On June 28, 2007, ten named minor children in the legal custody of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families ("DCYF") filed this putative class action lawsuit (by their Next Friends) in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The named plaintiffs were represented by the advocacy organization Children's Rights, then-Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston, and private counsel. Plaintiffs sought certification of a class of all children who are or will be in the legal custody of the DCYF due to a report or suspicion of abuse or neglect. They asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging systemic deficiencies in the operation of DCYF subjected children in the state's care to harm or an unreasonable risk of harm.
The alleged problems included: children staying in foster care for years; placement dictated by availability, not suitability; inadequate reimbursement rates for foster parents; decline in the numbers of licensed foster homes; unnecessary institutionalization of children; repeated moves between inappropriate DCYF placements; failure to meet federal standards; failures of caseworkers to make monthly visits; abuse in foster care; untenable caseloads of social workers; inadequate supervision; placements in unlicensed foster homes; lengthy application process for foster home licensing; separation from siblings; lack of timely reunification with families; pursuit of reunification with parents when not appropriate; failure to place children who cannot return home for adoption; and failure to meet children's medical, dental, and mental health needs. The plaintiffs also alleged that the state forfeited millions in federal matching funds by failing to meet its obligations.
On October 2, 2007, the defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint. Specifically, the defendants argued that (1) the Next Friends lacked standing; (2) pursuant to the Younger and Rooker-Feldman doctrines, the Court should abstain from rendering a decision that would invade the province of the Rhode Island Family Court; (3) the plaintiffs did not have a private right of action under the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act ("AACWA") of 1980, 42 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., 670 et seq.; and (4) the claims of three of the named plaintiffs had become moot because they had been adopted and were no longer in DCYF custody.
Following briefing on class certification and the defendants' motion to dismiss, the case idled for sixteen months while awaiting a decision on whether the case would proceed.
On April 29, 2009, the District Court (Senior District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux) granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, holding that the Child Advocate and Next Friends had no authority or standing to proceed in the case. Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 610 F. Supp. 2d 171 (D.R.I. 2009).
The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. On June 18, 2010, in an opinion authored by Circuit Judge Juan R. Torruella, the First Circuit reversed the District Court's dismissal. The First Circuit held that the next friends were acting in good faith, and that "[i]mportant social interests are advanced by allowing minors access to a judicial forum to vindicate their constitutional rights through a Next Friend." The court of appeals remanded the case with instructions to reinstate the complaint and to allow the three individuals to proceed as the plaintiffs' Next Friends. Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 608 F.3d 77 (1st Cir. 2010).
On remand, Judge Lagueux recused himself pursuant to D.R.I. Local Rule 105(b) ("Any case remanded to this Court for a new trial shall be reassigned to a judge other than the judge to whom the case previously was assigned") , and the case was reassigned to District Judge Mary M. Lisi.
On November 1, 2010, the defendants filed a second motion to dismiss the amended complaint for (1) lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; and (2) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Federal Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On July 20, 2011, the District Court (Judge Lisi) granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motion to dismiss. The Court dismissed the claims of a number of the named plaintiffs because they had been mooted out by adoption or age since the filing of the complaint four years prior. The Court also announced that it would abstain (under the Younger doctrine) with respect to the requested relief of (1) decreasing the rate of institutionalization; (2) increasing the rate of adoptions; (3) decreasing the number of placements per child; and (4) decreasing the length of time in foster care. And it dismissed some claims under the federal adoption law. However, it declined to dismiss the plaintiffs' substantive due process claim, as well as federal statutory claims based on (i) the right to case plans containing certain documentation, such as child specific recruitment efforts and steps taken to secure a permanent home for them, as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(16); and (ii) the right to adequate foster care maintenance payments as provided in 42 U.S.C. §§ 671(a)(1), (a)(11), 672(a)(1), and 675(4)(A). Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Chafee, 800 F. Supp. 2d 363 (D.R.I. 2011).
Following the motion to dismiss, on August 11, 2011, the District Court set deadlines for new briefing on class certification. However, just four days later, the District Court changed course, ordered no new class certification briefing, and scheduled a pretrial conference. Although the record is unclear, at some point around this time, the District Court advised the parties that it would not take up class certification until after it had decided dispositive motions on the claims of the named plaintiffs. On February 21, 2012, the District Court entered a text order denying the original class certification motion as moot.
On February 24, 2012, with only two of the original ten named plaintiffs remaining, the plaintiffs filed a Second Amended Complaint, adding five new named plaintiffs in an effort to prevent the case from mooting out.
On October 23, 2012, following approximately seven months of discovery, the defendants moved for a protective order. The defendants argued that, since class certification was to be delayed, the plaintiffs were entitled to discovery only about the specific named plaintiffs, and that much of the systemic evidence sought by plaintiffs should be off limits. The plaintiffs countered that evidence of DCYF's policies and customs was essential evidence even to an individual section 1983 case, and that they required this discovery to meet their burden on summary judgment. Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond granted the protective order, stating that, in light of the District Court's plan to address the individual named plaintiffs' claims before class certification, such broad discovery was inappropriate at that stage of the litigation. Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee, No. 07-241, slip op. (D.R.I. Dec. 17, 2012). Plaintiffs appealed this order to the District Court, where it was affirmed.
The parties continued with limited discovery, frequently disagreeing as to the scope of the protective order. Magistrate Judge Almond later clarified in a subsequent discovery order that the protective order "effectively precluded [plaintiffs] from seeking policy or practice discovery." Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee, No. 07-241, 2013 WL 785621 (D.R.I. Mar. 1, 2013).
As discovery continued on the claims of the seven named plaintiffs, several of the plaintiffs either turned 18 and left DCYF care or were adopted. As a result, their claims became moot. On February 26, 2013, the plaintiffs filed a second motion for class certification, and asked the District Court for a "timely determination" of their motion in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(c)(1)(A). In response, the District Court urged the parties to attempt to settle the case, and ordered a thirty-day stay of all activity in the case over plaintiffs' objection. When the parties were unable to settle the case, the District Court ordered the defendants to respond to the class certification motion fourteen days after any ruling on summary judgment.
The plaintiffs, seeing this delayed response deadline as effectively denying their motion for class certification, attempted to seek interlocutory appeal. The plaintiffs argued that, pursuant to Rule 23(f) (allowing appeals from orders denying class certification), the First Circuit should review the District Court's decision; or, in the alternative, that the First Circuit should issue a writ of mandamus and compel the District Court to address class certification before summary judgment. In a brief unpublished decision dismissing the plaintiffs' petition, the First Circuit stated that the order delaying defendants' response was not appropriate for a Rule 23(f) appeal, and that there was no "judicial usurpation" evident to warrant mandamus relief. Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee, No. 13-8014, slip op. (1st Cir. Jun. 7, 2013).
On July 24, 2013, the District Court ordered that dispositive motions be dispensed with, and that the case proceed directly to trial. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiffs filed a number of motions related to this change. First, the plaintiffs asked the court to consider class certification prior to trial. The plaintiffs argued that they could find no precedent for holding a full trial over objection before considering a motion for class certification. Second, plaintiffs asked the Court to allow them to discover the policy and custom evidence that they had been denied. The plaintiffs repeated their arguments that this evidence was essential to prevail on their claims. The District Court rejected these motions.
Plaintiffs then asked the Court to order the defendants to facilitate meetings between them and their counsel, so that their cases could properly be prepared for trial. The defendants objected to any such attorney/client meetings. The District Court denied plaintiffs the opportunity to meet with their counsel prior to trial, holding that the motion came after the fact discovery deadline and that, in any event, the children had been evaluated by their retained psychologist, which the Court held was an adequate substitute.
Trial on the claims of the two remaining named plaintiffs commenced on November 12, 2013 and continued intermittently until January 9, 2014, when the defendants moved for judgment on partial findings pursuant to Rule 52.
On April 30, 2014, the District Court (Judge Lisi) issued a memorandum and order granting defendants' motion for partial findings and entering judgment in their favor. The District Court held that plaintiffs had produced insufficient evidence that DCYF's policies and customs had harmed the named plaintiffs or subjected them to an unreasonable risk of harm, and that they had failed to meet their burdens on their statutory claims (concerning case plans and foster care maintenance payments). Cassie M. ex rel. Irons v. Chafee, 16 F. Supp. 3d 33 (D.R.I. 2014).
On May 29, 2014, plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal, challenging (1) the District Court's refusal to rule on class certification before trial; (2) the protective order that foreclosed policy and custom discovery; (3) the Court's refusal to allow plaintiffs to meet with their next friends and counsel prior to trial; (4) the Court's failure to consider undisputed evidence at trial concerning case plans; and (5) the Court's failure to consider undisputed evidence at trial concerning foster care maintenance payments.
On April 21, 2015, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the judgment of the District Court. The Court of Appeals (Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya) held that the District Court abused its discretion when it "totally denied plaintiffs' counsel access to their own clients," and "prevented the plaintiffs from seeking plainly relevant discovery." The Court stated that the "right to counsel is a right of the highest order of importance," and that when that right is restrained without substantial justification (of which there was none here), "prejudice can fairly be presumed." The Court also stated that "it is black letter law" that policy and custom evidence is required in a section 1983 suit, and that it was "nose-on-the-face plain that the adverse decision at trial rested in substantial part on the plaintiffs' failure to adduce precisely the sort of evidence that the protective order prevented them from discovering." Although the Court of Appeals did not need to address class certification, it did state its belief that summary judgment could properly precede class certification, but that "a full-blown trial on the merits" should not occur "without pausing to take up a timely motion for class certification." The Court counseled the District Court, on remand, that it may consider dispositive motions before class certification. Danny B. ex rel. Elliott v. Raimondo, 784 F.3d 825 (1st Cir. 2015).
On remand, both Judge Lisi and Magistrate Judge Almond recused themselves pursuant to D.R.I. Local Rule 105(b), which requires recusal of the prior judge when a case is remanded for retrial. The case is now before Chief Judge William E. Smith. The Court (Chief Judge Smith) has indicated it would consider class certification first, and directed plaintiffs to file a new motion.
On October 2, 2015, plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint, adding additional named plaintiffs and updating their legal claims. On October 15, 2015, plaintiffs filed their Third Motion for Class Certification. On October 22, 2015, plaintiffs filed their Fourth Amended Complaint, again adding new named plaintiffs.
As of the date of this summary, plaintiffs' new motion for class certification is pending.Xin Chen - 12/11/2011
Ariana Fink - 12/06/2012
Dan Whitman - 10/22/2015