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Bird v. State

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

April 24, 2017



          Derrick K. Watson United States District Judge.

         Approximately eight years after the death of her infant daughter, an incident for which she disavows responsibility, Plaintiff Courtney Bird filed the instant lawsuit challenging her 2007 placement on the State's "central registry of reports of child abuse or neglect" (the "Registry"). Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1-1. The complaint, styled as a class action, [2] seeks both injunctive and monetary relief from Defendants for alleged constitutional violations via 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[3] Compl. ¶¶ 6, 68-76. Initially filed in state circuit court, Defendants removed this action on August 6, 2015. Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.

         Before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("MSJ"), filed September 29, 2016 (ECF No. 24), and Plaintiff's November 23, 2016 motion to strike certain exhibits that Defendants provided in support of their MSJ (ECF No. 39). For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS the MSJ as to Bird's Section 1983 claim, DENIES Bird's Motion to Strike, and REMANDS Bird's remaining state law claim back to state court.


         I. Factual Background

         On March 28, 2007, Plaintiff Courtney Bird, a Navy wife living in the State of Hawai'i (Compl. ¶ 11), returned home from a mid-day dentist appointment to find her then-husband, Petty Officer Second Class Frank Fontana ("Fontana") administering CPR to their infant daughter, C.F. Compl. ¶¶ 24, 29-30; see also DHS Supervisor's Status Report, DHS Referral to Family Ct., Dec. 10, 2007, at DHS 788, ECF No. 38-2 [hereinafter Status Report]. C.F., who was born only weeks earlier in February 2007, was transported by ambulance to the Tripler Army Medical Center where she died of cardiac arrest. Compl. ¶¶ 24, 30-31. On July 10, 2007, Fontana allegedly "confessed to harming [C.F.] with actions that caused [her] death."[4] Status Report, at DHS 788; see also Compl. ¶¶ 38-39, 41. Fontana was reportedly charged with "First Degree Murder, Assault and Falsifying Statements." Status Report, at DHS 788.

         On November 27, 2007, an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service ("NCIS") informed DHS that "[Bird] is not a suspect and the investigation is on-going." Status Report, at DHS 788 (emphasis in original). Nonetheless, Bird "was [allegedly] told by [State] authorities that she needed to allow DHS to have temporary custody" of her then-two-year-old daughter, T.F.; and Bird claims that "[s]he agreed because she was so upset [after C.F.'s death] that she understood the need for help at a time of such profound grief." Compl. ¶ 33. According to the Complaint, "[u]nknown to [Bird], the moment the police were notified about [C.F.'s March 28, 2007] death, [Fontana]'s name, as well as [Bird's] own name, were reported to the Registry without regard to innocence or guilt, and DHS opened an investigation." Compl. ¶ 35.

         When a report of possible abuse is submitted to DHS, the Hawaii Administrative Rules ("HAR") require DHS to record it in the Registry (HAR § 17-1610-18) and conduct an investigation. Compl. ¶ 18. In order to have a report expunged, a parent may file an administrative appeal on the grounds that the report was "frivolous or made in bad faith." Compl. ¶ 21 (citing Haw. Rev. Stat. ("HRS") § 350-2(d)(1)). Alternatively, if the DHS initiates a family court proceeding, the parent can have the report expunged if he or she prevails on the merits, Compl. ¶ 23 (citing HRS § 350-2(d)(2)). According to Bird, "[i]f the family court proceeding is dropped and never reaches an adjudication on the merits, the report is permanent and the parent has no recourse." Compl. ¶ 62. Bird also contends that, although HAR § 17-1610-11 requires DHS to inform the parent when an investigation is complete, "DHS routinely failed to follow its own regulation and give the required notice." Compl. ¶ 20. To that end, Bird complains that Defendant Woodland "informed [her] that DHS does not provide notice when listing individuals in the child abuse registry." Compl. ¶ 16. "Instead, " Bird continues, "DHS did its internal investigation and confirmed the report as to both [Bird] and [Fontana], " and then filed a petition in Family Court for custody of T.F. Compl. ¶36.

         While the NCIS conducted its criminal investigation into C.F.'s death, DHS began investigating possible child abuse and/or neglect in order to secure T.F.'s safety. After months of home checks, supervised visits, and evaluations by various medical and social work professionals, the Family Court eventually issued an order granting Bird custody of T.F., and authorizing them "to leave Hawaii [for Tennessee] on the conditions that Tennessee DHS approves the . . . placement, and Tennessee DHS puts in writing that services for [Bird] and [T.F.] will be in place when mother and daughter arrive in Tennessee, and both are received by the Court." Orders Concerning Child Protective Act ("CPA"), Dec. 12, 2007, Defs.' Separate & Concise Statement of Facts in Supp. of MS J ("Concise Facts in Supp."), Ex. 22, at DHS 774, ECF No. 38-3. The Family Court also found that "[t]he child/ren's family can provide a safe family home without the assistance of a service plan, " revoking the prior order of family supervision, and terminating its jurisdiction over the case. Orders Concerning CPA, June 3, 2008, Concise Facts in Supp., Ex. 23, at DHS 719, ECF No. 38-4.

         Bird and T.F. subsequently moved to Tennessee and rebuilt their lives:

37. Eventually, I was able to regain custody of T.F. and I returned home to Tennessee to live with my father. On June 3, 2008, I appeared telephonically before the Family Court in Hawai'i, where I learned that my case was closed. At no point did the Court state that I would be on the child abuse registry. As such, I moved on with my life the best that I could.
38. In 2011, I married my current husband and we had another child. Having the resources and a loving home to provide, we made the decision to adopt a child from Africa. Preferably, we wanted to adopt an older child who was HIV positive so that we could provide him or her with the kind of medical and family care that they were lacking in their current situation.
39. When my husband and I began the adoption process [in Tennessee], we informed our friends and family of our decision. We held fundraisers to alleviate the adoption costs. My husband and I made a non-refundable payment of $3, 000 to the adoption agency. In addition, we spent a significant amount on fingerprints, background checks, and psychological examinations.
40. My husband and I went through the requisite home visits and consultations with a social worker. I was honest with our case worker and let her know what happened with C.F. in Hawai'i. She told me that it shouldn't be a problem.
41. However, when our social worker sent background requests to the various states in which I have lived, Hawai'i responded that I was a confirmed perpetrator of child abuse. This response made me ineligible to adopt.

Bird Decl. ¶¶ 37-42, ECF No. 43-1. Between Summer 2012 and Spring 2013, Bird communicated with various DHS officials, sometimes via her attorney, regarding her presence on the Registry, but their answers did not allow the adoption to proceed.

         II. Procedural Background

         On July 20, 2015, Bird filed a class action Complaint in the First Circuit Court, State of Hawai'i alleging two claims: (1) violation of a state constitutional right to due process ("Count I"); and (2) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Count II"). See Compl., ECF No. 1-1. Defendants timely removed the action to this Court based on Bird's Section 1983 claim. Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1.

         On September 29, 2016, Defendants filed their MS J (ECF No. 24) arguing that Bird's claims fail as a matter of law. On November 23, 2016, Bird concurrently filed her opposition to the MS J (ECF No. 42) and a motion to strike thirteen exhibits Defendants filed in support of their MS J (ECF No. 39). Defendants then concurrently filed their reply in support of the MS J (ECF No. 49) and their opposition to Bird's Motion to Strike (ECF No. 50). On December 9, 2016, Bird filed her reply in support of the Motion to Strike (ECF No. 51).

         The Court heard both motions on December 21, 2016. See Tr. of Proceedings, ECF No. 56. At the hearing, the issue of whether Bird's Section 1983 claim is barred by the applicable statute of limitations was raised, and the Court requested the parties to submit supplemental briefing on the issue. See Entering Order, Dec. 21, 2016, ECF No. 54. The parties complied with that request on January 23, 2017 (ECF No. 61 (Bird)) and February 6, 2017 (ECF No. 62 (Defendants)), respectively.


         Pursuant to FRCP 56(a), a party is entitled to summary judgment "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

         When a motion for summary judgment is made and adequately supported, the burden shifts to the party opposing summary judgment "to demonstrate the existence of a genuine dispute." Kowalski v. Mommy Gina Tuna Res., 574 F.Supp.2d 1160, 1162 (D. Haw. 2008) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)). To meet this burden, the non-moving party must do "more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts" and instead must "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec, 475 U.S. at 586-87 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). For, if no evidence can be mustered to sustain the nonmoving party's position, a trial would be useless. SeeKahumoku v. Titan Mar., LLC,486 F.Supp.2d 1144, 1150 (D. Haw. 2007) (explaining ...

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