Section 1983 Civil Rights Claim By Grandparents Arising From Dependency Action Permitted To Proceed

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Fox Rothschild LLP

This is an action brought by grandparents against Westmoreland County concerning their grandchild.  The County had initiated dependency proceedings involving the grandchild based upon allegations that the biological parents were drug dependent.  The County had initially placed the child with the grandparents who were then hosting not only the grandchild but the natural parents.  When drug testing of the natural parents came back positive, the County decided to pull the placement and shift to non-kinship care.  This placement culminated in adoption by the substitute parents.

The plaintiffs filed claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 asserting that the removal of the grandchild was accomplished without appropriate procedural and substantive due process rights.  Specifically, they asserted that they were proper parties excluded from the placement adjudications.

The defendants, the County and one of its employees filed to dismiss.  The assertions were that: (a) the individual defendant was not a “person” within the meaning of Section 1983; (b) the notice to the plaintiffs was adequate and did not interfere with their due process rights; and, (c) the claims had been litigated in state court and were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

The US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania declined to dismiss under Rule 12 holding that an action may be brought against an individual if that person acted intentionally.  The Third Circuit has explained that, “a supervisor may be personally liable under § 1983 if he or she participated in violating the plaintiff’s rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in his subordinates’ violations.”  A.M. ex rel. J.M.K. v. Luzerne County Juvenile Det. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 586 (3d Cir. 2004).  The issue of whether notice and opportunity to be heard was adequate as a matter of civil rights law was fact based and not appropriate for a Rule 12 dismissal.  Finally, because the plaintiffs were explicitly excluded from the dependency proceedings by means of an in limine order, the District Court ruled that it was not possible to assert that the issue had been litigated in state court.

McGreal v. Westmoreland County, PICS, Case No. 20-0157 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 28, 2020) (memorandum)  Ranjan, U.S.D.J. (5 pages). 43 PLW 163.

For a similar procedural history See Ernst v. Children and Youth Services of Chester County, 108 F.3d 486 (3rd Cir. 1997).

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