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Johnson v. Missouri Department of Social Services

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

November 2, 2016

ERIKA TREMAINE JOHNSON and BLAKE SINNETT, Individually and On Behalf of M.S., a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Defendant.

          ORDER OF DISMISSAL FOR LACK OF SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

          GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This action involves Defendant Missouri Department of Social Services' (“DSS”) role in the placement of M.S., a minor, into protective custody. The parents of M.S., Plaintiffs Erika Tremaine Johnson (“Johnson”) and Blake Sinnett (“Sinnett”) (collectively, “the parents”), allege that DSS discriminated against the family in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.

         Now pending before the Court is DSS's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 44). Because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine divests the Court of subject matter jurisdiction, this case is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

         Background

         Johnson and Sinnett are legally blind. On the day M.S. was born, May 21, 2010, DSS received a Newborn Crisis Assessment call reporting that M.S. turned blue while Johnson attempted to breastfeed. Following this call, Tia Wilson (“Wilson”), [1] a DSS employee, met with the parents at the hospital. The parents indicated that they needed some assistance in caring for M.S. Def.'s Ex. A 34 (Doc. 45-1); Ex. D 26 (Doc. 45-4).

         Wilson then conducted an investigation into whether the parents could care for M.S. She contacted several of Plaintiffs' family members and at least two community resource centers for the blind to seek assistance for the parents. After her inquiry, Wilson requested that M.S.'s hospital discharge be delayed until May 25, 2010, to give her and the family an opportunity to explore placement options for M.S. She also wrote an eight-page report, which she provided to a state juvenile officer for the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. Def.'s Ex. E 1 (Doc. 45-5). The report recommended that the state court allow the Children's Division of DSS to retain protective custody of M.S. until safety measures could be put in place at the family home. Id. 9; Pls.' Ex. 5 at 7 (Doc. 48-5).

         On May 23, 2010, Johnson was discharged from the hospital, and M.S. remained in the hospital pursuant to Wilson's request. The following day, the state juvenile officer authorized the temporary protective custody transfer of M.S. to DSS. On May 25, 2010, the same juvenile officer requested that the court place M.S. in the custody of the Children's Division of DSS. After a hearing on May 26, 2010, Judge Marco Roldan (“Judge Roldan”) ordered that M.S. be placed into DSS's custody. Def.'s Ex. H (Doc. 45-8). M.S. remained in foster care until June 20, 2010, when the juvenile officer voluntarily dismissed the petition and DSS returned M.S. to her parents. Def.'s Ex. I (Doc. 45-9).

         Plaintiffs filed the instant action five years later, asserting that DSS discriminated against them by reason of their blindness and M.S.'s association with her blind parents. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 25-37 (Doc. 4). Plaintiffs contend that DSS's investigation, reports, and recommendations leading up to Judge Roldan's order were discriminatory and violated Title II of the ADA.

         Standard

         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and possess only the power authorized by the Constitution and statute. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). “[I]t is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.” Id. (citations omitted).

         Plaintiffs here invoke federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. But, even where § 1331 appears to create subject matter jurisdiction, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine[2] may preclude the exercise of federal jurisdiction. This doctrine “provides that, ‘with the exception of habeas corpus petitions, lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to state court judgments, '” Ballinger v. Culotta, 322 F.3d 546, 548 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting Lemonds v. St. Louis Cty., 222 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2000)), foreclosing “not only straightforward appeals but also more indirect attempts by federal plaintiffs to undermine state court decisions.” Lemonds, 222 F.3d at 492.

         Specifically, Rooker-Feldman applies to cases: (1) brought by the party that lost in state court; (2) complaining of injuries caused by state court judgments; (3) rendered before the district court proceedings commenced; and (4) inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291-92 (2005).

         Discussion

         DSS argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents this Court from exercising jurisdiction because Plaintiffs' suit is an impermissible attack on Judge Roldan's state court order.[3] In response, Plaintiffs do not explicitly address DSS's Rooker-Feldman argument ...


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