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Ligeri v. Department of Children, Youth & Families

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

December 15, 2017

BENJAMIN LIGERI, LEEANN CAGNINA, JANE DOE, DANIEL REALE, JOHN DOE, and JANICE DOE, Plaintiffs,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN, YOUTH & FAMILIES, CYNTHIA ROBERGE, MARK WILSON, ANGELA DEFALCO, HARRY LONERGAN, BETHANN MYERS, DIANE LEYDEN, TOWN OF COVENTRY, and SUSAN LYONS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          JOHN J. MCCONNELL, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Daniel Reale, along with other plaintiffs, has filed a complaint against the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families ("DCYF"), the Town of Coventry, and various individual employees of these two government entities. Mr. Reale's case, and the motion currently before the Court, arises out of a report of suspected child abuse made to DCYF by Coventry school psychologist Susan Lyons involving Mr. Reale's seven-year-old son, John Doe. The Town and Ms. Lyons have moved to dismiss Counts Three, Five, and Seven in the Second Amended Complaint, asserting that Counts Three and Seven fail because they are immune from liability under R.I. Gen. Laws § 40-11-4 and Count Five fails to state a viable constitutional claim. ECF No. 46. Mr. Reale objects to these motions. ECF No. 51. The Court GRANTS the motion, in light of the following facts and legal analysis.

         Facts

         On May 17, 2016, Coventry school psychologist Susan Lyons called the DCYF Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline to report that John Doe arrived at school upset. She related that the young student told her he was afraid of his mother's boyfriend. John Doe told Ms. Lyons that his mother's boyfriend used a paddle and BB gun to discipline him and his younger sister, who is autistic.

         A DCYF child protective investigator was assigned to investigate the call. Upon arrival at the elementary school, the investigator spoke with Ms. Lyons and John Doe. John Doe recounted to the investigator the punishment he received from his mother's boyfriend. John Doe did not have any visible injuries, but related to the school that the punishment happens all the time, his mother is aware of it, and she does not tell her boyfriend to stop.

         Coventry Police came to the school and took Ms. Lyons' statement. Thereafter, the police officer and DCYF investigator went to John Doe's home; they spoke with the boyfriend. The boyfriend denied the allegations John Doe made to the school. He did have plastic air guns, which were checked and determined to fire plastic pellets. Thereafter, the DCYF investigator contacted John Doe's mother, Mr. Reale's ex-wife, at her work. She arranged for her children to stay with her sister in Connecticut while her boyfriend moved out of the home.

         DCYF filed a neglect petition against Mr. Reale and John Does' mother on which a hearing was held before the Rhode Island Family Court on July 14, 2016. Both Mr. Reale and his ex-wife were present. The Family Court granted DCYF temporary legal custody of the children; the children were placed with their mother on the condition of a no-contact order with the boyfriend and DCYF was to have access to the children and the home. On July 28, 2016, another hearing was held in Family Court where DCYF moved to dismiss the petition as to Mr. Reale, which the Family Court granted and entered on Mr. Reale's behalf.

         Mr. Reale has several disputes emanating from Defendants' report and the investigation that resulted. He alleges that Defendants misconstrued his son's reporting of his ex-wife's boyfriend's conduct, insisting that Ms. Lyons and the Town should have realized that it was "innocent horsing around" where John Doe and the boyfriend were playing with an airsoft toy and pretending he was punishing him with a pellet gun and a paddle. ECF No. 47 at 6, ¶ 21. He asserts that the Town knew this as it had a "full, complete and unfettered opportunity to examine [his] children for physical evidence of abuse, of which they found none, and for which no medical reports were generated." Id. at 7, ¶ 23. He also complains about the process of the investigation and how the school handled the questioning of his son, arguing that it resulted in his ex-wife and children having to move to Louisiana to avoid the residual damage.

         Standard of Review

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure brings this matter before this Court. "To avoid dismissal, a complaint must provide 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."' Garcia -Catalan, 734 F.3d 100, 102 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). At this stage, "the plaintiff need not demonstrate that she is likely to prevail, but her claim must suggest 'more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'" Id. at 102-03 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). The "complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).

         "The plausibility inquiry necessitates a two-step pavane." Garcia -Catalan, 734 F.3d at 103. "First, the court must distinguish 'the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited).'" Id. (quoting Morales-Cruz v. Univ. of P.R, 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 2012)). "Second, the court must determine whether the factual allegations are sufficient to support 'the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'" Id. at 103 (quoting Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011)). "In determining whether a complaint crosses the plausibility threshold, 'the reviewing court [must] draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'" Id. at 103 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

         Analysis

         Mr. Reale's two state-law claims and one constitutional claim are the subject of the Town and Ms. Lyon's motion. The Court will address each in turn.

         Counts Three and Seven ...


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