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Renee Blackwell v. Dolores Helb

January 31, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Garrett E. Brown, Jr.



BROWN, Chief Judge:

This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant Dolores Helb's motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 36) against Plaintiff Renee Blackwell. This Court has considered the parties' arguments and decided the motion without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the following reasons, the Court will grant Defendant's motion.


This civil rights dispute concerns the privacy interest in sealed adoption records maintained by a state government agency. In discussing the relevant facts, the Court draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

The following facts are undisputed. Approximatelythirty years ago, Plaintiff Renee Blackwell placed her daughter, whom this Court will refer to as "DH ," up for adoption in the State of New Jersey. (Def.'s L. Civ. R. 56.1 Statement ("Def.'s Statement") ¶ 1; Pl.'s L. Civ. R. 56.1 Resp. ("Pl.'s Statement") ¶ 1.) Plaintiff avers that DH was conceived through rape, and that she placed DH up for adoption because she was incapable of providing for an infant at that time. (Am. Compl. ¶ 13; Pl.'s Resp. Br. at 2.*fn1 ) Plaintiff claims that she wished to put the traumatic event behind her and did not wish to have any future contact with DH. (Am. Compl. ¶ 14.)

In August 2008, DH contacted the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") regarding information on her birth family. According to Defendants, DYFS policy permitted DYFS representatives to disclose identifying information about the biological family to adult adoptees when the birth parents and/or biological siblings consent to such disclosure. (See Def.'s Statement ¶ 12; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 12.) As a result of DH's inquiry, Defendant Dolores Helb, a DYFS representative, sent a letter to Plaintiff with an Adoption Registry Release form, advising Plaintiff that an adult adoptee sought information about, and possible contact with, her birth family. (Def.'s Statement ¶¶ 2--3 & Ex. B; Pl.'s Statement ¶¶ 2--3.) The correspondence asked Plaintiff to review the information provided and indicate whether she "w[as] interested in pursuing this matter." (Def.'s Statement ¶ 4 & Ex. B; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 4.) Plaintiff did not respond in any manner to the DYFS letter. (Def.'s Statement ¶ 9; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 9; Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) On December 1, 2008, Helb also sent a similar information/contact request to Plaintiff's other daughter (DH's biological sister), whom this Court will refer to as "JB." (Def.'s Statement ¶ 6 & Ex. D; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 6.) JB responded to this letter, providing her cell phone number. (Def.'s Statement ¶ 10 & Ex. E ("JB Dep.") at 12--13; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 10.) On or about December 9, 2008, Helb received JB's consent form, and a DYFS representative informed*fn2 DH that she could contact her biological sister. (See Co-Defendants Statement ¶ 30; Jordan Decl. Ex. D (Helb Dep.) at 22--23; Pl.'s Statement ¶¶ 18--21.) Shortly thereafter, in late December or early January 2009, JB called and spoke with a DYFS representative, whereupon she was advised that her biological sister had attempted to contact her via telephone. (Def.'s Statement ¶¶ 11--12 & JB Dep. at 13--16; Pl.'s Statement ¶¶ 11--12.) After speaking with the DYFS representative, JB eventually made contact with DH. (Def.'s Statement ¶ 13 & JB Dep. at 18; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 13.) JB does not recall speaking with Ms. Helb. (Def.'s Statement ¶16; Pl.'s Statement ¶ 16.) In December 2008, DH appeared unannounced at the home of Plaintiff, her birth mother. (Def.'s Statement ¶¶ 14--15; Pl.'s Statement ¶¶ 14--15; Am. Compl. ¶¶ 26--27.) According to Plaintiff, the encounter left her "feeling violated, in shock, and short of breath." (Am. Compl. ¶ 28.)

Subsequently, on June 18, 2009, Plaintiff filed suit against Ms. Helb and other DYFS employees, both individually and in their official capacities, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants invaded Plaintiff's constitutional right to privacy by revealing the contact information of Plaintiff and JB to DH. Plaintiff seeks statutory, compensatory, and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief. Ms. Helb now moves for summary judgment,*fn3 arguing: (1) that Plaintiff has not advanced any evidence that Helb disclosed identifying information about the Plaintiff that led DH to discover her birth mother; and (2) that Helb's conduct is shielded by sovereign immunity and qualified immunity.


A party seeking summary judgment must "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material factand that the movant is entitled tojudgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Cartrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Hersh v. Allen Prods. Co., 789 F.2d 230, 232 (3d Cir. 1986). The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986) (noting that no triable issue exists unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict in its favor). In deciding whether triable issues of fact exist, this Court must view the underlying facts and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587; Pa. Coal Ass'n v. Babbitt, 65 F.3d 231, 236 (3d Cir. 1995); Hancock Indus. v. Schaeffer, 811 F.2d 225, 231 (3d Cir. 1987). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, because the matter is based on a federal question.

Plaintiff's claim arises under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

In order to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. See, e.g., West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 140 (1979); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 152 (1970); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d ...

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