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Johnson v. Child Protective Services

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 14, 2016

JEFFREY PAUL JOHNSON, JANETH SENO JOHNSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES, Defendant.

          ORDER

          EDMUND F. BRENNAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiffs seek leave to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1915.[1] Their declaration makes the showing required by 28 U.S.C. §1915(a)(1) and (2). See ECF No. 2. Accordingly, the request to proceed in forma pauperis is granted. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a).

         Determining that plaintiffs may proceed in forma pauperis does not complete the required inquiry. Pursuant to § 1915(e)(2), the court must dismiss the case at any time if it determines the allegation of poverty is untrue, or if the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against an immune defendant.

         Although pro se pleadings are liberally construed, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972), a complaint, or portion thereof, should be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails to set forth “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554, 562-563 (2007) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). “[A] plaintiff’s obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitlement to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action’s elements will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the complaint’s allegations are true.” Id. (citations omitted). Dismissal is appropriate based either on the lack of cognizable legal theories or the lack of pleading sufficient facts to support cognizable legal theories. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep’t, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990).

         In reviewing a complaint under this standard, the court must accept as true the allegations of the complaint in question, Hospital Bldg. Co. v. Rex Hosp. Trustees, 425 U.S. 738, 740 (1976), construe the pleading in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and resolve all doubts in the plaintiff’s favor, Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421 (1969). A pro se plaintiff must satisfy the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 8(a)(2) “requires a complaint to include a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 554, 562-563 (2007) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)).

         Additionally, a federal court is a court of limited jurisdiction, and may adjudicate only those cases authorized by the Constitution and by Congress. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). The basic federal jurisdiction statutes, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 & 1332, confer “federal question” and “diversity” jurisdiction, respectively. Federal question jurisdiction requires that the complaint (1) arise under a federal law or the U.S. Constitution, (2) allege a “case or controversy” within the meaning of Article III, § 2 of the U.S. Constitution, or (3) be authorized by a federal statute that both regulates a specific subject matter and confers federal jurisdiction. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 198 (1962). To invoke the court’s diversity jurisdiction, a plaintiff must specifically allege the diverse citizenship of all parties, and that the matter in controversy exceeds $75, 000. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a); Bautista v. Pan American World Airlines, Inc., 828 F.2d 546, 552 (9th Cir. 1987). A case presumably lies outside the jurisdiction of the federal courts unless demonstrated otherwise. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 376-78. Lack of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time by either party or by the court. Attorneys Trust v. Videotape Computer Products, Inc., 93 F.3d 593, 594-95 (9th Cir. 1996).

         The complaint alleges that plaintiffs’ four children were wrongfully removed from their care by defendant Child Protective Services (“CPS”) based on false allegations that plaintiff Jeffrey Johnson, the children’s father, engaged in sexual abuse of the children. ECF No. 1 at 1-2. Since the children’s placement in foster care, the father has not been permitted to see the children due to the state court allegedly ignoring his requests for visitations. Id. at 3. The complaint further alleges that the children have been abused and their basic needs neglected by CPS and their foster parents. Id. at 4, 7. Plaintiffs also allege that CPS made false representations to the Social Security Administration to take away from the father social security benefits belonging to the children. Id. at 8. In addition to seeking damages, the complaint requests that plaintiffs’ children be returned to their mother. Id. at 11-12.

         The complaint purports to assert claims against defendant Child Protective Services under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. ECF No. 1 at 1. Plaintiffs’ allegations indicate that a dispute regarding the custody of their children is still pending in state court. Thus, under the Younger abstention doctrine, plaintiffs must use the available state court process to appeal or challenge the decisions made by the state court. Younger v. Harris held that federal courts should not enjoin pending state criminal proceedings except under extraordinary circumstances. 401 U.S. 37, 49, 53 (1971). The Younger doctrine has since been extended to civil actions. See Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 965, 971-72 (9th Cir. 2004) (en banc). Therefore, federal courts ordinarily must refrain from exercising jurisdiction in actions for injunctive or declaratory relief that would interfere with pending state judicial proceedings. See Gilbertson, 381 F.3d at 975, 978. In the Ninth Circuit, Younger abstention prevents a court from exercising jurisdiction when three criteria are met: 1) there are ongoing state judicial proceedings; 2) an important state interest is involved; and 3) there is an adequate opportunity to raise the federal question at issue in the state proceedings. H.C. ex rel. Gordon v. Koppel, 203 F.3d 610, 613 (9th Cir. 2000). Further, a court may consider sua sponte whether Younger abstention should be invoked. See id.

         It appears from the complaint that these factors are met in this case. Plaintiffs’ allegations indicate that a child custody action is pending in state court that involved the same custody dispute raised in this complaint. Thus, it appears this court lacks jurisdiction over this action. Plaintiffs, however, will be given leave to file an amended complaint explaining, if they can, why the Younger abstention doctrine does not apply to this case.

         If the state court proceedings have concluded, but were resolved adversely to plaintiffs, federal jurisdiction would still be lacking over matters decided by the state court. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal district court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear an appeal from the judgment of a state court. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283-84 (2005); see also Dist. of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415 (1923). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars jurisdiction in federal district court if the exact claims raised in a state court case are raised in the subsequent federal case, or if the constitutional claims presented to the district court are “inextricably intertwined” with the state court’s denial of relief. Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam, 334 F.3d 895, 898-99 (9th Cir. 2003) (quoting Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n. 16). Rooker-Feldman thus bars federal adjudication of any suit where a plaintiff alleges an injury based on a state court judgment or directly appeals a state court’s decision. Id. at 900 n. 4.

         The district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction either to conduct a direct review of a state court judgment or to scrutinize the state court’s application of various rules and procedures pertaining to the state case. Samuel v. Michaud, 980 F.Supp. 1381, 1411-12 (D. Idaho 1996), aff’d, 129 F.3d 127 (9th Cir. 1997); see also Branson v. Nott, 62 F.3d 287, 291-92 (9th Cir.1995) (finding no subject matter jurisdiction over section 1983 claim seeking, inter alia, implicit reversal of state trial court action). “That the federal district court action alleges the state court’s action was unconstitutional does not change the rule.” Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486. In sum, “a state court’s application of its rules and procedures is unreviewable by a federal district court. The federal district court only has jurisdiction to hear general challenges to state rules or claims that are based on the investigation of a new case arising upon new facts.” Samuel, 980 F.Supp. at 1412-13.

         In addition, and perhaps more fundamentally, federal district courts have no jurisdiction over child custody issues, which are exclusively matters of state law. See Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 702-704 (1992) (holding that the domestic relations exception to federal subject matter jurisdiction “divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony and child custody decrees.”).

         Aside from the jurisdictional hurdle, the complaint also fails to state a claim for relief upon which relief may be granted. The complaint purports to allege claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendant CPS for violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. See ECF No. 1 at 1. “Municipalities and other local government units . . . [are] among those persons to whom § 1983 applies.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). However, a municipal entity or its departments, is liable under § 1983 only if plaintiff shows that his constitutional injury was caused by employees acting pursuant to the municipality’s policy or custom. See Villegas v. Gilroy Garlic Festival Ass’n, 541 F.3d 950, 964 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing 436 U.S. at 690-94). “[A]n act performed pursuant to a ‘custom’ that has not been formally approved by an appropriate decisionmaker may fairly subject a municipality to liability on the theory that the relevant practice is so widespread as to have the force of law.” Board of Cty. Comm’rs. of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997). A local governmental entity may also be liable if it has a “policy of inaction and such inaction amounts to a failure to protect constitutional rights.” Oviatt v. Pearce, 954 F.2d 1470, 1474 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989)); see also Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91. The custom or policy of inaction, however, must be the result of a “conscious, ” City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 389, or “‘deliberate choice to follow a course of action . . . made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question.’” Oviatt, 954 F.2d at 1477 (quoting Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986) (plurality opinion)).

         Plaintiffs’ complaint does not allege a constitutional violation based on a policy or custom. Accordingly, plaintiffs fail to state ...


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