does not exist here, the plaintiffs' factual allegations do not sufficiently support their claims. In the alternative, the federal government asks the court to sever the plaintiffs' claims and transfer them to more convenient fora. For the reasons laid out in this opinion, the court must properly dismiss the majority of the plaintiffs' claims. Nevertheless, the court finds no justification to grant the motions to sever and transfer.

Beginning with the motions to sever and transfer, the court finds that the plaintiffs have met the requirements for permissive joinder and that private and public interests weigh in favor of keeping the case within this forum. Turning to the motion to dismiss, the court finds federal sovereign immunity nonexistent in this case. For one, none of the FTCA exceptions raised by the federal government are applicable to the factual allegations here at this stage. Moreover, the court finds an automatic determination of federal sovereign immunity from the plaintiffs' ATS claims inappropriate because the plaintiffs allege jus cogens violations. The court does, however, find that it must dismiss many of the plaintiffs' claims for lack of plausibility. Specifically, the court must dismiss all plaintiffs' claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligence, loss of consortium, torture, and crimes against humanity, as the court finds that the plaintiffs cannot obtain relief for these claims under relevant state and international laws. The court must also dismiss Mr. Q. and E.A.Q.A.'s claims of abuse of process for the same reason.

The remainder of the federal government's motion to dismiss is denied. All plaintiffs can therefore proceed with their claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and Mr. A. and C.D.A. can also proceed with their claims of abuse of process.


The plaintiffs, C.D.A., Mr. A., E.A.Q.A., and Mr. Q., initiated this action by filing a complaint against the United States of America (hereinafter Government) on February 1, 2021.[1]See Doc. No. 1. The complaint alleged that the plaintiffs-who are not United States citizens-suffered various traumas upon crossing the United States-Mexico border and entering the Government's custody. The complaint contained seven counts: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress, (3) negligence, (4) loss of consortium, (5) torture, (6) crimes against humanity: persecution, and (7) crimes against humanity: inhumane acts. See Compl. at ¶¶ 151-89. The plaintiffs brought the first four counts under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”),[2]and the latter three counts under the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”).[3]See id. at ¶¶ 154, 160, 164, 168, 170, 175, 183. On April 26, 2021, the Government filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.[4] See Doc. No. 14.

On August 31, 2021, the parties jointly motioned for the court to hold the matter in abeyance for 60 days, see Doc No. 19, which the court granted. See Doc. No. 20. Three days later, the Government filed an unopposed motion to voluntarily withdraw its motion to dismiss, see Doc. No. 23, which the court granted. See Doc. No. 24. On October 29, 2021, the court approved a joint stipulated motion to extend the period of abeyance by an additional 60 days. See Doc. No. 26. Following the period of abeyance, the Government again filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. See Doc. No. 29.

Nevertheless, on January 28, 2022, the plaintiffs responded to the Government's motion to dismiss with an amended complaint, see Doc. No. 31, prompting the court to deny said motion as moot. See Doc. No. 32. The amended complaint-the operative complaint in this matter- contained the seven counts included in the original complaint, but also added an eighth count: abuse of process. See Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 170-74. On March 28, 2022, the Government filed its motion to dismiss the amended complaint, see Doc. No. 52, to which the plaintiffs filed a response in opposition on May 12, 2022.[5]Two weeks later, the Government filed a reply to the plaintiffs' response in opposition. See Doc. No. 56. On July 6, 2022, the court heard oral argument on the Government's motion to dismiss the amended complaint, which is now ripe for adjudication.


The plaintiffs consist of two pairs of fathers and sons: Mr. A. is the father of C.D.A. and Mr. Q. is the father of E.A.Q.A. See Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 18, 20. Both C.D.A. and E.A.Q.A. were minors throughout the entirety of the facts alleged in the amended complaint. See id. at ¶¶ 19, 21. Mr. A. and C.D.A. are from Brazil whereas Mr. Q. and E.A.Q.A. are from Honduras. See id. at ¶¶ 18, 20. All plaintiffs entered the United States from the United States-Mexico border in late-spring 2018 to seek protection from persecution they faced in their respective home countries. See id. at ¶¶ 19-21. The plaintiffs' claims arise out of treatment they experienced upon arrival at the border, at which time they became subject to the “zero-tolerance” policy employed by President Donald Trump's administration between April 2018 and June 2018. See id. at ¶¶ 34, 69-73.

The Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy was a policy announced by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that mandated the detainment and prosecution of all individuals who illegally crossed into the United States. See id. at ¶ 34. The policy started as a pilot program in El Paso, Texas, but went into effect at all ports of entry beginning on April 6, 2018. See Id. The policy often extended to individuals who were attempting to seek asylum in the United States and effectively resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents. See id. at ¶¶ 5, 34, 37. Detained parents would typically be transferred by United States Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) into United States Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) custody. See id. at ¶ 53. The Government would then classify their children as “unaccompanied” and transfer them into the custody of the United States Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”), sometimes resulting in children being sent to ORR facilities thousands of miles away from their detained parents.[6]See id. at ¶¶ 55-56. On June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order ending the practice of family separation under his administration's zero-tolerance policy by directing the United States Department of Homeland Security-the department under which CBP operates-to “maintain custody of alien families during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.” Exec. Order No. 13,841, sec. 3(a), 83 Fed.Reg. 29,435, 29,435 (June 25, 2018). On June 26, 2018, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California entered a mandatory preliminary injunction that ordered the Government to reunify families that were separated under the...

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