On April 15, 2010, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts on behalf of all children who are now or will be in the foster care custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families ("DCF") as a result of abuse or neglect. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that the Massachusetts foster care system is causing physical and psychological harm to the children within the system. Plaintiffs claimed that DCF harmed children through a high rate of child abuse and neglect within the system, a high degree of placement instability, a low rate of adoption from foster care, overadministration of psychiatric medication, not adequately preparing foster children to live independently as adults, and further abuse and neglect after reunification with their families. Plaintiffs alleged that these harms to children were caused by Defendants' failure to effectively manage the agency's workforce, resources and practices. Plaintiffs claimed that DCF and state officials had long been aware of the systemic failings of the program but had failed to remedy the situation.
On August 20, 2010, Defendants filed a joint Motion to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Defendants attacked the sufficiency of Plaintiffs' allegations and offered three threshold arguments: (1) that Plaintiffs lacked standing; (2) that the court should abstain from hearing the case pursuant to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); and (3) that the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars all claims as to Defendant Patrick. On January 4, 2011, the Court (Senior Judge Michael A. Ponsor) denied Defendants' Motions to Dismiss. Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 771 F. Supp. 2d 142 (D. Mass. 2011).
On February 28, 2011, the Court (Judge Ponsor) granted Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class and Appoint Class Counsel, holding that all necessary requirements to certify this Rule 23(b)(2) class were satisfied. Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 272 F.R.D. 288 (D. Mass. 2011). Following the Supreme Court's decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), Defendants moved to decertify the Plaintiff class. The Defendants argued that the Plaintiff class no longer met the higher burden for class certification that Wal-Mart imposed. On November 10, 2011, the Court (Judge Ponsor) denied the motion, holding that (1) the Wal-Mart case had "little explicit application to this much different case," and (2) that Defendants' motion was "the substantive equivalent of an appeal," and was therefore untimely, as it was filed seven months after the original certification order. Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 278 F.R.D. 30 (D. Mass. 2011).
Over the next year, the parties completed fact and expert discovery. On October 18, 2012, with trial scheduled for January 2013, the Defendants moved to change venue. The Defendants argued that having a trial in Springfield would be burdensome for DCF officials who would be forced to travel to testify, and asked the Court to transfer the case to the Eastern Division in Boston. On November 14, 2012, the District Court (Judge Ponsor) granted Defendant's order of transfer, vacated the scheduling order, and transferred the case to Boston.
The case was reassigned to District Judge William G. Young. The Court (Judge Young) largely reinstated the original scheduling order and set a trial date for January 22, 2013. Jut eleven days before trial, the Court denied Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment, "not on the merits, but as a matter of judicial economy," and indicated he would rule on all claims at trial.
The bench trial before Judge Young commenced on January 22, 2013 and continued intermittently over the next few months. Plaintiffs rested their case on March 1, 2013. On April 30, 2013, Defendants moved for judgment on partial findings. The Court continued to take evidence at trial, and adjourned on May 14, 2013, following twenty-four days of trial.
On September 30, 2013, the District Court (Judge Young) entered an order granting Defendants' motion for judgment on partial findings and entered judgment for Defendants on all counts. The Court, however, did not accompany his order with an opinion, and instead stated that "[t]he parties ought rest assured, however, that a memorandum setting forth the relevant findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(c), is to follow in due course."
Nearly two months later, on November 26, 2013, the Court (Judge Young) issued its findings and rulings. The Court was very critical of the state of the Massachusetts foster care system, but stated that Defendants were not responsible for the shortcomings. Instead, the Court stated that "financial and administrative constraints - not the alleged mismanagement by DCF officials - pose the greatest threat to children in the Massachusetts foster care system today." In applying the two-pronged substantive due process standard formulated by Judge Ponsor, Judge Young held that (1) DCF did not substantially depart from accepted professional judgment, and (2) the conduct of the state with respect to foster children did not "shock the conscience." The Court stated that, while the accounts of the Named Plaintiffs were "harrowing," Plaintiffs failed to prove that "the deprivations complained of were felt class-wide." Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 985 F. Supp. 2d 129 (D. Mass. 2013).
Plaintiffs appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Plaintiffs argued that: (1) the District Court erred in applying a new, two-pronged standard for Plaintiffs' substantive due process claims; (2) the District Court erred in holding that Plaintiffs did not experience class-wide professional deprivations, and that such deprivations did not depart from accepted professional judgment; and (3) that the District Court improperly relied on fiscal considerations in denying Plaintiffs relief. Defendants, for their part, argued that DCF was imperfect, but that their failures did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
On December 15, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the District Court's granting of judgment on partial findings. The Court stated that Plaintiffs "have not established, based on the facts, that there have been constitutional violations as to the class of foster children, [and] so they are not entitled to an injunction or federal court oversight." The Court held that, even if applying the two-pronged substantive due process standard was error, Plaintiffs failed to meet the lower standard that they sought: departure from accepted professional judgment. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the District Court did not improperly rely on budget constraints to deny Plaintiffs relief--it did not find that there were violations and then excuse them by budgetary constraints. It found, in the first instance, that there were no constitutional violations. The Court stated that "[t]he problems are now for the Governor and legislature of Massachusetts to resolve." Connor B. ex rel. Vigurs v. Patrick, 774 F.3d 45 (1st Cir. 2014).David Priddy - 06/24/2011
Dan Whitman - 02/01/2015