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Brown v. Great Circle

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

December 10, 2019

GREAT CIRCLE, ET AL., Defendants.



         Defendants Latoya Gatewood, Jennifer Tidball, and David Kurt move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint, for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and due to claims being barred under the doctrines of official immunity and qualified immunity. Doc. 55. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges eight counts, including seven counts against Gatewood and three counts against Tidball and Kurt. These claims include counts of Conspiracy, Tortious Interference with Parental Relationship, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, Defamation, Malicious Prosecution, and Violation of Substantive and Procedural Due Process Rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Doc. 50. Plaintiffs' claims arise out of an alleged conspiracy between the Defendants to interfere with the parental relationship between Maria Brown and her son, P.A.T., a minor. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

         I. Alleged Facts

         Plaintiffs state that Defendant Latoya Gatewood is an employee of the Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division who conducted an investigation as part of Plaintiffs' child custody case. Doc. 50, at ¶¶ 9, 28.h. Plaintiffs allege that “Defendants Turner and/or Detmer worked in coordination with and/or leveraged, threatened, and intimidated Defendant Gatewood into conducting the investigation and making findings consistent with what Defendants Turner and Detmer wanted in the results: to harm, destroy, and/or interfere with Plaintiffs' rights.” Id., at ¶ 38.f. Plaintiffs question the validity of Gatewood's investigation, alleging that her “investigation into the matter for Children's Division has been shown to be untrue, incorrect, and biased in favor of the Detmer-Turner family” and that ultimately, she adopted “the Turner family's strategy of simply labeling Plaintiff Maria Brown as mentally unhealthy and unstable.” Id., a t ¶ 3 9 . Plaintiffs further allege that, as part of her improper investigation, Gatewood “even went so far [as] to write and report a baseless affidavit to the Boone County Juvenile Officer, and Defendant Gatewood and consequently her employer and/or supervisors ignored the statements of Plaintiff P.A.T., among other matters.” Id., at ¶ 38.h.

         Plaintiffs also state that Defendant Jennifer Tidball is the Acting Director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, Id., at ¶ 10, and that Defendant David Kurt is the Director of the Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division. Id., at ¶ 11. Plaintiffs allege that the “policies and practices” of Tidball and Kurt, “in their official capacities, constitute a failure to meet the affirmative duty to protect the Plaintiff and her child from an unreasonable risk of harm.” Id., at ¶ 88.

         II. Standard

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Zink v. Lombardi, 783 F.3d 1089, 1098 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). A claim has facial plausibility when its allegations rise above the “speculative” or “conceivable, ” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007), and where “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Such a complaint will be liberally construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Eckert v. Titan Tire Corp., 514 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2008). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         III. Discussion

         A. Count I - Conspiracy

         Defendants Gatewood, Tidball, and Kurt argue that Plaintiffs have only stated legal conclusions and have therefore not sufficiently pleaded the elements required to prove a claim of conspiracy. In order to state a claim for civil conspiracy under Missouri law a plaintiff must plead that there were “(1) two or more persons, (2) an object to be accomplished, (3) a meeting of the minds on the object or course of action, (4) one or more unlawful overt acts, and (5) resulting damages.” Aguilar v. PNC Bank, N.A., 853 F.3d 390, 402-03 (8th Cir. 2017) (citing Mackey v. Mackey, 914 S.W.2d 48, 50 (Mo.Ct.App. 1996)).

         Plaintiffs' pleadings assert that there were multiple individuals working towards the joint goal of interfering with Social Services investigations to affect the custody determinations which resulted in the claimed harm to Brown's parental relationship with her child. What is not alleged in the pleadings other than through conclusory legal statements, however, is what actions Defendants actually took and whether any of those actions were done in furtherance of a conspiracy. To show that a meeting of the minds occurred, Plaintiffs must show that the alleged conspirators had “a unity of purpose or a common design and understanding.” Rosemann v. St. Louis Bank, 858 F.3d 488, 500 (8th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). Though Plaintiffs allege that Gatewood, Tidball, and Kurt may have colluded with the other Defendants for a common goal, Plaintiffs did not specifically plead that there was coordination between the Defendants, nor are there facts that would show there was any coordination between these parties.

         Even if Plaintiffs were to succeed in establishing that there was a meeting of the minds, Plaintiffs have not asserted facts which could support a finding that the underlying alleged actions taken by these Defendants were unlawful. Plaintiffs complaint offered only conclusory statements as to the unlawfulness of the actions allegedly committed by Defendants as part of the conspiracy. These claimed actions include Gatewood's biasing of her investigation and the filing of a false affidavit against Plaintiff Brown, as well as harm resulting from Tidball and Kurt's improper “policies and practices, ”. In each instance, these alleged actions are not followed with any specific assertions which could show what specific actions each Defendant took and why those actions were unlawful. See Doc. 50, at ¶¶ 31, 32, 60.d. Without any specific facts stating what actions Defendants took, there is insufficient basis to infer that they took any unlawful action. Without some factual context, the claim is not plausible.

         Having not pleaded the facts necessary to plead that Defendants Gatewood, Tidball, and Kurt were aware of the conspiracy to interfere with Plaintiffs' parental relationship, Plaintiff cannot prove a claim of conspiracy. This claim must therefore be dismissed.

         B. Count II - Tortious Interference with ...

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