Connor B. v. Patrick

Decision Date04 January 2011
Docket NumberC.A. No. 10–cv–30073–MAP.
Citation771 F.Supp.2d 142
PartiesCONNOR B., by his next friend, Rochelle VIGURS, et al., Plaintiffsv.Deval L. PATRICK, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts


Daniel J. Gleason, Jonathan D. Persky, Mary K. Ryan, Nutter, McClennen & Fish, LLP, Rachel Brodin Nili, Goulston & Storrs, PC, Boston, MA, Kara Morrow, Laurence D. Borten, Marcia Robinson Lowry, Sara Michelle Bartosz, Susan Lambiase, Children's Rights, New York, NY, for Plaintiffs.Robert L. Quinan, Jr., Amy Spector, Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Boston, MA, for Defendants.


PONSOR, District Judge.


Plaintiffs bring this proposed class action on behalf of all children who have been (or will be) placed in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) as a result of a state juvenile court order adjudicating them in need of “care and protection” due to abuse or neglect by their parents. Plaintiffs challenge certain facets of the foster care system in Massachusetts and seek injunctive relief under provisions of the United States Constitution and under the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 670 et seq. (“AACWA”).

Presently before this court are a motion to dismiss filed by Defendant Patrick (Dkt. No. 17) and a joint motion to dismiss on behalf of all Defendants (Dkt. No. 18). For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' motions will be denied.


The six named Plaintiffs—Connor B., Adam S., Camila R., Andre S., Seth T., and Rakeem D.—are children who were transferred into DCF custody as a result of abuse or neglect by their parents. DCF may obtain custody over a child in a number of ways, including a “care and protection” proceeding instituted pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 119, §§ 24–26, which targets children who suffer parental neglect or abuse. Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of all children who enter DCF's foster care custody as a result of such proceedings. Notably, the action does not involve children over whom DCF has obtained custody through other means, such as children in need of services (“CHINS”) under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 119, §§ 39E et seq. , or children in DCF custody pursuant to a voluntary placement agreement signed by their parents.

Defendants, all sued in their official capacities, are Angelo McClain, DCF Commissioner; Judyann Bigby, Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (“EOHHS”), which oversees DCF; and Governor Deval Patrick.

Plaintiffs allege that approximately 8,500 children in DCF custody are exposed to severe potential harm, including: abuse and neglect by foster care parents; movement from one foster home to another with damaging frequency; placement in foster homes ill-suited to address their particular needs; languishing for years without permanent placement and then “aging out” of DCF custody without a permanent family or adequate preparation for adult life; and a lack of essential services, including sibling visitation and adequate medical, dental, mental health, and educational services. (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 164–214.)

Plaintiffs allege that these harms result from systemic deficiencies within DCF, including failure to maintain an adequately staffed and appropriately trained child welfare workforce; failure to properly manage foster care placements; failure to properly develop and implement case plans and service plans for foster children and their families; and failure to access available federal funding. (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 215–298.)

Plaintiffs bring this class action seeking an equitable remedy to these alleged failures in the Massachusetts foster care system. The complaint comprises four counts. Counts I, II, and IV allege violations of Plaintiffs' rights under the United States Constitution, namely, Plaintiffs' substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment; Plaintiffs' liberty interests, privacy interests, and associational rights under the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments; and Plaintiffs' procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Count III alleges multiple violations of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 670 et seq. (“AACWA”).

Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief requiring DCF to implement the following reforms:

1. Decrease caseworker caseloads;

2. Improve caseworker training;

3. Comply with recommendations of qualified professionals to improve essential services for the Plaintiff class;

4. Increase monitoring by caseworkers of the Plaintiff class;

5. Provide adequate visitation for the Plaintiff class members with their parents and siblings;

6. Prepare timely case plans and case reviews;

7. Maintain a quality assurance system consistent with national standards;

8. Ensure that an adequately staffed and trained contract monitoring unit is created within the state's central office for purposes of overseeing and managing the purchased services of the agency; and

9. Pay foster care reimbursement rates as set forth in the AACWA.

(Compl., Prayer for Relief (e).) In addition, Plaintiffs ask that the court appoint a neutral expert to oversee the implementation of these reforms. ( Id.)


Defendants now move to dismiss all four counts in the complaint. Although Defendant Patrick filed a separate motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 17), his arguments run parallel with those offered by the other Defendants in their joint motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 18). The court will therefore address Defendant Patrick's arguments in the context of the joint motion to dismiss.

In addition to attacking the sufficiency of Plaintiffs' allegations, Defendants offer three threshold arguments: (1) Plaintiffs lack standing; (2) the court should abstain from hearing the case pursuant to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971); and (3) the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars all claims as to Defendant Patrick. The court will address these issues before turning to the sufficiency of the complaint's factual allegations supporting Plaintiffs' constitutional and statutory claims.

A. Standing.

In accordance with Article III of the United States Constitution, a plaintiff must have standing to bring a claim before a federal court. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–561, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). To satisfy Article III's standing requirement, a plaintiff must assert (1) an injury in fact that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent; (2) a causal connection between the above injury and a defendant's conduct; and (3) a likelihood that judicial relief will redress the above injury. Id. In cases involving requests for injunctive relief, the plaintiff must satisfy an additional requirement by alleging an immediate threat of future injury. See City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 111, 103 S.Ct. 1660, 75 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983). While the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing standing, “at the pleading stage, general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct may suffice, for on a motion to dismiss we presume that general allegations embrace those specific facts that are necessary to support the claim.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561, 112 S.Ct. 2130 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

Defendants challenge Plaintiffs' standing on two grounds: (1) Plaintiffs fail to establish a causal connection between the harms suffered and the systemic deficiencies alleged; and (2) Plaintiffs cannot prove an immediate threat of future injury.

1. Causal Connection.

Defendants' principal contention is that Plaintiffs fail to “establish a link between the systemic class relief that they seek and any actual harm allegedly suffered by the six named plaintiffs.” (Dkt. No. 29, Defs.' Reply Mem. at 16.) Defendants highlight several alleged systemic deficiencies recited in the complaint, including unmanageable caseloads and infrequent contact between social workers and the Plaintiff class. Because these claims amount to “generalized complaints of institutional mismanagement,” they argue, Plaintiffs cannot satisfy the element of causation. ( Id. at 24 (citation omitted).)

Defendants' arguments are unpersuasive. Under the second prong of the Lujan test, a plaintiff need not allege that the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, but merely that the injury was “fairly traceable” to the challenged action of the defendant. Lujan, 504 U.S. at 590, 112 S.Ct. 2130; see also Focus on the Family v. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Auth., 344 F.3d 1263, 1273 (11th Cir.2003) (“Importantly, in evaluating Article III's causation (or ‘traceability’) requirement, we are concerned with something less than the concept of ‘proximate cause.’ ... [E]ven harms that flow indirectly from the action in question can be said to be ‘fairly traceable’ to that action for standing purposes.”). The alleged misconduct at issue here includes an understaffed and improperly trained workforce, infrequent contact between children and caseworkers, an inability to provide children with basic health and educational services, failure to develop and implement case plans, and a lack of resources due to DCF's inability to secure federal funding. (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 215–298.) Assuming all of Plaintiffs' allegations to be true, as the court must at this stage, it is at least arguably clear that the harms suffered by children in DCF custody are fairly traceable to these systemic failures within DCF.

Contrary to Defendants' assertions, Plaintiffs need not prove with specificity at this stage how every harm suffered by every named Plaintiff relates to a particular defect in the system. Cf. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357, 116 S.Ct. 2174, 135 L.Ed.2d 606 (“The general allegations of...

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