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Exel v. Govan

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 21, 2014

MEGAN EXEL, et al. Plaintiffs,
NICOLE GOVAN, et al. Defendants.


ROBERT B. KUGLER, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the motion of Cumberland County (Doc. No. 21), for summary judgment, or in the alternative, to dismiss the amended complaint of Megan Exel, David Exel, Joseph Radcliffe, and minors E.V. and A.R. (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), and on the motion of Nichole Govan[1] (Doc. No. 26), to dismiss the claims of E.V. and A.R., and for dismissal and summary judgment on the claims of Megan Exel, David Exel, and Radcliffe. Plaintiffs allege that Govan, an employee of the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency ("DCPP"), formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS"), violated their constitutional rights by unlawfully removing the minor children from their mother's care. For the reasons expressed below, Cumberland County's motion will be GRANTED, and Govan's motion will be GRANTED IN PART.


In August, 2011, E.V. and A.R. were removed from the custody of their mother. Am. Compl. ¶ 5.[3] A.R. was removed from the custody of both of his parents, as Plaintiff Joseph Radcliffe is the father of A.R. Id . ¶ 4. Plaintiffs allege that following removal, E.V. was denied her right to remain in New Jersey, the state of her birth, when she was sent to live with her father in Florida pursuant to a court order temporarily placing her there. Id . ¶¶ 31, 36, 66; Order, N.J. Div. of Youth and Family Serv. v. M.E. and J.R., N.J.Super. Ct., App. Div., (December 20, 2011) (No. A-2109-11). It is unclear where A.R. was placed after being removed from the home, and the Appellate Division Order attached to Plaintiffs' complaint only refers to E.V. Plaintiffs allege that the trial court failed to hold a fair hearing and that the children were not in any imminent danger. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 26-28. Plaintiffs contend that E.V. "suffered emotional, psychological trauma, without mother and grandmother... and wanted to go back home, but was not allowed, in violation of her constitutional right." Id . ¶ 47. Plaintiffs also allege that A.R. was deprived of his right to "be secured in such home, with parent and grandfather." Id . ¶ 10. It appears that Plaintiffs allege that Govan was the individual who personally removed the children from their home. Id . ¶ 29.

On December 20, 2011, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed the trial court for procedural defects and remanded for a plenary hearing. See Am. Compl. ¶ 73; Dec. 20, 2011 Order (No. A-2109-11). At some point thereafter, E.V. and A.R. were returned to their parents' care. After the children returned home, Plaintiffs allege that an unidentified caseworker informed Megan Exel that the children should never have been removed from her care and "how the state DAG representing DYFS, and or other john does; at dyfs KNEW about such fact, but yet allow the case to continue, to save face.'" Compl. ¶¶ 7-10. According to Plaintiffs, this caseworker informed Ms. Exel that after the state has made allegations of child abuse, "the state has to now make it look like abuse took place" and that "the DAG has no other choice' but to still move forward with prosecution, involving plaintiff MEGAN EXEL, and her children." Id. at ¶ 8.

On July 7, 2012, Plaintiffs filed their complaint, asserting numerous claims against the defendants for alleged constitutional violations under Section 1983[4] and for violations of New Jersey tort law. Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages, punitive damages, and to enjoin the defendants from falsifying records, forging signatures, and otherwise altering evidence to "make it appear" that a child was abused. Id . On June 18, 2013, pursuant to motions filed by certain defendants, this Court dismissed all claims against state defendants who are entitled to immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. The Court also ordered Plaintiff to file an amended complaint in compliance with Rule 8(a) within fourteen days, and noted that the original complaint did not adequately detail the allegations against the City of Bridgeton and Cumberland County. See ECF Doc. No. 14. When Plaintiffs filed their amended complaint, the City of Bridgeton was no longer included as a defendant. Thus, the only defendants who have not been terminated are Govan and Cumberland County.


A. Motion to Dismiss

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a court to dismiss an action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion to dismiss, "courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside , 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). In other words, a complaint survives a motion to dismiss if it contains sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

To make this determination, a court conducts a three-part analysis. Santiago v. Warminster Twp. , 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010). First, the court must "tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim." Id . (quoting Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 675). Second, the court should identify allegations that, "because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 131 (quoting Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 680). Finally, "where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief." Id . (quoting Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 680). This plausibility determination is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679. A complaint cannot survive where a court can only infer that a claim is merely possible rather than plausible. Id.

When a plaintiff is not represented by counsel, courts should construe the complaint liberally in favor of the plaintiff. Haines v. Kerner , 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Such a pro se complaint should only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if "it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'" Id. at 521 (quoting Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)).

B. Summary Judgment

The court should grant a motion for summary judgment when the moving party "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is "material" to the dispute if it could alter the outcome, and a dispute of a material fact is "genuine" if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Matsushida Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) ("Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'") (quoting First Nat'l Bank of Arizona v. Cities Serv. Co. , 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)). In deciding whether there is any genuine issue for trial, the court is not to weigh evidence or decide issues of fact. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248. Because fact and credibility determinations are for the jury, the non-moving party's evidence is to be believed and ambiguities construed in its favor. Id. at 255; Matsushida , 475 U.S. at 587.

Although the movant bears the burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine issue of material fact, the non-movant likewise must present more than mere allegations or denials to successfully oppose summary judgment. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 256. The nonmoving party must at least present probative evidence from which the jury might return a verdict in his favor. Id. at 257. The movant is entitled to summary judgment where the non-moving party fails to "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to ...

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