United States District Court, D. Maine
ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO PROCEED IN FORMA
PAUPERIS AND EX PARTE MOTION FOR TEMPORARY RESTRAINING
E. Walker, United States District Judge.
Toni Barronton alleges the Defendants have violated her
constitutional rights by denying her custody of (or access
to) her minor daughter. The matter is before the Court on
Plaintiff's Application to Proceed in District Court
Without Prepaying Fees or Costs (ECF No. 3) and Motion for Ex
Parte Temporary Restraining Order (ECF No. 4).
Plaintiff's Application is granted; her Motion is denied.
Barronton's parental rights with respect to minor child,
N.L., were modified pursuant to an Order of Parental Rights
and Responsibilities issued in a custody dispute between
Plaintiff and Patrick Lynn, the father of the N.L. In
particular, the Maine District Court awarded Lynn “sole
parental rights, ” subject to Barronton's
“right of contact, ” which is limited to
visitation “at times and places to be agreed by the
father.” Order of Parental Rights and Responsibilities
(ECF No. 4-1).
alleged by Barronton, the Maine Department of Health and
Human Services recently instituted a child-custody
investigation and/or proceeding against Mr. Lynn. In
connection with its intervention, the Department has allowed
N.L. to be placed in the custody of Nicole Norwood, a friend
of Lynn, over Barronton's objection. Norwood has denied
Barronton access to N.L., evidently at Lynn's direction,
and the Department's personnel have denied
Barronton's requests for custody of, or even supervised
visitation with, N.L. Before the Department's
involvement, Lynn afforded Barronton regular access to the
child “on a rotating weekend basis.” Compl. p. 9.
asserts in this civil action that the Department is depriving
her of parental rights protected by the United States
Constitution. She asserts her claim against the Commissioner
of the Department, three members of the Commissioner's
staff, the Maine Attorney General, an Assistant Attorney
General, Mr. Lynn, and Ms. Norwood. Through her civil action,
Barronton requests, exclusively, injunctive relief.
she is proceeding in forma pauperis, Barronton's
complaint is subject to a sua sponte screening
process designed to ensure that the complaint states a claim
for relief, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), “to
spare prospective defendants the inconvenience and expense of
answering” claims that are not actionable. Neitzke
v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324 (1989). In order to state
a claim against a particular defendant, a plaintiff must
allege facts that tend to show, when viewed in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff, a plausible basis for finding the
defendant liable for the conduct in question. Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).
matter, Barrington seeks, exclusively, injunctive relief.
Consequently, there is no cause for her to assert her claim
against five different state-actor defendants. One defendant
will do adequately, provided the defendant is the state actor
with authority to order the injunctive relief requested in
the complaint. See, e.g., Gonzalez v.
Feinerman, 663 F.3d 311, 315 (7th Cir. 2011) (noting
that although prison warden was not subject to a claim in his
personal capacity, he was the proper defendant in his
official capacity given the prisoner's plea for
injunctive relief); Dodson v. Lindamood, No.
1:18-CV-00058, 2019 WL 1315963, at *4 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 22,
2019) (dismissing official capacity claims against
lower-level department administrators as
“redundant” given the claim against the
department commissioner). Here, the appropriate defendant
with the requisite authority is Commissioner Lambrew, in her
official capacity. Accordingly, I hereby dismiss sua
sponte the claim asserted against Department staff
members Christy Davis (program administrator), Melissa
Witcomb (supervisor), and Lynn King (social worker), as well
as Aaron Frey, the Maine Attorney General, and Assistant A.G.
Melody Havey. Although I do not, at this time, dismiss the
claim against Commissioner Lambrew, this order is without
prejudice to Dr. Lambrew's ability to file a motion to
dismiss, if she identifies grounds.
question remains whether Plaintiff has stated a claim for
relief against Mr. Lynn, the father, or against his friend,
Nicole Norwood, the custodian. Based on my reading of the
complaint, Plaintiff asserts, exclusively, a due process
claim against the Department's exercise of parens
patriae authority over N.L. Given that Mr. Lynn has sole
parental rights and the Department evidently stands behind
the custody arrangement he directed, Norwood's present
custody of the child appears to have been obtained lawfully.
Additionally, Barronton has not articulated a state law cause
of action against Norwood and there is nothing in the
complaint that would suggest Norwood would not follow a
directive from this Court or the Department concerning child
custody or access matters. Under the circumstances, I do not
discern a plausible basis for subjecting Norwood to legal
liability. Accordingly, the claim is dismissed as to Norwood,
who will be spared the burden of answering, without prejudice
to Barronton's right to seek leave to amend her complaint
to state a claim against Norwood, if grounds exist.
Mr. Lynn, he is at a minimum an interested party entitled to
service of the complaint, given his natural interest in the
subject of the litigation. I will, at present, treat him as a
defendant to an implied state law claim within the
Court's ancillary jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §
1367. However, nothing in this order should be construed as
adverse to Lynn's right to file a motion to dismiss,
should he identify grounds for such a motion. I would note,
in particular, that child custody matters are ordinarily the
domain of the state courts. Ankenbrandt v. Richards,
504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992) (“[T]he domestic relations
exception … divests the federal courts of power to
issue divorce, alimony, and child custody
there is the matter of Barronton's request for a
temporary restraining order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(b). Such relief
is never awarded as of right and is extraordinary in nature,
particularly as it requests relief without giving the
opposing party an opportunity to be heard. Baber v.
Dunlap, 349 F.Supp.3d 68, 74 (D. Me. 2018). I have, at
present, no inherently reliable means of assessing the
fitness of either parent. Nor am I persuaded on the current
record that harm is likely to befall Barronton or the child
if I allow time for service and a response from the
Commissioner and Mr. Lynn. In short, even if I assume that
Barronton's right to access her child is paramount upon
removal of the child from Mr. Lynn's home, I am not
persuaded that I should grant relief on an ex parte
basis. Benisek v. Lamone, --- U.S. __, 138 S.Ct.
1942, 1943-44, 201 L.Ed.2d 398 (2018) (per curiam) (“As
a matter of equitable discretion, a preliminary injunction
does not follow as a matter of course from a plaintiff's
showing of a likelihood of success on the merits.”). In
the final analysis, “trial courts have wide discretion
in making judgments regarding the appropriateness of such
relief.” Francisco Sánchez v. Esso Standard
Oil Co., 572 F.3d 1, 14 (1st Cir. 2009)). The request
for Temporary Restraining Order is denied.
Application to Proceed in District Court Without Prepaying
Fees or Costs (ECF No. 3) is GRANTED. Plaintiff's Motion
for Ex Parte Temporary Restraining Order (ECF No. 4) is
DENIED. The claim(s) asserted in the complaint are dismissed,
sua sponte, to the extent they are asserted against
Defendants Davis, Witcomb, King, Frey, Havey, and Norwood.
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