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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.



         Defendant Joshua Turner moves to dismiss Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Doc. 59. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges eight counts, including five counts against Turner for Conspiracy, Tortious Interference with Parental Relationship, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, Defamation, and Malicious Prosecution. 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 Plaintiff Maria Brown and Defendant Joshua Turner are the parents of Plaintiff P.A.T., a ten-year-old child. Doc. 50, at ¶ 1, 17. Plaintiffs and Turner have litigated the custody of their child in state court, and have been subject to multiple investigations by the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services. Id., at ¶ 1. Plaintiffs allege that Turner repeatedly and consistently interfered with Plaintiffs' parent-child relationship, that he has influenced the investigations by the Children's Division, and that Plaintiffs have been investigated or subject to the services of the Children's Division as a result of Turner's “incorrect, false, and/or malicious complaints.” Id., at ¶¶ 28.i. (interference with parent-child relationship), 7 (interference with investigations), 2 (undue investigations or services). Plaintiffs specifically allege that Turner has made false allegations in Court documents against Brown, has manufactured evidence, and has conspired with others against Plaintiffs. Id., at ¶¶ 28.d., 44.i., 60.

         Plaintiffs assert that Turner worked in coordination with Detmer with the goal to “cover up Defendant Turner's nefarious conduct, destroy his son's mother . . . and thereby save money on litigation and child support.” Id., at ¶ 51. The complaint asserted that “[a]ny and/or all of the Turner-Detmer family have . . . knowingly and/or unknowingly acted with reckless regard for Plaintiffs' rights, making false reports, manipulating the legal system (both judicial and administrative process, and related entities), and inter alia acting with malice toward Plaintiff Brown.” Id., at ¶ 26.

         Specifically, the pleadings allege that Turner and Detmer “instituted one or more legal proceeding(s) against Plaintiff in which complaints were made, by Defendant without probable cause and with malice.” Id., at ¶ 84; that Turner has used Defendant Detmer's “past and current connections to influence the Children's Division's investigation, ” Id., at ¶ 28.h; that Turner and Detmer “directly interfered with Court ordered custody and Plaintiffs' Constitutional Rights to a parent-child relationship, ” Id., at 44.e.; that “Turner and/or Detmer made one or more false hotline reports, ” Id., at ¶ 44.k.; “and 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.” Id., at ¶ 38.f.; see also id., at ¶¶ 60.b., d., 66. As evidence of their allegations, Plaintiffs additionally assert that hundreds of text messages exist which illustrate that Detmer coached Defendant Turner how to address the Children's Division investigation. Id., at ¶¶ 37, 38.a.

         Plaintiffs additionally assert that Turner used Johnston Paint's business resources “to influence or otherwise alter investigations and/or reports concerning abuse of Plaintiff P.A.T. to ward custody of the child.” Id., at ¶¶ 7, 38.g. (alleging use of business resources including phones to discuss Social Services investigation), 44 (alleging use of time, money, and resources). The complaint added to Turner's involvement with Johnston Paint, stating that “Defendant Johnston Paint in coordination, and/or by and through Defendants Turner and Detmer used their professional capacity and connections to create a conflict of interest by obtaining personal services of law enforcement whom willing colluded with Defendant Johnston Paint to circumvent the custody court order for their employee, Defendant Joshua Turner.” Id., at ¶ 46.

         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

         Defendant Turner argues 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 specific actions Turner 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 Turner may have colluded with the 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 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 Turner were unlawful. Plaintiffs complaint offered only conclusory statements as to the unlawfulness of the actions allegedly committed by Turner as part of the conspiracy. These claimed actions include Turner's being coached by Detmer on how to handle the Children's Division investigation, use of Detmer's contacts to affect the investigation, and use of Johnston Paint resources to affect the investigation. But conclusory statements that these actions were unlawful or resulted in interference with Plaintiffs' parent-child relationship are insufficient to successfully plead that an unlawful act occurred. Without specific facts stating what actions were taken and why these acts are unlawful, Plaintiffs have not alleged that Turner or the other Defendants took any action that was forbidden to them. To the extent that Plaintiffs do allege actions that could be presumed to be unlawful, such as where Plaintiffs allege that Turner made false statements in court documents and that Turner manufactured evidence, these conclusory assertions still fail to plead a claim against Turner. Plaintiffs have not identified what the alleged false statements where or what they were regarding, nor have they asserted any details about what the alleged manufactured ...

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