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Sahoo v. Gleaton

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 23, 2017

JAMIE GLEATON and KITTY HART, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.


          JAMES C. FOX Senior United States District Judge.

         Before the court is the motion to dismiss filed by Jamie Gleaton and Kitty Hart ("Defendants") pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [DE 23]. Plaintiffs Rachel and Gourab Sahoo responded and Defendants replied. [DEs 32, 42]. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED AS MOOT IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are the parents of a five-year old daughter, MRS, and twin two-year old sons, NES and NGS. This case arises out of a child abuse investigation of Plaintiffs conducted by the Wake County Department of Human Services ("WCHS") and the entry of an order by the Wake County District Court ("state court") temporarily depriving Plaintiffs of the custody of NES and NGS. Am. Compl. ¶¶45, 73 [DE 41]. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed the instant action against Gleaton, an investigator for Wake County Child Protective Services ("CPS"), and Hart, a social worker for WCHS, as a result of their alleged involvement in depriving Plaintiffs of the custody of their boys and of the control of their daughter. Plaintiffs allege a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (count one), two tort claims (counts two and three) and an alternative claim under the North Carolina Constitution. The amended complaint is far from a model of clarity -nor is it a "short and plain statement" as envisioned by Fed.R.Civ.P. 8.[1] Nevertheless, the court finds the pertinent factual assertions are as summarized below.[2]

         A. NES's Hospital Admission and Medical Examinations[3]

         On February 24, 2015, NES - then five months old - was admitted to WakeMed Raleigh due to breathing difficulty. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. The results of an electrocardiogram, electroencephalogram, heart ultrasound and a brain computerized tomography ("CT") scan were normal. Also, no signs of current or past physical injuries were present. NES tested positive, however, for human metapneumovirus - a virus causing respiratory infections in people of all ages, especially young children.[4] Id. ¶ 33. That same day, NES was intubated, transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit ("ICU") and placed on a ventilator. Id. ¶ 33, 34. On February 28, 2015, NES was taken off the ventilator and on March 2, 2015, he was moved to a regular medical floor. Id. ¶ 34. NES remained placed on monitors, intravascular lines and a feeding tube. Id. ¶¶34, 35.

         On March 4, 2015, Plaintiffs were informed that a second radiologist had reviewed NES's February 24, 2015 CT scan and found "bilateral subdural collections." As a result, NES-underwent a full skeletal survey, the results of which indicated "no acute or healing fractures" and "no suspicious calcifications indicating healed fractures." Id. ¶ 39. Records from NES's pediatrician also indicated no evidence of injury. Id. ¶ 40.

         On March 5, 2015, NES underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, the results of which were interpreted as "probably reflect[ing] small thin subdural hematomas." Id. ¶ 41 (alteration in original). A radiologist concluded the MRI results were "consistent with chronic subdural hematomas." Id. ¶ 41. A second radiologist reached the same conclusion. Id. ¶ 42. On March 6, 2015, NES underwent an ophthalmology examination, which revealed "3-4 [scattered retinal] hemorrhages in one layer of [the] retina, near the back of NES's eye."[5] Id. ¶ 44.

         On March 6, 2015, WakeMed notified WCHS of NES's medical results in accordance with North Carolina law, and WCHS in turn assigned Gleaton, a WCHS investigator, to investigate the matter. Id. ¶¶ 1, 45. That same day, Gleaton "deprived [Plaintiffs] of their parental rights" as to all three children and prohibited Plaintiffs from having any contact therewith until further notice by Child Protective Services.[6] Id. ¶¶ 2, 50.

         B. Juvenile Petition and State Court Order

         On March 9, 2015, Gleaton filed a juvenile petition ("Petition") in state court, alleging NES, NGS and MRS had been physically abused. Id. ¶ 3. In the Petition, Gleaton stated that NES's "retinal bleeding coupled with blood in the brain is indicative of traumatic brain injury as a result of [him] having been shaken." Id. ¶ 65. Gleaton stated further that despite Plaintiffs' alleged agreement to have no contact with their three children, Ms. Sahoo "continued to appear at the hospital to see" NES and NGS.[7] Id. ¶ 69. The Petition also included allegations regarding Ms. Sahoo's "mental health issues" and her "violation of [the] 'safety plan.'" Id. ¶¶ 3, 67. The Petition omitted Gleaton's findings contained in the North Carolina Safety Assessment form, wherein she indicated that Plaintiffs were not violent, had not caused NES serious physical harm and had not previously maltreated NES.[8] Id. ¶ 63. The Petition also omitted the findings of . NGS's medical examinations conducted at WakeMed. Id. ¶ 72.

         On March 9, 2015, the state court, upon finding "there are no other reasonable means available to protect the children, " entered an ex parte order granting WCHS custody of NES and NGS. Id. ¶ 4. On March 12, 2015, the state court held a hearing to determine the need for continued custody at which Gleaton testified. Id.¶5. Based on Gleaton's testimony, the court entered an order requiring NES and NGS to remain in WCHS's custody, finding "efforts to prevent the need for the children's placement were precluded by an immediate threat of harm to the children" and "no other reasonable means [were] available to protect the children." Id. The state court did not grant WCHS custody of MRS.[9] Id. ¶¶ 4, 7.

         Between March 9, 2015 and May 22, 2015 ("custody period"), Gleaton, and Kitty Hart -a social worker assigned to the custody matter on March 20, 2015 - exercised control over Plaintiffs' relationship with their children. The children resided at Plaintiffs' home with their maternal grandmother while Plaintiffs resided in an apartment. Id. ¶¶ 8, 57, 82, 84. Gleaton and Hart limited Plaintiffs' visits with all three children "to a handful of... hours per week" with visitations generally limited to two hours or less and under CPS's direct supervision and observation. Id. ¶ 9-10, 76-77. CPS's supervision included "critique[s]" of Plaintiffs' interactions with their children. Id. ¶¶ 10, 77.

         On an unspecified date in May 2015, pediatricians with Duke Medical Center completed a Child Medical Examination of NES, finding the WakeMed medical records did not support the conclusion that NES had been physically abused. Id. ¶ 11. Rather, these pediatricians concluded NES's symptoms "were consistent with natural causes" and "the fact he had been intubated on a breathing machine ... for almost a week." Id. On May 22, 2015, the state court dismissed the Petition and all three children were returned to Plaintiffs' custody and care. Id. at 12.


         A. Standard of Review

         To state a claim for relief, a pleading must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not to resolve conflicts of fact or to decide the merits of the action. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243-44 (4th Cir. 1999). In evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion, a court accepts all well-pled facts in the complaint as true and construes those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009); Adcock v. Freightliner LLC, 550 F.3d 369, 374 (4th Cir. 2008). Legal conclusions, recitations of the elements of a cause of action, and bare assertions devoid of further factual enhancement do not constitute well-pled facts for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Due Process Clause

         Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights. Instead, it provides a remedy to redress violations of federal law grounded in federal constitutional provisions or statutes. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 n.3 (1979). In order to state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege "(1) the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or a federal statute; (2) by a person; (3) acting under color of state law." Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156, 1159-60 (4th Cir. 1997); accord West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Here, the § 1983 claims against Defendants are for the alleged deprivation of "due process of law."

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution affords both procedural and substantive due process of law. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000). "[T]he Constitution recognizes both a protectible [sic] procedural due process interest in parenting a child and a substantive fundamental right to raise one's child." Bartell v. Lohiser, 215 F.3d 550, 557 (6th Cir. 2000).

         To state a substantive due process claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) a liberty (or property) interest; (2) the deprivation of that interest by the state; and (3) "the state's action falls so far beyond the outer limits of legitimate governmental action that no process could cure the deficiency." Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cnty., 48 F.3d 810, 827 (4th Cir. 1995); accord Acorn Land, LLC v. Bait. Cnty., 402 Fed.App'x 809, 819 (4th Cir. 2010). In the context of executive action, as here, substantive due process "protects against government power arbitrarily and oppressively exercised." Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846 (1998) ("Our cases dealing with abusive executive action have repeatedly emphasized that only the most egregious official conduct can be said to be arbitrary in the constitutional sense . . . ."). "[T]he cognizable level of executive abuse of power [is] that which shocks the conscience." Cty. of Sacramento, 523 U.S. at 846; accord Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). An ' executive act is "conscience-shocking [or] arbitrary in the constitutional sense . . . [when it is] not only wrong, but egregiously so by reason of its abusive or oppressive purpose and its lack of justification by any government interest."[10] Hawkins v. Freeman, 195 F.3d 732, 744 (4th Cir. 1999).

         To state a procedural due process claim, a plaintiff must allege: "(1) a cognizable liberty or property interest; (2) the [intentional][11] deprivation of that interest by some form of state action; and (3) that the procedures employed were constitutionally inadequate." Kendall v. Balcerzak, 650 F.3d 515, 528 (4th Cir. 2011) (alteration and footnote added). Procedural due process generally requires notice and an opportunity to be heard. See Id. at 528-29.

         C. Absolute and Qualified Immunity

         While § 1983 does not mention immunities, the United States Supreme Court has read the statute "in harmony with general principles of tort immunities and defenses rather than in derogation of them." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 418 (1976). Courts recognize two forms of immunity under § 1983 - qualified and absolute. See Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 268 (1993) ("Congress did not intend § 1983 to abrogate immunities well grounded in history and reason."). These forms of immunity, however, "do[] not extend beyond [the] scope that existed at common law in 1871, when § 1983['s predecessor] was enacted, [12] nor do[] [they] persist unless the policy behind the common-law rule is still applicable." Lampton v. Diaz, 639 F.3d 223, 226 (5th Cir. 2011) (footnote added); see Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340 (1986) (stating "while we look to the common law for guidance, we do not assume that Congress intended to incorporate every common-law immunity into § 1983 in unaltered form").

         "The presumption is that qualified rather than absolute immunity is sufficient to protect government officials in the exercise of their duties."[13] Bums v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486-87 (1991). That said, certain officials - judges, legislators, prosecutors and trial witnesses[14] -perform "special functions" such that they "require a full exemption from liability" based on common-law forms of immunity in place when Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871.[15]Butz, 438 U.S. at 508. State agency officials "performing certain functions analogous to those of a prosecutor [or judge]" have absolute immunity as well - "their immunities being termed [quasi-prosecutorial and] quasi-judicial, " respectively. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 409 n.20 (first alteration added); see Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 811 n. 16 (1982) (discussing Butz and noting it extended absolute immunity to officials "engaged in quasi-prosecutorial functions").

         "The official seeking absolute immunity bears the burden of showing that such immunity is justified for the function in question." Buckley, 509 U.S. at 269. Once a court determines that an official was functioning in a core judicial or prosecutorial capacity, absolute immunity applies "however erroneous the act may have been, and however injurious in its consequences it may have proved to the plaintiff." Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 199-200 (1985).

         "Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct." Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012); Perry v. Pamlico Cnty., 88 F.Supp.3d 518, 538 (E.D. N.C. 2015) ("Qualified immunity can apply to social workers involved in child abuse and custody cases.") (citation omitted). To determine whether a defendant's conduct is covered by qualified immunity, a court "must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right at all." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999). If so, the court considers "whether the constitutional right violated was . clearly established in the specific context of the case"[16] - that is, whether "the contours of a right are sufficiently clear" that a reasonable person in the defendant's position would have known that his or her actions violated that right. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011). Although a case exactly on point is not required, "existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." Id.; see McKee v. Hart, 436 F.3d 165, 171 (3d Cir. 2006) (stating a right is clearly established if there is "sufficient precedent at the time, of the action, factually similar to the plaintiffs allegations, to put the defendant on notice that his or her conduct is constitutionally prohibited").

         D. Immunity ...

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