Danny B. ex rel. Elliott v. Raimondo

Decision Date21 April 2015
Docket NumberNo. 14–1585.,14–1585.
PartiesDANNY B., by next friend Gregory C. ELLIOTT, and Cassie M., by next friend Kymberli Irons, for Themselves and Those Similarly Situated, Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. Gina M. RAIMONDO,in her official capacity as Governor of the State of Rhode Island, et al., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

William Kapell, with whom Ira Lustbader, Children's Rights, John W. Dineen, Jared Bobrow, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP were on brief, for appellants.

Neil F.X. Kelly, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Peter F. Kilmartin, Attorney General, and Brenda D. Baum, Assistant Attorney General, were on brief, for appellees.

Before SELYA, Circuit Judge, SOUTER,** Associate Justice, and LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.


SELYA, Circuit Judge.

The management of complex litigation presents challenges that test the mettle of even the most able trial judge. Given the rigors of this task, we have ceded substantial discretion to the district courts with respect to case management decisions. But that discretion, though wide, is not boundless.

In the case at hand, two case management orders crossed this line: an order that totally denied plaintiffs' counsel access to their own clients and an order that prevented the plaintiffs from seeking plainly relevant discovery. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment below and remand for further proceedings.


The background facts are set out in exegetic detail in a prior opinion of this court and in the opinion of the court below. See Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 608 F.3d 77 (1st Cir.2010) ; Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee (Cassie III), 16 F.Supp.3d 33 (D.R.I.2014). We assume the reader's familiarity with those narratives and rehearse here only the events that bear directly on the issues sub judice.

This putative class action was brought on behalf of ten foster children in the custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). Because the plaintiffs were minors, the initiators of the suit sought to appear as their next friends under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17.

The complaint designated as defendants, in their official capacities, a coterie of state officials (collectively, the State). It sought certification of a class of all minor children who were in (or might enter) DCYF custody based on a report or suspicion of abuse or neglect. Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the complaint prayed for declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of the named plaintiffs and the putative class.

The gravamen of the complaint was the allegation that DCYF's failings expose foster children in its custody to an unreasonable risk of harm in violation of their substantive due process rights. Relatedly, the complaint averred that the State had failed to comply in various respects with the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 620 –628, 670 –679a.

The State moved to dismiss the complaint, and the district court obliged. The court's principal rationale was that the proposed next friends did not satisfy Rule 17's requirements.1 See Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 610 F.Supp.2d 171, 181–84 (D.R.I.2009). On appeal, we deemed it fitting that foster children be afforded access to a federal forum to seek redress against their custodian. See Sam M., 608 F.3d at 91–92. After evaluating the qualifications of the proposed next friends, we concluded that they were suitable representatives. See id. at 92–94.

On remand, the case was transferred to a different trier. See D.R.I. R. 105(b). The State again moved to dismiss, this time invoking Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Although the district court dismissed as moot the claims of five more plaintiffs, it allowed the case to proceed. See Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Chafee, 800 F.Supp.2d 363, 389 (D.R.I.2011). The court then invited the parties to submit updated briefing on the plaintiffs' motion for class certification (which had been filed with the complaint). Later, however, the court advised the parties that it would not address class certification until it had decided dispositive motions on the individual claims.

Concerned about the ravages of mootness, the district court allowed the filing of an amended complaint adding five new plaintiffs. The court then denied without prejudice the motion for class certification.

Pretrial discovery frequently proved contentious, taxing the patience of the district judge and the magistrate judge. Although their efforts bordered on the heroic, we eschew a blow-by-blow account and, instead, fast-forward through seven months of discovery to October 23, 2012. On that date—with an array of unfulfilled discovery requests and motions to compel pending—the State moved for a protective order aimed at limiting the scope of discovery. Its principal thesis was that the plaintiffs were entitled only to information pertaining directly to the named plaintiffs. For example, it objected to many of the plaintiffs' discovery requests on the ground that the information sought went beyond the case files of the individual plaintiffs and, therefore, was not relevant.

The district judge referred the motion to the magistrate judge, who allowed the protective order in part. See Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee (Cassie I ), No. 07–241, slip op. at 3 (D.R.I. Dec. 17, 2012) (unpublished). His rescript explained that, in light of the district judge's plan to address the claims of the individual plaintiffs on summary judgment before addressing class certification, discovery should be limited to information bearing upon those claims. See id. at 2. No separate order was entered delineating the modified scope of discovery, but the magistrate judge directed the parties to confer in an attempt to narrow their disputes in light of his decision. As a result, the plaintiffs provisionally withdrew portions of their motions to compel.

The plaintiffs appealed the protective order to the district judge, who upheld it. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). Thereafter, the magistrate judge ruled on a number of lingering discovery issues. His decision confirmed that the protective order “effectively precluded [the plaintiffs] from seeking policy or practice discovery.” Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee (Cassie II ), No. 07–241, 2013 WL 785621, at *2 (D.R.I. Mar. 1, 2013). This depiction was consistent with the way in which the plaintiffs had characterized the protective order in their appeal to the district judge.

Another development transpired while the parties were sparring over the scope of discovery. On February 26, 2013, the plaintiffs renewed their motion for class certification. They argued that the district judge's reluctance to decide the class certification issue was causing substantial prejudice because the claims of ten plaintiffs already had become moot and several more plaintiffs would soon age out of DCYF custody. Following procedural skirmishing not relevant here, the district judge again declined to address class certification and allowed the State to delay a response to the class certification motion until fourteen days after any summary judgment decision.

On July 24, 2013, the district judge performed an about-face. At a status conference, the judge voiced concerns about how long it was taking to bring the case to a head. She suggested that the most efficient course of action would be to dispense with dispositive motions and proceed directly to trial. Acting on her own suggestion, the judge declared that she would set the case for trial on the individual claims without awaiting summary judgment motions.

The plaintiffs objected and moved for various kinds of relief. Pertinently, they implored the district judge to postpone any trial, take up the issue of class certification, and reopen discovery so that they could obtain the policy and custom evidence that had been foreclosed by the protective order. The judge rejected these importunings. Citing the fact that the plaintiffs had been able to depose certain DCYF policymakers, she stated that she “believe[d] that the Plaintiffs had an opportunity and have received evidence and discovery on the question of [DCYF's] policies, procedures, [and] customs.” In regard to her unwillingness to address class certification, the judge noted that the plaintiffs were required to prove that their constitutional and statutory rights were being violated and reasoned that such a determination could more expeditiously be made in the context of their individual claims before allowing class-wide discovery.

With an unwanted trial looming, plaintiffs' counsel asked the State to facilitate meetings with their clients. The State demurred, making plain that it would not provide any contact information without a court order. On August 29, 2013, the plaintiffs moved to compel the State to allow plaintiffs' counsel and the next friends to meet with the plaintiffs for purposes of trial preparation.2 The State objected.

At the ensuing hearing, the district judge stated that she viewed the motion for access as a veiled attempt to obtain fact discovery beyond the discovery deadline. When the judge asked whether the named plaintiffs would be called as witnesses, counsel replied that they could not make that determination without meeting with their clients. The judge proceeded to deny the motion, effectively preventing plaintiffs' counsel from speaking with their clients in advance of trial.

By the time that the trial commenced on November 12, 2013, the claims of all but two of the named plaintiffs (Danny B. and Cassie M.) had been rendered moot through aging or adoption. When the plaintiffs rested, the State moved for judgment on partial findings. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(c). The district judge took the matter under advisement and, after receiving post-trial briefing, concluded that the plaintiffs had presented insufficient evidence to establish that DCYF's policies and customs had either harmed them or exposed them to an unreasonable risk of...

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