Kline v. Cleveland Cnty., DOCKET NO. 1:19-CV-00197-MOC-WCM

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Western District of North Carolina
Decision Date07 April 2020
Docket NumberDOCKET NO. 1:19-CV-00197-MOC-WCM
PartiesLESLIE E. KLINE, on her own behalf and on behalf of J.T.W., a minor under the age of eighteen, and JEFFERY A. KLINE, Plaintiffs, v. CLEVELAND COUNTY, a local government entity, et al., Defendants.

LESLIE E. KLINE, on her own behalf and on behalf of J.T.W.,
a minor under the age of eighteen, and JEFFERY A. KLINE, Plaintiffs,
CLEVELAND COUNTY, a local government entity, et al., Defendants.

DOCKET NO. 1:19-CV-00197-MOC-WCM


April 7, 2020


THIS MATTER comes before the Court on four Motions to Dismiss. In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs Leslie Kline—on her own behalf and on behalf of J.T.W., her minor child—and Jeffrey Kline, her husband, allege that the Cleveland County Department of Social Services ("DSS"), its employees, and her ex-husband, Johnny White, unlawfully conspired to deprive them of their constitutional right to familial privacy, violating federal law, as well as North Carolina's Constitution and tort law. The Motions to Dismiss—filed by Cleveland County (Doc. No. 44), the DSS employees in their individual capacities (Doc. Nos. 34, 38), and Johnny (Doc. No. 40)—collectively assert that the claims are barred by immunity and that they fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. They also contend that the Amended Complaint is a prohibited shotgun pleading and that Leslie does not have legal capacity to proceed on behalf of her minor child. After oral argument and several rounds of briefing, the motions are ripe for review. As discussed below, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are granted as to Plaintiffs' North Carolina Constitution claims but denied as to Plaintiffs' remaining claims.

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Plaintiffs filed their Amended Complaint against Defendants on August 27, 2019. At this stage, the Court accepts as true the factual allegations contained therein—as well as in its integral, authentic attachments—drawing reasonable inferences in Plaintiffs' favor. See Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009).

Leslie and Johnny were married for about decade, spanning from about 1996 to 2006. See Am. Compl. ¶ 27. Over that time, the couple gave birth to three children, two of whom are central to this lawsuit: Bryan White and J.T.W. See id. ¶ 28. The first sign of trouble arose in May 2006, when Johnny filed for a divorce from bed and board, child custody, and a psychological evaluation of Leslie. See id. ¶ 29. Since then, the two have engaged in a protracted domestic and legal battle. The Amended Complaint copiously details—perhaps too much so—the custody dispute, id. ¶¶ 27-65, 234-303; Johnny's defiance of court orders, id. ¶¶ 40, 65, 72; and the minors' behavioral issues, id. ¶¶ 66-87. The Court summarizes pertinent portions below.

On June 4, 2018, Bryan was staying at the Klines' home. Sometime around four o'clock in the afternoon, he left without permission. Bryan did not return by nine o'clock that evening, so the Klines called the police and reported him missing. Shortly thereafter, officers found him hanging out at the local mall, as teenagers sometimes do. When officers attempted to return Bryan to the Klines' home, he reported that Jeffrey, his stepfather, had hit him. Officers rightly contacted DSS, which opened a child abuse and neglect investigation into the Klines. See id. ¶ 83-90.

When the officers called DSS, they spoke with Defendant Nichole Allen, the attending child protective services social worker. Allen responded to the Klines' home. There, she interviewed the Klines, who informed her of the minors' behavioral problems. Allen also spoke privately with J.T.W. See id. ¶¶ 91-93. At some point, Allen completed a Safety Assessment

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Form, wherein she made two findings. See Doc. No. 17-13. First, she found indications that the minors' "caretaker caused and/or allowed serious physical harm to the children or made a plausible threat to cause serious physical harm in the current assessment." Id. at 1. The form provides several reasons that could be checked, but Allen did not check any of them. Rather, she wrote in a "comments" box that there were "allegations that [the] children have been slapped in the face and shoved against the wall." Id. Second, Allen found indications that the "caretaker does not meet the child's immediate needs for food or clothing." Id. at 2. Again, rather than checking a box, Allen wrote in the "comments" that there was a "disclosure that food is withheld from the children." Id. Neither Allen nor any other DSS employee removed the minors that night. Even so, the Klines allowed Bryan to spend the night with Johnny. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 109-11.

The case was subsequently assigned to Defendant Debi Reece. Id. ¶ 113. On June 7, 2018, Leslie filed a Summons and Petition for Delinquency for the minors with the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. Id. ¶ 130. That day, the Juvenile Court held a hearing, where the minors admitted to leaving the Klines' home without permission, being disrespectful, behaving in an undisciplined manner, and being regularly disobedient. Reece was present when these admissions were made. Id. ¶ 133-34. Based on these admissions, the Court found that the minors were undisciplined and placed them in the custody of DSS pending further review. See Doc. Nos. 17-16 at 2, 17-19 at 2. The Court also ordered that each parent had the right to visitation while the minors were in foster care. See Am. Compl. ¶ 169.

Both before and after the juvenile hearing, Reece investigated the allegations of child abuse. At some point, Reece concluded "there was no substantiation that she could make as to any abuse, neglect, or dependency on Plaintiffs' part." Id. ¶ 202. Reece "communicated her opinion to her supervisor, Defendant [Tamara] Hardin." Id. ¶ 203. Also, on July 3, 2018, Reece

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purportedly visited Plaintiffs, informing them there was "'no evidence' of child abuse or neglect." Id. ¶ 218. Still, she forewarned that "there are politics involved" in the case. Id. ¶ 219. And, on or about July 25, 2018, Plaintiffs received a case decision letter—dated June 13, 2018—indicating the case was "closed as substantiated for neglect . . . due to [the minors] being placed in [DSS] custody through the [juvenile case]." Doc. No. 17-22. Despite her prior assurances that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect, Reece signed the decision. See id.

On August 24, 2019, the Klines wrote a letter to Defendant Karen Pritchard, then-Director of DSS, requesting a review of the decision. Id. ¶ 221. The Klines indicated they had "numerous recordings" making it "clear" that they had "never neglected or harmed [the minors]." Doc. No. 17-25 at 1. Even so, DSS "refus[ed] to listen to the records of the [minors] admitting that [they] would continue doing what they are doing until they get their way." Id. at 3. Pritchard responded that she had "reviewed the matter" and "support[ed] the case decision made." Doc. No. 17-26.

Several case management irregularities allegedly occurred over the course of the investigation. For example, Plaintiffs allege that DSS allowed "Defendant [Pam] Bright and Defendant [Christopher] Lee to continue working on Plaintiffs' case despite their prior friendly relationship with [Johnny] and [his] relatives." Am. Compl. ¶¶ 180, 184-85. DSS also allowed Johnny to independently control decisions regarding the children, including who would serve as the court-ordered parenting counselor. See id. ¶ 194. And just "days prior to the case decision lettering being mailed to Plaintiff, [Reece] received an email from [Johnny]." Id. ¶ 199.

Also, several decisional irregularities supposedly transpired during the investigation. First, according to Plaintiffs, DSS improperly commenced an investigation because Bryan's "allegation [of abuse] was not sufficient to trigger DSS'[s] authority to conduct an investigation." Id. ¶ 140. Second, although DSS was "aware" that the minors had "a propensity to lie" and that they had

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"admitted to leaving [the Klines] home without permission, to being disrespectful to [the Klines], to behaving in an undisciplined manner, and to being regularly disobedient," and although the Klines made DSS "aware of several items of evidence contradicting the child abuse allegations[,] . . . DSS [still] refused to review or to consider" the contrary evidence. Id. ¶¶ 147-53, 161-63.

Beyond these irregularities, the Amended Complaint asserts that DSS violated Leslie's visitation rights. Specifically, even though Leslie had a court-ordered right to visitation while the minors were in DSS custody, DSS "never provided [her] with information about the foster mother" and "made no attempt to assist" her in visitation. Id. ¶¶ 169-72. Instead, Lee indicated that the minors "did not wish to see" her. Id. At the same time, DSS "approved" of Johnny "receiving additional visitation time that exceeded the visitation provided in the Court Order." Id. ¶ 177.

On September 19, 2018, the Juvenile Court's decision was reviewed, and DSS closed its case and terminated its involvement. See id. ¶¶ 227-28. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging that, for about three months, "DSS was intimately involved in Plaintiffs' family affairs and repeatedly interfered with [the Klines'] rights to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of the [minors].'" Id. ¶ 230. Plaintiffs allege they suffered damages from Defendants' actions. First, they assert that Defendants "communicated and/or caused to be communicated to several third parties that [the Klines] were substantiated for child abuse and/or child neglect," which deprived the Klines of the opportunity to see Bryan in the emergency room, and which prevented the Klines from speaking with the minors' medical professionals. Id. ¶¶ 305, 309, 311. Second, Plaintiffs represent that Defendants' actions led to reputational damage and "financial damage due to additional legal fees, medical expenses, [and] lost wages." Id. ¶¶ 315, 318. Finally, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants actions have damaged the Klines' "relationships with the minor children . . . to the point of...

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