Edenfield v. Gateway Behavioral Health Services, No. 2:2016cv00170 - Document 25 (S.D. Ga. 2017)

Court Description: ORDER granting in part and denying in part Gateway's 14 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; denying Cheryl Edenfield's 15 Motion to Amend/Correct. Signed by Judge Lisa G. Wood on 5/15/2017. (ca)
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Edenfield v. Gateway Behavioral Health Services Doc. 25 M t|ie ?limteb States: ISisitrict Court tor t|ie ^onttiem Btotrict ot <(leorsta FILED Scott L. Poff, Clerk United States District Court iimufiiltittk BtbtOton By casbell at 4:14 pm, May 15, 2017 CHERYL EDENFIELD, as Mother and Legal Guardian of QUINCY EDENFIELD, an incapacitated adult. Plaintiff, 2:16-CV-170 V. GATEWAY BEHAVIORAL HEALTH SERVICES, Defendant. ORDER Sovereign immunity bars Plaintiff Cheryl Edenfield's (^'Cheryl") (as mother and legal guardian of Quincy Edenfield (^'Quincy")) state-law amend futile. tort claims and makes her motion to But her 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (^^Section 1983") claim survives, as does her contract-breach claim. Thus, Defendant Gateway Behavioral Services' (""Gateway") Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, dkt. no. 14, will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, and Cheryl's Motion to Amend the Complaint, dkt. no. 15, will be DENIED. A0 72A (Rev. 8/82) Dockets.Justia.com BACKGROUND Quincy Receives Gateway Services The Court assumes the truth of the facts alleged in the complaint. Quincy has "Severe Autistic Unspecified Intellectual Disabilities." Disorder and Dkt. No. 1-3 55. He receives housing, transportation, and behavioral services from Gateway. Id. 5 8. Gateway home. Since May 2012, Quincy has lived at a Id. 55 6, 8a. Quincy goes to a Gateway day center between 8:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. Id. 5 8b. Cheryl is Quincy's mother and has been his guardian and conservator since March 23, 2015. weekends with her. Id. 5 8a. Id. 5 7. Quincy spends his "Prior to February 29, 201$ and on many occasions," Cheryl would notice wounds and bruises on Quincy when picking him up from the Gateway center. Id. 5 11. "When [she] would return [him] to Gateway and question staff members concerning Quincy's investigation, answer." that she Id. 5 12. Quincy was would wounds/bruises and/or ask for never obtain a a straightforward In particular, no one ever told Cheryl being abused. investigations did not uncover abuse. Id. 5 12a. Early Id. 5 12b. Quincy Was Abused by a Gateway Employee On February 27, 2016, a Gateway staff member told another employee that she had seen Gateway's Errol Wilkins "hitting Quincy as well as another individual." Id. 5 15. Cheryl did not learn of this. Id. SI 14. On February 29, 2016, she brought Quincy to a doctor for a medical examination. 13. Id. SI When she returned to Gateway, ^^no one . . . would confess . . . that Quincy was being abused." Id. SI 14. However, Gateway launched an investigation that day. SI 16. Id. It substantiated the accusations, with employees saying they had seen Wilkins ^'hit Quincy . . . with his fist and/or open hand on several occasions and that this has been going on for several weeks," Id. SI 18 (alteration in original). Employees claimed Wilkins would hit clients "[a]t least 2-3 times a week, sometimes 2x per day," ^^for about 3 months," sometimes with a broken-off chair handle—and that they feared him because he was ''a former gang member." Id. SISI 21(g)-(i), 22(a), 25(a), 26(j)-(k); ^ also id. SI 25(g)-(h) rsveryone has seen It and I heard Errol had been spoken to about this . . . . a long time ago." (alteration in original)), SI 26(h) (^'I and the other staff have warned him that he was going to get caught." (alteration in original)). Wilkins was terminated. Dkt. No. 14-1 at 4; Dkt. No. 17 at 16. Cheryl Sues Gateway Cheryl filed this lawsuit against Gateway in Glynn County State Court on November 15, 2016. Id. at 2. She alleged three state-law tort claims; failure to train and supervise. negligent retention, and assault and battery. She also raised Section 1983. Id. SISI 28-50. Id. SISI 51-56. Gateway removed the case on December 22, 2016. 1. Dkt. No. It moved for judgment on the pleadings on January 26, 2017. Dkt. No. 14. That motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. Dkt. Nos. 17, 21. While briefing was ongoing, Cheryl moved to amend her complaint. Dkt. No. 15. She seeks to add Wilkins as a defendant, and to add a fourth state-law tort claim, against Gateway and Wilkins for fraud. Id. 63, 79-87. Gateway responded in opposition, and that motion is also ripe. Dkt. No. 19. LEGAL STANDARDS Judgment on the Pleadings A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is governed by the same standards as a Rule claim. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a Flournoy v. CML-GA WB, LLC, No. CV 114-161, 2015 WL 2345594, at *1 (S.D. Ga. May 15, 2015). Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task," guided by ^'judicial experience and common sense." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). A complaint must be ^^a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." P. 8(a)(2). Its ^Mf]actual allegations must Fed. R. Civ. be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. also Corp. Iqbal, V. 556 Twombly, U.S. at 550 678. U.S. It 544, has 555 to (2007); see ^'contain inferential allegations from which [the court] can identify each of the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Roe v. Aware Woman Ctr.. for Choice, Inc., 253 F.Sd 678, 684 (11th Cir. 2001). The court must assume the truth of a fact alleged in the complaint, but not ''a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). When ''a dispositive issue of law" shows ^'beyond all reasonable doubt" . that ""the would entitle plaintiffs can them to relief," prove no set of facts that the defendants judgment on the pleadings. court can grant the Executive 100, Inc. v. Martin County, 922 F.2d 1536, 1539 (11th Cir. 1991). Motion to Amend Complaint Given this case's posture, ^'a party pleading only with . . . the court's leave. freely give leave when justice so requires." 15(a)(2). may amend The court should Fed. R. Civ. P. ''[T]he grant or denial of an opportunity to amend is within the discretion of the District Court . . . ." V. its Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). Foman 'MDJenial of leave to amend is justified by futility when the ^complaint as amended is still subject to dismissal.'" Burger King Corp. v. Weaver, 169 F.3d 1310, 1320 (11th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted). DISCUSSION Sovereign immunity bars Cheryl's state-law tort claims, but her Section 1983 claim survives, as does her contract- breach claim. I. SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY BARS CHERYL'S STATE-LAW TORT CLAIMS. Cheryl's concedes state-law that sovereign Gateway immunity tort is under a claims are government Georgia (conceding Gateway to be "clothed law. barred. body Dkt. Cheryl entitled No. 17 to at 13 with immunity"); see also Ga. Dep't of Nat. Res, v. Ctr. for a Sustainable Coast, Inc., 755 S.E.2d 184, 188 (Ga. 2014) (observing Georgia sovereign immunity protects "governments at all levels"); Youngblood v. Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Community Serv. Bd., 545 S.E.2d 875, 877 (Ga. 2001) (holding community-service boards, like Gateway, are "departments or agencies of the State" entitled to sovereign [Georgia's immunity). sovereign Courts cannot "abrogate immunity]"—only the or legislature modify can. Ctr. for a Sustainable Coast, Inc., 755 S.E.2d at 189 (citing Ga. Const, art. I § 2 ^ IX(e)). waiver of sovereign claiming one. immunity has An to applicable be shown legislative by the party Sherin v. Dep't of Human Res., 494 S.E.2d 518, 522 (Ga. Ct. App. 1997). 6 Cheryl relies sovereign immunity employees while on O.C.G.A. § 50-21-23(a), "for torts of state within acting the the scope of duties or employment."^ which waives officers their O.C.G.A. § 50-21-23(a). and official But this waiver is subject to limits listed in O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24. In particular, the State is immune as to "losses resulting from . . . . [a]ssault[ Cheryl's state-law exception's shadow. to train and ] [or] tort battery." claims fall Id. § 50-21-24(7). directly within this To recall, those claims are for failure supervise, battery, and fraud. Even negligent though retention, assault most of them are and not for assault or battery, they still result from assault or battery. See Dkt. No. 1-3 SISI 28-41, 44-50; Dkt. No. 15-1 ft 19-81. The Court's "focus is not on which particular state law causes of action a plaintiff has set forth in her complaint, but rather on the underlying plaintiff's loss." (Ga. Ct. App. conduct that allegedly caused the Davis v. Standifer, 621 S.E.2d 852, 857 2005). Cheryl's state-law tort claims all "aris[e] out of conduct that would constitute . . . assault or battery," so they are all barred.^ Id. (barring claims for ^ Gateway does not raise Georgia's retention of sovereign immunity as to tort claims brought against it in federal court, perhaps because Cheryl filed this case in state court. See O.C.G.A. § 50-21-23(b). ^ Wilkins was allegedly a government employee, dkt. no. 15-1 55 64-65, but even if he had not been. Gateway would still be immune. Youngblood, 545 S.E.2d at 878 (holding O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7) applies "regardless of who committed the act."); Cowart v. Ga. Dep't of Human Serv., No. A16A1515, 2017 WL 534877, at *2 (Ga. Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2017) ("[I]f a plaintiff's ^^negligent . . . and discipline hiring, of" instruction, police officer supervision, who control, allegedly sexually assaulted plaintiff during traffic stop); see also Pelham v. Bd, of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga., 743 S.E.2d 469, 471, 474 (Ga. Ct. negligent App. 2013) training {barring and claims supervision against of overseers football staff for after coach allegedly had player assault another player). Cheryl apply contends when the that O.C.G.A. assault or § 50-21-24(7) battery ^''is the does not negligent implementation of a policy or negligent act not authorized by policy." Dkt. No. 17 at 15. But the authorities Cheryl cites concern other sovereign immunity exceptions.^ See id. at 13- 14 Dep^t (discussing Safety v. O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(2)); Davis, (analyzing O.C.G.A. Comm^ n, 789 § S.E.2d (analyzing O.C.G.A. fails. 676 §§ S.E.2d 50-21-24(6)); 343, 346 Ga. 1, Grant (Ga. 50-21-24(2), (6)). 1-2 v. Ct. of (Ga. Ga. 2009) Forestry App. Her Pub. 2016) objection Cf. Sherin, 494 S.E.2d at 522 (avoiding O.C.G.A. § 50- 21-24(2), given dismissal under O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7)). injury was caused by an assault and battery committed by a third party, the state is immune from suit even if the assault and battery was facilitated by or resulted from the prior negligent performance of a state officer or employee." (citing Pelham v. Bd. of Regents of Univ.. Sys. of Ga., 743 S.E.2d 469, 473 (Ga. Ct. App. 2013)). ^ One O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7) case considers another exception. Cowart, 2017 WL 534877, at *2-3 (discussing O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(2)) . It did so for reasons absent here. Id. at *1-2 (noting plaintiff deleted physicalabuse allegations and replaced them with negligence ones, and did not appeal dismissals based on O.C.G.A. § 50-21-24(7)) . 8 The Court strongly sympathizes with Cheryl. But ^Ms]overeign immunity is a harsh doctrine, not an equitable one. Indeed, state it is just the opposite of equity—it is the declaring that it cannot be sued even otherwise be liable." Dev. omitted). 384, Gateway's 386 (Ga. Ct. App. 2012) motion for judgment pleadings is GRANTED as to failure to train negligent retention, would Pak v. Ga. Dep^t of Behavioral Health & Disabilities, 731 S.E.2d (citation where it and assault and on the and supervise, battery. Because Cheryl's desired claim for fraud is also barred, and she only seeks to add Wilkins as a defendant for this claim, see dkt. no. 15-1 1 62 et sag. (tacking Wilkins on at end of previous complaint, with only fraud count following), her motion to amend her complaint, dkt. no. 15, is DENIED as futile. II. CHERYL'S SECTION 1983 CLAIM SURVIVES. However, Cheryl's Section 1983 claim will proceed. relies only on the Fourteenth Amendment. Gateway concedes that if this Court She Dkt. No. 17 at 22. finds Gateway to be a ^"person" subject to suit under Section 1983, its motion should be denied Court as makes to this such a claim. finding. Dkt. No. Section 14-1 at 14 n.2. 1983 authorizes The suits against "[e]very person who . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." ^^person" 42 does U.S.C. § 1983 not include (emphasis states or Gateway claims to be a state agency. added). their The agencies, term and Will v. Mich. Dep^t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64 (1989); Taylor v. Dep^t of Pub. Safety, 142 F. App'x 373, 374-75 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam); Dkt. No. 14-1 at 11-14. This argument is unpersuasive in light of the Eleventh Circuit's recent decision in Miller v. Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, No. 15-15496, 2017 WL 370850 (11th Cir. Jan. 26, 2017) court (per curiam) considered the boards like Gateway. (unpublished status of opinion) Georgia There, the community-service Id. at *1; see also Dkt. No. 14-1 at 2 (describing Gateway as such a board), 13 n.l (noting Miller decision weighed was pending Georgia's when deeming Gateway's such brief boards to was be filed). state It entities against the three factors of local control over them, their apparent ^'unfettered discretion to design [their] own funding mix," them. and limits on Id. at *3-7. of the State." state liability for judgments against It held that the boards are not "arm[s] Id. at *8. ^ Gateway notes that the Section 1983 claim in Cheryl's complaint calls Gateway an "agency of the State of Georgia." 14-1 at 13 n.l; Dkt. No. 21 at 14. The Dkt. No. 1-3 f 53; Dkt. No. Court deems this an immaterial imprecision, and not a concession, given the intervening Miller decision. 10 Miller '"But in was an Eleventh deciphering of § 1983, Amendment congressional the scope of the case. See intent as Eleventh to id. at the *8. scope Amendment is a consideration, and [the Court] decline[s] to adopt a reading of § 1983 that disregards it." also id. State" at 70 test). (adopting It Will, .491 U.S. at 66-67; see Eleventh instead follows Amendment Miller by ^^arms of holding the that Gateway is a person and not an arm of the State under Section 1983, and so DENIES Gateway's motion as to Cheryl's Section 1983 claim. III. CHERYL'S CONTRACT-BREACH CLAIM SURVIVES. It does the same as to Cheryl's contract-breach claim. Georgia waives sovereign immunity for breaches of its written contracts. Ga. Const, art. 1 § 2 ^ IX(c). The parties here only dispute whether there was a written contract for Quincy's behavioral services. Dkt. No. 14-1 at 18-22; Dkt. No. 17 at 16-24; Dkt. No. 21 at 10-13. document—or a series of A written contract has to be one contemporaneously signed documents- containing the essential elements of a contract: (1) parties able to contract; subject matter. (2) consideration; (3) assent; and (4) O.C.G.A. § 13-3-1; Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga. v. Tyson, 404 S.E.2d 557 (Ga. 1991). Cheryl presented evidence of a contract in the form of a May 10, 2012 ''Gateway Behavioral 11 Health Services DD Orientation Checklist,^'' signed by Cheryl and a staff member, with tick marks next to ^^Review of program services," ''Intake Assessment Form," "Consent to Use and Disclose Information," "Authorization(s) for Release of Information," "Consent for Services," "Financial Contract," "Consumer handbook," "Client Rights, Responsibilities Procedure," "Information treatment," and planning." documents, elements documents and Complaints, about "Information Dkt. No. 17-1.^ and of a that they contract, family about Grievance involvement individualized in treatment The existence of these other would are Including reflect more plausibly represent a than all four essential speculative. Such behavioral-services contract between Quincy and Gateway, and between Gateway and Cheryl for Quincy's benefit. Cf. Younqblood v. Gwinnett Rockdale Newton Cmty. Serv. Bd., 545 S.E.2d 875, 878 (Ga. 2001).® ^ This document can be considered. Thus, It is referenced in the complaint and central to Cheryl's claim. Dkt. No. 1-3 II 3-3d (describing Gateway's contractual obligations "[a]t all times pertinent to this lawsuit"), 8 ("The parties entered into a contract for Gateway to provide Quincy with . . . behavioral services."). The Court can consider it even though it was attached to Cheryl's response and not to the complaint itself. Walch V. Adjutant Gen.'s Dep't of Tex., 533 F.3d 289, 294 (5th Cir. 2008); Pension Tr. Fund for Operating Eng'rs v. Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., No. 12-CV-884, 2013 WL 3154116, at *2 n.2 (E.D. Wise. June 21, 2013); Stewart v. Morgan State Univ., Civ. A. No. 11-3605, 2013 WL 425081, at *1 n.l (D. Md. Feb. 1, 2013); Slaughter v. Fred Weber, Inc., 570 F. Supp. 2d 1054, 1058 n.l (S.D. 111. 2008); cf_^ Day v. Taylor, 400 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2005) ("[T]he court may consider a document attached to a motion to dismiss . . . if [it] is (1) central to the plaintiff's claim and (2) undisputed. . . . [It] need not be physically attached . . . ."). ® Unlike the documents in Youngblood that did not cover the date of the alleged injury, see id., Gateway does not contest that Quincy was in its care at the time he was injured. Dkt. No. 14-1 at 2-4. The Court also sees clear distinctions between this case and Kennedy v. Georgia Department of Human Resources Child Support Enforcement, 648 S.E.2d 727 12 Gateway's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to Cheryl's contract-breach claim is DENIED. CONCLUSION For the reasons above. Gateway's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, dkt. no. 14, is GRANTED in part, as to Cheryl Edenfield's claims for failure to train negligent retention, and assault and battery. part, as to Cheryl Edenfield's Section and supervise, It is DENIED in 1983 claim claim for negligent breach of contract. and her Cheryl Edenfield's Motion to Amend the Complaint, dkt. no. 15, DENIED. SO ORDERED, this 15th day of May, 2017. U LlfiA GODBEr WqOD, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA (Ga. Ct. App. 2007). That case was decided on summary judgment, and the only alleged contract there did not even have a signature line for the government defendant. Id. at 728. 13