Durnell v. Holcomb

Decision Date12 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 3:19-cv-00129-RLY-MPB,3:19-cv-00129-RLY-MPB
Citation467 F.Supp.3d 644
Parties ASHLEY W. and Betty W, minors, BY NEXT FRIEND, Denise DURNELL, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Eric HOLCOMB, in his official capacity as the Governor of Indiana, Terry Stigdon, in her official capacity as the Director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, and Department of Child Services, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Indiana

Aaron Harvey Marks, Pro Hac Vice, Kara Eileen Cheever, Pro Hac Vice, Carrie J. Bodner, Pro Hac Vice, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Allison Mahoney, Pro Hac Vice, Anastasia Benedetto, Pro Hac Vice, Erin C. Gallagher, Pro Hac Vice, Marcia Robinson Lowry, Pro Hac Vice, Sarah Jaffe, A Better Childhood, New York, NY, Kristen L. Bokhan, Pro Hac Vice, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Washington, DC, Melissa Keyes, Nikki G. Gray, Indiana Disability Rights, Indianapolis, IN, for Plaintiffs.

Dylan Pittman, John R. Maley, Justin Curtis Greene, Leah Lewis Seigel, Peter J. Rusthoven, Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, Indianapolis, IN, for Defendants.



Federal courts have a duty to decide cases before them. Sometimes they refrain from exercising jurisdiction when doing so would interfere with ongoing state proceedings or would upset state-court judgments. But those exceptions are just that: exceptions. Federal courts cannot refuse to entertain cases, even when the subject matter involves parallel state-court proceedings.

This case tests the limits. This proposed class action concerns Indiana's child welfare system and its purported shortcomings. The plaintiffs are all children under the custody of Indiana's Department of Child Services ("DCS"). They bring this lawsuit against DCS; the director of DCS, Terry Stigdon; and the Governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb. Plaintiffs allege Defendants violated their constitutional rights by failing to protect them from harm and failing to honor their right to familial integrity when placing them into foster care. Plaintiffs also allege Defendants violated their rights to a case plan and case review system under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. And a sub-class of Plaintiffs contend Defendants discriminated against them in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Defendants urge this court to dismiss Plaintiffs claims altogether. They insist the court lacks jurisdiction because resolving Plaintiffs’ claims would interfere with the children's state court cases. They also say Plaintiffs fail to state a claim under any of their theories. The court agrees with respect to Plaintiffs’ claim under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act but disagrees with respect to the rest of Defendants’ assertions. Accordingly, Defendantsmotion to dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. Background

The court takes the facts from the complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, accepting all well-pleaded facts as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in their favor. Viamedia, Inc. v. Comcast Corporation , 951 F.3d 429, 454 (7th Cir. 2020).

The named Plaintiffs—Ashley W., Betty W., Milo S., Thomas M., Jaidyn R., James M., Logan S., Sara O., Desmond C., and Braxton F.—are all children under the custody of DCS. (Filing No. 16-1, Amended Class Action Complaint ("Complaint") ¶¶ 14 – 27). Some currently reside in foster homes pursuant to a court order, (id. ¶¶ 14 – 19), while others reside in private facilities. (Id. ¶¶ 20 – 27). All but two Plaintiffs1 have next friends who have appeared on their behalf. (Id. ¶¶ 14 – 27). And all Plaintiffs have pending Child in Need of Services (CHINS) proceedings in state court. (See generally Filing No. 40, Docket Sheets related to CHINS cases).2

A little more about Defendants. Governor Holcomb and Director Stigdon are both sued in their official capacity. (Id. ¶¶ 28, 30). Governor Holcomb appoints the director of DCS and has the authority to shape the policies and coordination of DCS. See Ind. Code § 31-25-1-1 ; see also Ind. Exec. Order No. 05-15 (2005). Director Stigdon administers DCS. Ind. Code § 31-25-1-1(b). DCS is the state agency responsible for providing child and family services, including abuse and neglect prevention services. See generally Ind. Code § 31-25-2-7 (describing the powers and duties of DCS).

Plaintiffs allege a laundry list of failures by Defendants. They contend Defendants failed to protect Indiana's foster children from physical, psychological, and emotional harm; failed to place them in appropriate homes within a reasonable period of time; failed to provide foster care placements and individualized services that ensure their well-being; and failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the success of trial home visits. (Complaint ¶ 42). Plaintiffs also maintain Defendants unnecessarily separate siblings when placing children into homes and fail to take steps to ensure siblings have contact with one another after they are placed. (Id. ). A subclass of Plaintiffs also allege Defendants have discriminated against them on account of their disabilities. (Id. ). These Plaintiffs assert Defendants deprived them of the necessary services and treatments to ensure a stable, family-like foster placement; denied them the benefit of Indiana's services, programs, or activities in an appropriate environment; and failed to reasonably modify the system to accommodate children with disabilities. (Id. ).

II. Discussion

This lawsuit commenced on June 25, 2019. Plaintiffs assert Defendants’ actions violated (1) Plaintiffs’ right to be free from harm under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) their right to familial association under the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments; and (3) their right to a developed case plan and case review system under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (the "Adoption Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 670 et seq. (Id. ¶ 78). A subclass of Plaintiffs allege Defendants violated their right to be free from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq. (Id. ).

Defendants offer two general reasons why Plaintiffs’ Complaint should be dismissed. First, Defendants argue the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to consider Plaintiffs’ claims because two abstention doctrines bar them. Second, even if the court has jurisdiction, Defendants insist Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under any of their theories.

A. Dismissal for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Defendants first challenge this court's jurisdiction. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Federal courts have a duty to interpret the law and apply it to cases before them. Patchak v. Zinke , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 897, 904, 200 L.Ed.2d 92 (2018) (plurality opinion); see also Kisor v. Wilkie , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 2400, 2437, 204 L.Ed.2d 841 (2019) (Gorsuch, J. concurring in the judgment). This obligation to exercise jurisdiction is "virtually unflagging," Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States , 424 U.S. 800, 817, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976), and continues even when parallel state court proceedings exist. Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs , 571 U.S. 69, 77, 134 S.Ct. 584, 187 L.Ed.2d 505 (2013).

But federal courts sometimes decline to exercise jurisdiction even when they are otherwise authorized to proceed. See Browder v. City of Albuquerque , 787 F.3d 1076, 1084 (10th Cir. 2015) (Gorsuch, J. concurring) (citation omitted) ("Federal courts often abstain when they otherwise might proceed out of respect for comity and federalism and the absence of any compelling need for their services."). This is known as abstention. Hi Tech Trans, LLC v. New Jersey , 382 F.3d 295, 303 (3d. Cir. 2004) ("Abstention is a judicially created doctrine under which a federal court will decline to exercise its jurisdiction so that a state court or agency will have the opportunity to decide the matters at issue.") (citations and internal quotations omitted). Although there are a number of circumstances when it is appropriate, abstention remains the exception to the general rule of exercising jurisdiction. Colorado River , 424 U.S. at 813, 96 S.Ct. 1236 (noting abstention is the exception); Hi Tech Trans, LLC , 382 F.3d at 303 (noting abstention is appropriate in only certain circumstances).

Defendants contend this court lacks jurisdiction under the Supreme Court's decisions in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co. , 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923) and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman , 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983) —known as Rooker - Feldman abstention. Defendants also argue this court lacks jurisdiction under the Court's decision in Younger v. Harris , 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971) —known as Younger abstention. The court rejects both arguments.

1. Rooker-Feldman Does Not Bar Plaintiffs’ Claims

Under Rooker - Feldman , courts decline to exercise jurisdiction over cases when doing so would interfere with state-court orders. Bauer v. Koester , 951 F.3d 863, 866 (7th Cir. 2020). Rooker - Feldman prevents state court losers from challenging state court judgments in federal court. Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue , 940 F.3d 387, 392 (7th Cir. 2019). Abstention under Rooker - Feldman is appropriate when the injury complained of flows directly from the state court order. Bauer , 951 F.3d at 866 (" Rooker - Feldman bars review of claims that allege injury caused by a state-court order.") (citing Swartz , 940 F.3d at 391 ).

Rooker - Feldman does not apply here. Plaintiffs are not challenging the state-court custody orders themselves; they are challenging Defendants’ actions and policies that led to those orders. See Brokaw v. Weaver , 305 F.3d 660, 662 (7th Cir. 2002) (holding district court erred in abstaining under Rooker - Feldman when a federal plaintiff challenged the actions of the...

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