Watley v. Dep't of Children & Families

Decision Date22 March 2021
Docket NumberAugust Term, 2020,Docket No. 20-277
Parties Joseph WATLEY, Karin Hasemann, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES, Joette Katz, Vannessa Dorantes, Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Defendants- Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

DAN BARRETT, ACLU Foundation of Connecticut (Elana Bildner, on the brief), Hartford, CT, for Plaintiffs-Appellants Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann.

JANE R. ROSENBERG, Assistant Attorney General (Alayna Stone, Assistant Attorney General, Clare Kindall, Solicitor General, on the brief) for William Tong, Attorney General of the State of Connecticut, Hartford, CT, for Defendants-Appellees Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, and Vannessa Dorantes.

Audra J. Soloway, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP (Robert N. Kravitz, on the brief), New York, NY, for Amici Curiae Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders, Center for Family Representation, Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Disability Rights Advocates, Legal Assistance of Western New York, Sarah H. Lorr, Neighborhood Defender Services, New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic, Office of Monroe County Public Defender, Robyn M. Powell, and the Vermont Parent Representation Center in Support of Plaintiffs-Appellants Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann.

Before: POOLER, PARKER, and LYNCH, Circuit Judges.

POOLER, Circuit Judge:

This case involves a serious and complicated eleven-year history of child custody disputes in Connecticut state courts. Karin Hasemann and Joseph Watley appeal from the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut's (Robert N. Chatigny, J. ) dismissal of their claims alleging that Connecticut's Department of Children and Families ("DCF"), its former Commissioner Joette Katz, and its current Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes, terminated their parental rights in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131 -34, the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to Section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as the dismissal of their request for injunctive relief. They argue that the issues of whether DCF complied with the ADA and RA and whether DCF made reasonable efforts to reunify them with their children are not identical to the issues litigated in state court, and that the issue of DCF's compliance with the ADA and RA was not actually litigated.

We disagree. Under both federal and Connecticut law, the issue at the core of the parties’ dispute is whether DCF reasonably accommodated Hasemann and Watley's actual or perceived disabilities in providing services and programs to assist their reunification with their children. This issue was actually litigated and necessarily determined by Connecticut courts. The district court correctly granted DCF's motion to dismiss on collateral estoppel grounds.

I. Factual History

Hasemann is Kristina's biological mother. Hasemann and Watley are the biological parents of Joseph Jr. and Daniel. Watley v. Dep't of Child. & Families , No. 3:13-cv-1858, 2019 WL 7067043, at *3 (D. Conn. Dec. 23, 2019). DCF is the Connecticut agency responsible for responding to reports of child abuse and neglect. Id.

Hasemann "suffers from severe narcolepsy

" and alleges that "DCF ... contends" that she suffers from an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, major depression, a schizotypal personality disorder, and an antisocial personality disorder. App'x at 17-18. Narcolepsy is a "chronic neurological disorder caused by the brain's inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles" that can cause "excessive daytime sleepiness ... vivid hallucinations during sleep onset or upon awakening, and brief episodes of total paralysis." Nat'l Inst. of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Narcolepsy Information Page , https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Narcolepsy-Information-Page (last modified Mar. 27, 2019). Watley is disabled from a spinal injury and alleges that DCF contends that he suffers from a personality disorder.

Between 2002 and 2013, DCF pursued neglect proceedings, and later sought to terminate Hasemann's parental rights. DCF first became involved with Hasemann in October 2002, when Hasemann gave birth to Kristina. The hospital contacted DCF after Hasemann "insisted [Kristina] was a boy, [that Kristina] had a heart attack, and [that Kristina] should be fed in an unusual and inappropriate pattern even though the food intake for [Kristina, a] premature baby was crucial." Watley , 2019 WL 7067043, at *4 (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted). DCF invoked an emergency 96-hour hold pursuant to Section 17a-101g(e) and (f) of Connecticut's general statutes, authorizing it to remove a child without parental consent if it has probable cause to believe the child is in imminent risk of physical harm and immediate removal is necessary to ensure the child's safety. DCF also filed a petition for neglect in state court. In state court, DCF sought and received an order of temporary custody.

Pursuant to Section 46b-129 of Connecticut's general statutes, the state court issued preliminary steps Hasemann needed to follow to regain custody of Kristina. These steps included, among other things: keeping all appointments set by or with DCF, participating in counseling and making progress toward identified treatment goals, cooperating with court-ordered evaluations and testing, signing releases authorizing DCF to communicate with services providers, and visiting the children as often as DCF permits. In 2004, the court adjudicated Kristina as neglected and sometime thereafter, DCF filed a termination of parental rights petition. In 2007, the state court terminated Hasemann's parental rights to Kristina after a trial.

After Hasemann and Watley had Joseph Jr. in July 2005 and Daniel in July 2006, DCF filed petitions in state court alleging neglect based on a theory of predictive neglect. Predictive neglect allows a court to terminate a parent's rights if it is "more likely than not" that the child under their care will be "denied proper care and attention physically, educationally, emotionally, or morally." Watley , 2019 WL 7067043, at *4 (internal quotation marks omitted). Some academic scholars criticize the predictive neglect theory as "effectively discriminatory and severely disadvantageous for parents with psychiatric disabilities." Id. n.8 (citation omitted).

Joseph Jr. was born in Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania authorities removed him from Hasemann and Watley's custody due to Hasemann's "bizarre" behavior. In re Joseph W., Jr. , 53 Conn. Supp. 1, 35-36, 79 A.3d 155 (2013), aff'd , 146 Conn. App. 468, 78 A.3d 276 (2013), cert. denied , 310 Conn. 950, 81 A.3d 1179 (2013) (hereinafter, "the 2013 Decision"). Hasemann provided inaccurate information regarding her financial status and housing, indicating that she was building a mansion in Alabama and had secured a pediatrician there, which the alleged pediatrician denied. This led Pennsylvania authorities to secure an emergency protective custody order from a Pennsylvania court. Because Hasemann and Watley are Connecticut residents, the order indicated that Connecticut would assume custody once a Connecticut state court entered a custody order. DCF then took custody of Joseph Jr. pursuant to a state court order and the court set specific steps for Hasemann and Watley to follow in order to regain custody.

Daniel was born in Connecticut and removed by DCF under a 96-hour hold. After DCF moved for a temporary custody order and the court scheduled a contested hearing, Hasemann and Watley consented to DCF maintaining temporary custody.

In December 2007, DCF filed termination of parental rights petitions for Joseph Jr. and Daniel. The state court terminated Hasemann and Watley's parental rights after a trial in October 2008. Connecticut's appellate court reversed because Watley "had not been given an adequate opportunity to contest a finding of neglect." Watley , 2019 WL 7067043, at *5 (citation omitted). In 2011, the Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's decision and remanded the case for a new trial. On remand, the trial court conducted a second trial and again terminated Hasemann and Watley's parental rights. This judgment was also reversed on appeal. The Connecticut Supreme Court again remanded for a new trial, holding that the trial court applied the wrong standard of proof for determining predictive neglect. The trial court held a third trial in December 2012 in which it again terminated Hasemann and Watley's parental rights (the "2013 Decision"). The appellate court affirmed this decision, and Connecticut's Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Hasemann and Watley's actual or perceived disabilities were at issue during each of the state court proceedings. Hasemann and Watley "denied having any disability and resisted having to cooperate with DCF and comply with court-ordered specific steps," Watley , 2019 WL 7067043, at *2, but they nevertheless requested an ADA coordinator's presence, which the state trial court denied. Id. On appeal from the second termination order, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that "ADA violations are not a defense to neglect or termination proceedings, and that there is no authority for the proposition that the ADA requires trial courts to provide disabled parents with ADA coordinators ... because the ADA does not create special obligations in either termination or neglect proceedings." In re Joseph W. , 53 Conn. Supp. at 11, 79 A.3d 155 (citing In re Joseph W., Jr. , 305 Conn. 633, 650, 46 A.3d 59 (2012) ).

The 2013 Decision notes several findings by the trial court related to Hasemann's actual or perceived disabilities, including that:

"[a]lthough [DCF] referred [Hasemann] to multiple resources and providers from

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