Hensley v. Koller, No. 12-2147 (4th Cir. 2013)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Plaintiff, by and through her adoptive parents, brought this action challenging South Carolina's reduction of monthly adoption assistance benefits, claiming that the reduction violated the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, 42 U.S.C. 670 et seq. The court held in this case that section 673(a)(3) did set forth a privately enforceable right under 42 U.S.C. 1983, but that the parents have failed to plead any violation of that right by defendants. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded.

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PUBLISHED UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT No. 12-2147 KENNETH HENSLEY, as adoptive parents of BLH; ANGELA HENSLEY, as adoptive parents of BLH; BLH, by parentsgeneral guardians Kenneth and Angela Hensley, Plaintiffs - Appellees, v. LILLIAN KOLLER, individually and in her official capacity as State Director for the South Carolina Department of Social Services; ELIZABETH PATTERSON, individually as Former Director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services; KIM AYDLETTE, individually as Former Director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services; KATHLEEN HAYES, individually as Former Director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services, Defendants - Appellants, and SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Defendant. Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Spartanburg. G. Ross Anderson, Jr., Senior District Judge. (7:11-cv-02827-GRA) Argued: May 16, 2013 Decided: July 3, 2013 Before MOTZ, DAVIS, and WYNN, Circuit Judges. Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Judge Motz wrote the opinion, in which Judge Davis and Judge Wynn joined. ARGUED: Andrew Lindemann, DAVIDSON & LINDEMANN, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants. Timothy Ryan Langley, HODGE & LANGLEY LAW FIRM, P.C., Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: William H. Davidson, II, Joel S. Hughes, DAVIDSON & LINDEMANN, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellants. Charles J. Hodge, HODGE & LANGLEY LAW FIRM, P.C., Spartanburg, South Carolina; James Fletcher Thompson, JAMES FLETCHER THOMPSON, LLC, Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellees. 2 DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge: A minor, by and through her adopted parents, brought this class action challenging South Carolina s reduction of monthly adoption assistance benefits. the Adoption Assistance She claims the reduction violates and Child Welfare Act, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as money damages. The district court certified the class and denied the parties cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand. I. The South Carolina Department of Social Services ( DSS ) provides adoption assistance subsidies and foster care maintenance payments pursuant to federal funding authorized by the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. § 670 et seq. (2006) ( the Act ). To receive funding under the Act, a state must develop a plan for a subsidy and maintenance program and must obtain approval of that plan by the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. See id. § 671(a). The Act sets forth specific requirements governing foster care maintenance payments, id. § 672, and adoption assistance payments, id. § 673. an approved plan With respect to the latter, a state with shall enter 3 into adoption assistance agreements . . . with the adoptive parents of children with special needs. Id. § 673(a)(1)(A). The Act further provides: The amount of the [adoption assistance] payments . . . shall be determined through agreement between the adoptive parents and the State . . . , which shall take into consideration the circumstances of the adopting parents and the needs of the child being adopted, and may be readjusted periodically, with the concurrence of the adopting parents . . . , depending upon changes in such circumstances. However, in no case may the amount of the adoption assistance payment . . . exceed the foster care maintenance payment which would have been paid during the period if the child with respect to whom the adoption assistance payment is made had been in a foster family home. Id. § 673(a)(3). The adoption subsidy agreement between DSS and adoptive parents, referenced in § 673, establishes the payment rate for an adoptive child. II. In April 1997, BLH, a minor child, was placed in temporary foster care with Angela and Kenneth Hensley. Beginning in 1998, DSS approved monthly foster care maintenance payments of $675 to Mr. and Mrs. Hensley for the care of BLH. These payments included a Difficulty of Care Rate upward adjustment because DSS found BLH to be a special needs child. In early 1999, Mr. and Mrs. Hensley applied for a court order declaring them BLH s adoptive parents. In preparing their application, Mr. and Mrs. Hensley sought to convert the foster care maintenance payment into an adoption 4 assistance subsidy. On March 22, 1999, DSS and Mr. and Mrs. Hensley entered into an Adoption Subsidy Agreement under which DSS agreed to furnish the Hensleys assistance payments of $675. issued an order declaring parents of BLH. with monthly adoption Two months later, a state court Mr. and Mrs. Hensley the adoptive Mr. and Mrs. Hensley continued to receive the $675 adoption subsidy monthly for three years. But in June 2002, then-DSS Director Elizabeth G. Patterson announced that as a result of South Carolina s budget crisis, DSS would reduce maintenance by twenty payments beginning that reduction, BLH s dollars and July. all adoption monthly assistance Pursuant subsidy foster to this decreased to $655. care subsidies, across-the-board In 2004, DSS rescinded the twenty dollar reduction to foster care maintenance payments, but DSS has never rescinded the 2002 reduction to adoption assistance subsidies; thus, for BLH, the latter remains $655. In September 2011, BLH, by and through Mr. and Mrs. Hensley (collectively, the Hensleys ), filed in state court a class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Lillian Koller, individually and in her official capacity as director of DSS. Koller removed the action to federal court. The Hensleys amended their complaint three times, removed the South Carolina Department of Social Services as a party, and added Patterson, 5 Kim Aydlette, and Kathleen Hayes, individually as former directors of DSS (collectively, with Koller, the Directors ). The Directors then moved for summary judgment. The Hensleys opposed the motion and filed a combined cross-motion for summary judgment and motion for class certification. the district court heard argument, it granted the After Hensleys motion for class certification and denied the cross-motions for summary judgment. The Directors timely noted this appeal. III. We have jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal because the Directors assertion of qualified presents purely legal questions. U.S. 511, 530 (1985). from suit See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 We review de novo a district court s denial of qualified immunity. 650 (4th Cir. 2007). immunity Johnson v. Caudill, 475 F.3d 645, In doing so, [t]o the extent that the district court has not fully set forth the facts on which its decision is based, we assume the facts that may reasonably be inferred from the record when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Waterman v. Batton, 393 F.3d 471, 473 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Winfield v. Bass, 106 F.3d 525, 533 35 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc)). Qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from suits 6 for civil damages under § 1983. Ridpath v. Bd. of Governors Marshall Univ., 447 F.3d 292, 306 (4th Cir. 2006). (1) whether whether an that official right official acted. The qualified immunity inquiry asks was violated clearly a federal established right, at and time the (2) the See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200 (2001). A court may address the second question -- whether a right is clearly established -- without ruling on the first -- existence of the right. (2009). Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232, 236 But there are cases in which there would be little if any conservation of judicial resources to be had by beginning and ending prong. with a discussion the clearly established Id. at 236. This is such a case. declaratory relief determination shields of a that state in a The Hensleys seek injunctive and addition right official is from not to money clearly money damages. established damages. See A only Akers v. Caperton, 998 F.2d 220, 226-28 (4th Cir. 1982) (holding clearly established law protected state officials only from liability for money damages, and so remanding case for consideration of claim for equitable relief). Thus, if we resolved the case on the ground that no clearly established law permits an award of damages against the state officials, the case would necessarily return to the district court for a determination availability of injunctive and declaratory relief. 7 of the Here, the conservation of judicial resources, Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236, weighs strongly in favor of resolving the question of whether the Directors violated the Hensleys federal rights. For this reason, we begin (and end) with the first step of Saucier s two-step inquiry -- determination of whether § 673(a)(3) creates a privately enforceable right to parental concurrence, which the Directors have violated. IV. [U]nless manifests Congress an speak[s] unambiguous with intent a to clear create voice, and individually enforceable rights, federal funding provisions provide no basis for private enforcement by § 1983. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 280 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). Blessing factor v. test Freestone, to the determine Supreme whether Court a announced particular a In three- statutory provision gives rise to a federal right privately enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: First, Congress must have intended that the provision in question benefit the plaintiff. Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the right assertedly protected by the statute is not so vague and amorphous that its enforcement would strain judicial competence. Third, the statute must unambiguously impose a binding obligation on the States. In other words, the provision giving rise to the asserted right must be couched in mandatory, rather than precatory, terms. 520 U.S. 329, 340-41 (1997) (internal 8 quotation marks and citations omitted). Of course, even if a statute meets the Blessing three-factor test establishing a privately enforceable right, a plaintiff cannot recover unless it can properly plead a violation of that statutory right. In this case we hold that the statute, § 673(a)(3), does set forth a privately enforceable right, but that the Hensleys have failed to plead any violation of that right by the Directors. A. Following the Blessing three-factor test, we initially consider whether the Hensleys have pled a violation of a federal right. As to the first Blessing question, whether § 673(a)(3) confer[s] rights on a particular class of persons, Gonzaga, 536 U.S. at 285 (internal quotation marks omitted), we agree with the only other circuit to address that question that § 673(a)(3) does evinc[e] a clear intent to create a federal right, see ASW v. Oregon, 424 F.3d 970, 975-76 (9th Cir. 2005). For the Act provides that the adoption assistance payments: shall be determined through agreement between the adoptive parents and the State . . . , which shall take into consideration the circumstances of the adopting parents and the needs of the child being adopted, and may be readjusted periodically, with the concurrence of the adopting parents . . . , depending upon changes in such circumstances. 9 42 U.S.C. § 673(a)(3) (emphasis added). 1 In considering the second Blessing factor, we determine whether the asserted right is so vague and amorphous that its enforcement would strain judicial competence. 41. 520 U.S. at 340- The Directors argue that the term concurrence is too vague[] and amorphous[] to create an enforceable right. disagree. We In interpreting the plain language of a statute, we give the terms their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning. Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 669 F.3d 428, 435 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal defines quotation marks concurrence as omitted). Black s [a]greement; Dictionary (9th ed. 2009). assent. Law Dictionary Black s Law Thus, § 673(a)(3) clearly provides that a state may not readjust an adoption assistance payment amount without an adoptive parent s concurrence, i.e., agreement or assent. Turning to Blessing s final factor, we examine whether the statute unambiguously State[]. impose[s] 520 U.S. at 341. a binding obligation on the To do so we must resolve whether 1 The Directors contend that the Act cannot be challenged by BLH, or Mr. and Mrs. Hensley in their capacity as adoptive parents of BLH, because it contemplates only an agreement between the state and the adoptive parents. This argument fails. The Act provides that its stated purpose is to enabl[e] each State to provide . . . adoption assistance for children with special needs. 42 U.S.C. § 670 (emphasis added). This language clearly reveals Congressional inten[t] to confer individual rights upon this class of beneficiaries. See Gonzaga, 536 U.S. at 285. 10 the provision giving rise to the asserted right is couched in mandatory, rather than precatory, terms. Id. In this case, the operative provision, § 673(a)(3), requires states to enter into agreements assistance with payments. adoptive It parents further to requires determine that adoption such agreed determinations take into consideration the circumstances of the adopting parents and the needs of the child being adopted. Id. See ASW, 424 F.3d at 976 ( [T]here is no ambiguity as to what [states must] do under § 673(a)(3) as a condition of receiving federal funding under [the Act]. ). And if a state wants to readjust the agreed-to payments, it must have the concurrence of the adopting parents to do so, with the limited exception we address below. For these 42 U.S.C. § 673(a)(3). reasons, we conclude that, pursuant to the Blessing test, § 673(a)(3) does give rise to a limited privately enforceable federal right cognizable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. B. But only violations of such enforceable rights can provide a basis for recovery. See Saucier, 533 U.S. at 200 ( [T]he first inquiry must be whether a . . . right would have been violated on the facts alleged . . . . (emphasis added)). Thus, we must also determine whether the Hensleys have alleged facts establishing that the Directors violated the Hensleys rights under § 673(a)(3) when the Directors reduced adoption assistance 11 subsidies. The statute s question. limited exception speaks to this very Section 673(a)(3) provides: in no case may the amount of the adoption assistance payment . . . exceed the foster care maintenance payment which would have been paid during the period if the child with respect to whom the adoption assistance payment is made had been in a foster family home. 42 U.S.C. language § is 673(a)(3). that the The most statute logical prohibits reading adoption of this assistance subsidies that exceed foster care maintenance payments. 2 As a result, § 673(a)(3) establishes a right to parental concurrence in subsidy readjustment determinations except when the subsidy must be reduced due to reductions in foster care maintenance payments. It is maintenance undisputed payments by that DSS twenty reduced dollars at the the foster same care time DSS reduced the adoption assistance subsidy by the same amount. The Hensleys do not contend that at any time prior to the 2002 reduction, the adoption assistance subsidy they received for BLH was less than BLH s $675 foster care maintenance payment. 2 The policy manual issued by the United States Department of Health & Human Services, which administers the federal funding authorized by the Act, supports this reading of § 673(a)(3). See Admin. for Children & Families, U.S. Dep t of Health & Human Servs., Child Welfare Policy Manual § 8.2D.4 (2012). 12 It was only in 2002, when South Carolina decreased by twenty dollars all foster care maintenance payments, that the State also decreased BLH s adoption assistance subsidy by twenty dollars. The federal law. State s failure to do so would have violated For, under § 673(a)(3), a failure to reduce BLH s adoption assistance payment would have resulted in a payment exceed[ing] the foster care maintenance payment she would have received had she remained in foster care. For these reasons, the Hensleys cannot establish that the Directors violated the Hensleys rights under the Act and therefore the Directors are entitled to qualified immunity. 3 V. For district the reasons court and stated, remand we the reverse case for the judgment entry of a of the judgment consistent with this opinion. REVERSED and REMANDED 3 The Hensleys also argue that the Directors violated their parental concurrence rights when DSS later increased foster care maintenance payments without also increasing the adoption assistance subsidy. However, the 2004 increase did not readjust the amount of the adoption assistance subsidies; accordingly, the Directors 2004 action did not trigger - let alone violate -- the parental concurrence requirement. 13