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Pettit v. Indiana Department of Child Services

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

January 9, 2015

CARA PETTIT and RYAN PETTIT, Plaintiffs,
v.
INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SERVICES; MARY BETH BONAVENTURA, in her official capacity as director of Ind. Dep’t of Child Servs.; GLENN HIPP, individually and in his official capacity as regional director of Dep’t of Child Servs.; MARILYN ROBINSON, individually and in her official capacity as a supervisor for Dep’t of Child Servs.; ANNETTE M. NEARON, individually and in her official capacity as manager for Dep’t of Child Servs.; RACHEL DISHMAN, individually and in her official capacity as a manager for Dep’t of Child Servs.; and KAREN DENTON, individually and in her official capacity as a manager for Dep’t of Child Servs.; Defendants.

ENTRY ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS

RICHARD L. YOUNG, CHIEF JUDGE

Plaintiffs, Cara Pettit and her husband, Ryan Pettit, brought suit against Defendants, Indiana Department of Child Services (“DCS”), Mary Beth Bonaventura, Glenn Hipp, Marilyn Robinson, Annette M. Nearon, Rachel Dishman, and Karen Denton (collectively “Defendants”), for violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights and several state tort law claims. The action stems from an allegation made by Mrs. Pettit’s ex-husband accusing her of abusing their children and the actions taken by DCS, through its agents, in response to the accusations. Defendants move to dismiss this action pursuant to Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons stated below that motion is GRANTED.

I. Background

Mrs. Pettit is the mother of four children with her ex-husband, Mr. Holt, and one child with her current husband, Mr. Pettit. (Complaint ¶ 12). On July 12, 2013, Mrs. Pettit disciplined her child, J.C.H., for hitting his sister, J.G.H., in the face with a book. (Id. at ¶ 13). Mr. Holt reported this incident as child abuse to DCS. (Id.). Defendant Nearon, a case manager for DCS, visited Plaintiffs’ home that same day to investigate the claims. (Id. at ¶ 14). On July 16, 2013, DCS filed a Verified Petition Alleging Child in Need of Services for J.G.H. based on the report filed by Nearon. (Id. at ¶ 15). The next day the Verified Petition was amended to include Mrs. Pettit’s other minor children.[1] (Id. at ¶ 16).

On September 16, 2013, the court held a fact-finding hearing. (Id. at ¶ 17). It issued its findings and order on September 30, 2013, finding that DCS had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the four minor children were each a child in need of services (“CHINS”) and that the coercive intervention of the court was necessary. (Id.). On December 2, 2013, the court held a dispositional hearing[2] and then issued its Dispositional Orders on December 6, 2013. (Id. at ¶ 18). The court ordered the CHINS case for the Plaintiffs’ child be concluded and that the Holt children should remain in the care of their father. (Id.). The court further ordered services for Mrs. Pettit and the Holt children. (Id.). Mrs. Pettit appealed the court’s dispositional orders; the orders were affirmed. See Court of Appeals Memorandum Decision, In the Matter of A.H., Jb.H., and Je.H., Children in Need of Services, C.P., v. Indiana Dep’t of Child Servs., No. 34A05-1401-JC-1 (Ind.Ct.App. June 12, 2014).

The Pettits allege that Nearon, the DCS case manager, who conducted the initial home visit, and Mr. Holt had an intimate personal relationship during this time that was unknown to them during the dispositional hearing. (Id. at ¶ 19). Further, they allege that Nearon and Mr. Holt conspired with each other and one of the Holt minor children to create a CHINS case for Holt to gain custody of his minor children. (Id.). Nearon allegedly cited to a series of facts in her report which she knew to be false and committed perjury when she testified. (Id. at ¶ 21). The Pettits further allege that Defendant Rachel Dishman, who works with Nearon, failed to take corrective steps to prevent further harm to Mrs. Pettit and that Dishman fabricated allegations against her. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-23). Other DCS employees, such as Karen Denton and Marilyn Robinson, also engaged in conduct aimed at harming Mrs. Pettit’s relationship with her children. (Id. at ¶¶ 32, 36).

The Pettits filed this lawsuit on April 8, 2014, alleging that Defendants violated her Fourteenth Amendment right as a parent to the care, custody, companionship, and management of her children. Additionally, the Pettits bring forth several state law claims including, perjury, official misconduct, malicious prosecution, negligence, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Pettits seek an award of compensatory and punitive damages, appropriate equitable relief as allowed by 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and an award of attorney’s fees and costs. Defendants move to dismiss this action for the lack of jurisdiction due to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, res judicata, immunity grounds, and failure to state a claim. Because a court may only act if it has subject matter jurisdiction, the court will first consider that argument.

II. Standard

In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court must accept the complaint’s well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiffs’ favor. See Transit Exp., Inc. v. Ettinger, 246 F.3d 1018, 1023 (7th Cir. 2001). “The district court may properly look beyond the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint and view whatever evidence has been submitted on the issue to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists.” Long v. Shorebank Dev. Corp., 182 F.3d 548, 554 (7th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof on a 12(b)(1) issue is on the party asserting jurisdiction. United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003).

III. Discussion

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine determines whether the court has subject matter jurisdiction, and thus, it must be the first argument the court considers. See Frederiksen v. City of Lockport, 384 F.3d 437 (7th Cir. 2004); see also Garry v. Geils, 82 F.3d 1362, 1365 (7th Cir. 1996).

A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine “is based upon recognition of the fact that inferior federal courts generally do not have the power to exercise appellate review over state court decisions.” Garry, 82 F.3d at 1365. In other words, “lower federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over claims seeking review of state court judgments.” Long, 182 F.3d at 554. “The doctrine applies not only to claims that were actually raised before the state court, but also to claims that are inextricably ...


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