MAZZETTI v. THE NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF CHILD PROTECTION AND PERMANENCY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Kevin McNulty on 3/27/17. (DD, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
DENNIS MAZZETTI, individually and
on behalf of D.M. as the “next
friend” of D.M. a minor,
Civ. No. 14-8134 (KM) (MAR)
THE NEW JERSEY DIVISION OF
CHILD PROTECTION AND
PERMANENCY (“DCP&P”) (formerly
Division of Youth and Family
Services), et al.,
KEVIN MCNULTY, U.S.D.J.:
The plaintiff, Dennis Mazzetti, brings this action alleging a bevy of
constitutional violations committed during the process of terminating his
parental rights over his child, D.M., and later, when the child was in the
custody of Mazzetti’s mother. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint.
(ECF No. 15) For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be for the most
part GRANTED, but in part DENIED.
This action involves 11 named defendants:
DCP&P (formerly Division of Youth & Family Services (“DYFS”),
a New Jersey child protection and welfare agency within the
Department of Children and Families;
Governor Christopher J. Christie in his individual and official
Lisa Von Pier in her official capacity as Director of DCP&P,
Allison Blake, the Commissioner of the Department of Children
and Families, in her individual and official capacities;
Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol, the presiding judge of the family
division for the Bergen County Vicinage of the New Jersey
Superior Court, in her individual and official capacities;
Judge Margaret Foti, a judge of the family division for the
Bergen County Vicinage of the New Jersey Superior Court, in
her individual and official capacities;
The Honorable Virginia Long, former Associate Justice of the
New Jersey Supreme Court, in her individual and official
Deputy Attorney General Ellen Buckwalter in her individual
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli in his individual and
Kimberly Roberts, a caseworker at DCP&P, in her individual
Erica Zapata, a caseworker at DC&P, in her individual capacity.
(Compl. j 5-2 1)
Relevant Facts & Procedural History
The New Jersey courts terminated Mazzetti’s parental rights over his
son, D.M., and that decision was affirmed on appeal. The complaint alleges a
narrative that diverges from the factual findings of the state court as recited by
the appellate opinion affirming the termination decision. Compare Compl. with
N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. D.M. (In re D.M.), Dkt. No. A-2509-09T3,
2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 120 (App. Div. Jan. 18, 2012). Mazzetti, for
example, alleges a vast conspiracy to deprive him of his parental rights, while
the appellate opinion portrays a man with “a distorted reality” who was “unable
or unwilling to secure adequate housing for the child” and lacked the ability to
“provide even a minimal degree of parental care.” In re D.M., at *6, 11-12
(quoting the trial court’s findings). For purposes of this motion to dismiss only,
I consider the facts as set forth in Mazzetti’s complaint.
D.M. was born on March 11, 2007, to Mazzetti, the father, and C.M.,
the mother. The child was born with cocaine in his system. Following his
release from the hospital, D.M. was placed in a foster home. “Several months
after” his birth, D.M. was placed in the care of Mazzetti’s mother, Linda
Mazzetti. She eventually adopted D.M. (See Compi.
25, 27, 40, 55,
At some point, DCP&P sought to terminate Mazzetti’s parental rights
based on the best interests of the child. Around the time of the termination
proceedings, Mazzetti was suffering from an infected hernia, which “may” have
rendered him permanently disabled. He could not financially provide for D.M.
without assistance from Linda Mazzetti, and DCP&P refused or failed to provide
Mazzetti or his family employment or housing services. Mazzetti alleges that he
never abused or neglected D.M. He completed every parenting course and
passed every drug test but one, the results of which he says were falsified.
During the termination proceedings, however, DCP&P testified that Mazzetti
to plan for the future [of D. M.] although physically and financially
able to do so” and “abandoned his minor child to the care of others.” (Id. ¶j 6468, 73, 76, 79-84)
Mazzetti’s rights over D.M. were terminated. He appealed. Someone at
DCP&P told Linda Mazzetti that her son could have unfettered visitation rights
if he dropped his appeals. (Id.
83) The Appellate Division affirmed the lower
court’s denial of Mazzetti ‘s parental rights on January 18, 2012. Mazzetti
C.M. voluntarily relinquished her parental rights. In re D.M., at * 1
As described by the state appellate court, Mazzetti “refused for several months
to comply with the Division’s reasonable request and the trial court’s order that he
submit to hair follicle drug testing even when his right to visitation hung in the
balance.” Id. at *6. The court also noted that when he did “finally submit to hair
follicle drug testing months after it was sought, he tested positive for cocaine.” Id. at n.
2. Presumably that is the allegedly “falsified” result.
sought review from the New Jersey Supreme Court and then the United States
Supreme Court. Those petitions were denied in May and October, 2012. See
N.J. Dep’t of Children and Families, Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. D.M., 210
N.J. 218 (2012); D.M. v. N.J. Dep’t of Youth & Family Servs., 133 S. Ct. 571
(2012). In the interim, on August 23, 2012, Mazzetti filed a federal court
complaint that substantially overlaps the subject matter of this action.
In January 2014, DCP&P opened a case for D.M, which allegedly
remains open. Around the same time, D.M. was improperly prescribed Ritalin
while under DCP&P’s supervision. (Comp.
On or about June 27, 2014, Linda Mazzetti was hospitalized. Mazzetti
assumed caregiving responsibilities for D.M. On July 1, 2014, DCP&P removed
D.M. from the care of Linda Mazzetti with the assistance of DCP&P caseworker
Kimberly Roberts. The removal was based on information provided by Deputy
Attorney General Ellen Buckwalter who, in a Verified Complaint, stated that
Linda Mazzetti “was ‘no longer able to care for [D.M.] due to her
125-129, 134, 143)
In the process of seizing D.M., Roberts told Mazzetti that “DYFS could
do whatever it wants to do without repercussion, that [Mazzetti] will never see
his son again, and that there is nothing [Mazzetti] could do about it.”
Prosecutor Molinelli failed to prosecute Roberts for her involvement in the
seizure, even though a municipal court judge found probable cause to issue a
criminal complaint. (Id.
“Without subject matter or personal” jurisdiction, Superior Court
Judge Mizdol terminated Mazzetti’s visitation rights on July 3, 2014. On July
17, 2014, Mazzetti petitioned Governor Chris Christie to investigate DCP&P,
That case, Mczzzetti v. N.J. DC.P.P., Civ. No. 12-5347, was assigned to District
Judge Hayden. It has already been the subject of an appeal to the United States Court
of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Mazzetti v. Wood, 573 F. Appx 165 (3d Cir. 2014).
and to investigate and impeach Judge Mizdol. Governor Christie did neither.
In August 2014, DCP&P misrepresented Mazzetti’s relationship to
D.M. to the Child Placement Review Board (“CPRB”). Mazzetti was not given
notice of the meeting, and only Erica Zapata, a DCP&P caseworker, “appears to
have attended.” (Id.
On or about September 7, 2014, Mazzetti filed a complaint to the
Supreme Court of New Jersey Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct
(“ACJC”), seeking an investigation of Judge Mizdol’s conduct. A month later,
ACJC, of which defendant the Honorable Virginia Long is Chairperson, found
that there was “no basis to charge Judge Mizdol with judicial misconduct.”
On September 11, 2014, Linda Mazzetti executed a codicil to her will
in which she appointed her son, Mazzetti, as D. M. ‘s guardian. Two days later,
Linda Mazzetti died. DCP&P allowed D.M. to be present for only one hour of the
wake and funeral. He was not permitted to spend any additional time with
Mazzetti or his family. Mazzetti applied for an emergent order. The Appellate
Division ruled sometime later that Mazzetti had standing to move to vacate the
termination of his parental rights based on changed circumstances.
(Id. ¶j 163-64, 167, 191)
Judge Margaret Foti, who inherited Mazzetti’s case from Judge Mizdol,
denied the motion to vacate on October 31, 2014. She allegedly also refused to
allow Mazzetti access to psychological evaluations, denied him counsel, and
refused to allow him to introduce evidence or participate in a “Best Interests of
the Child Hearing.” Judge F’oti also failed to decide Mazzetti’s motion for
dismissal for lack of jurisdiction and the right to intervene. (Id.
Since Linda Mazzetti’s death, D.M. has been in foster care.
164, 240, 289)
Mazzetti filed this federal complaint on December 31, 2014. The gist
of it is that defendants have denied him his parental rights and retaliated
against him for persisting in his appeals and federal civil rights law suits.
Mazzetti avers that his case is but one facet of a DCP&P-spearheaded scheme
“to place children in foster homes to obtain more funding from the State and
the United States Department of Health and Human Services” and “to increase
DYFS instigated adoptions.” (Id.
The complaint contains eight counts:
1. Section 1983 claim of violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth
Amendments by DCP&P, Von Pier, Blake, Judge Mizdol, Judge
Foti, and Governor Christie, for failure to properly promulgate
rules and to supervise, train, and discipline those who committed
abuses of process during their investigation of allegations of child
abuse. Count 1 seeks an injunction requiring defendants to
formulate explicit instructions and policies against abuse of
2. Section 1983 and 1986 claims of violations of the Sixth and
Fourteenth Amendments by the defendants named in Count 1 for
a policy or custom of improper hiring and inadequate training that
led to abuses of process and deliberate indifference to the rights of
persons including Mazzetti. Count 2 requests the same injunctive
relief as Count 1.
3. Section 1985 claim of conspiracy by DCP&P, Governor Christie,
Judges Mizdol and Foti, Deputy Attorney General Buckwalter,
Roberts, Zapata, Justice Long, and Prosecutor Molinelli to commit
abuses of process. Count 3 requests $10 million in damages, $50
million in punitive damages, fees and costs, interest, and any other
4. Section 1983 claim by the defendants named in Count 3 for
violations of Mazzetti and D.M.’s rights under the Fifth, Sixth,
Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments for policies, practices, acts,
and omissions that excessively interfered with Mazzetti’s
fundamental rights to privacy and freedom to raise a family. Count
4 requests the same relief as Count 3.
5. Section 1983 claim by the same defendants named in Count 3 for
violations of Mazzetti and D.M.’s rights under the First, Fourth,
Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments for depriving Mazzetti
of his due process rights, his rights to be free from excessive
interference with family relationships, and his rights to speak
freely about the defendants’ conduct. Mazzetti requests the same
relief as Count 3.
6. Section 1983 claim by the defendants named in Count 3 for
violations of Mazzetti and D.M.’s rights under the First and
Fourteenth Amendments for retaliating against Mazzetti’s
opposition to defendants’ unlawful conduct and depriving him of
equal protection of the law. Count 6 requests the same relief as
7. Claim of violations of Mazzetti’s rights under Title II of the
American with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131-12165, by the
defendants named in Count 3 for failing to provide Mazzetti with
services to protect his rights and using his disability as a means to
deprive him of those rights. Count 7 requests the same relief as
8. A habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Mazzetti
demands that defendants either demonstrate lawful jurisdiction
and custody over D.M or return D.M. to his custody.
This Motion to Dismiss
On April 1, 2015, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under
Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P. They argue that the complaint as a
whole should be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. Failing that, they assert
immunity grounds specific to individual defendants. Failing that, they suggest
that various counts of the complaint fail to state a claim. I have analyzed the
claims in that order.
Sections II and III of this Opinion discuss jurisdiction and the merits
in relation to Counts 1—7. Count 8, a habeas petition, is discussed separately
in Section IV. The net result is that, except for the First Amendment retaliation
claim (Count 6) as against defendants Zapata and Roberts, the complaint will
SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION
A motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed.
R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) may be raised at any time. lowana v. Ford Motor Co., 67 F.
Supp. 2d 424, 437-38 (D.N.J. 1999). Rule 12(b)(1) challenges may be either
facial or factual attacks. See 2 Moore’s Federal Practice
§ 12.30 (3d ed.
2007); Mortensen v. First Fed. Say. & Loan Ass’n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir.
1977). A facial challenge asserts that the complaint does not allege sufficient
grounds to establish subject matter jurisdiction. Iwanowa, 67 F. Supp. 2d at
438. A court considering such a facial challenge assumes that the allegations
in the complaint are true, and may dismiss the complaint only if it nevertheless
appears that the plaintiff will not be able to assert a colorable claim of subject
matter jurisdiction. Cardio--MecL. Assoc., Ltd. v. Crozer—Chester Med. Ctr., 721
F.2d 68, 75 (3d Cir. 1983); Iwanowa, 67 F. Supp. 2d at 438. “With respect to
12(b) (1) motions in particular, ‘[tjhe plaintiff must assert facts that affirmatively
and plausibly suggest that the pleader has the right he claims (here, the right
to jurisdiction), rather than facts that are merely consistent with such a right.”
In re Schering Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, 678 F.3d
235, 244 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Stalley v. Catholic Health Initiatives, 509 F.3d
517, 521 (8th Cir. 2007)). See generally Lincoln Ben. Life Co. v. AEILfe, LLC,
800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (discussing distinctions between facial and
Defendants argue that Mazzetti lacks standing to pursue the
injunctive relief he seeks. Mazzetti, recall, requests “an order requiring [an]
explicit instruction and policy be made requiring DYFS workers to refrain from
abuse of process.” (Compi. ¶j 240, 247) But Mazzetti’s parental rights have
already been terminated, and he does not identify any likelihood that he would
be subject to further abuses of process by DCP&P. He therefore lacks standing.
To have constitutional standing, a plaintiff must plausibly allege that
(1) that he has “suffered an ‘injury in fact’—an invasion of a legally protected
interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) ‘actual or imminent’,
not ‘conjectural’ or ‘hypothetical”; (2) “a causal connection between the injury
and the conduct complained of”; and (3) a likelihood “that the injury will be
redressed by a favorable decision.” In re Schering-Plough, 678 F.3d at 244
(quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). A plaintiff
seeking relief must plausibly allege that he is at risk of future harm that an
injunction would address. See Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 111(1983)
(holding that citizen seeking to enjoin police chokeholds lacked standing absent
evidence of a “real” and “immediate” threat that he would be subjected to the
Mazzetti’s parental rights as to D.M. were terminated years ago—
unconstitutionally, he says. But that alone does not give him standing to seek
an injunction to prevent DCP&P from continuing to engage in similar allegedly
unconstitutional procedures in the future. See Lyons, 461 U.S. at 102 (“[Pjast
exposure to illegal conduct does not in itself show a present case or controversy
regarding injunctive relief.
if unaccompanied by any continuing, present
adverse effects.”) (quoting O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 448, 495-96 (1974); see
also Davis v. Thomburgh, 903 F.2d 212, 221 (3d Cir.), cert denied, 498 U.S.
970 (1990) (holding that a parent lacked standing to pursue declaratory and
injunctive relief to challenge the procedures that deprived her of her parental
rights after those rights had been terminated). And looking forward, Mazzetti
does not allege that DCP&P’s policies and practices will be marshaled against
him in the future to deprive him of his parental rights. Mazzetti’s claimed
injury, then, is not “real and immediate” but remote and abstract.
Nor is his grievance likely to be redressed by the injunctive relief he
seeks. “Once the termination order was entered,” he “could longer demonstrate
that he had suffered an injury ‘likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.”’
Davis, 903 F.2d at 220 (quoting Simon v. Eastern Kentucky Wefare Rights
Organization, 426 U.S. 26, 38 (1976)). There may be individuals who would
benefit from the reform of DCP&P policies and practices that Mazzetti seeks.
Mazzetti, however, is not one of them, and he cannot seek relief on their behalf.
Because Mazzetti alleges no threatened future injury to himself, his complaint
fails to set forth standing to sue for injunctive relief.
Counts 1 and 2 of the Mazzetti’s complaint are therefore DISMISSED
for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Third party standing on behalf of D.M.
Mazzetti also alleges that D.M.’s rights under the First, Fourth,
Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were violated, and requests
an injunction (Counts 1-2) and damages (Counts 3-6) on D.M.’s behalf. As a
matter of constitutional or prudential standing, Mazzetti cannot bring section
1983 claims on behalf of D.M.
Mazzetti’s relationship to D.M. has been severed, and his parental
rights over D.M. extinguished, as a matter of law. Such a drastic order must be
distinguished from, e.g., a mere award of custody to one or both parents. See In
re Adoption of Children by L.A.S., 134 N.J. 127, 132 (1993) (“Termination of
parental rights—in contrast to the loss of custody of one’s children—
permanently severs the relationship between children and their biological
parents.”). When a court finds that termination of parental rights is in the best
interests of the child, DCP&P becomes “the legal guardian of the child for all
purposes.” N.J. Stat. Ann.
§ 30:4C-20. The state court order terminating
Mazzetti’s parental rights—having survived the scrutiny of two New Jersey
appellate courts and the United States Supreme Court—is valid and final. The
Counts 1 and 2, now dismissed, are the only counts in which defendants Von
Pier and Blake are named. They will therefore be dismissed from the case.
No party has addressed whether Mazzetti has standing to bring civil rights
claims on behalf of D.M. Because the issue may implicate the Court’s subject matter
jurisdiction, I have an obligation to address it here. See Nesbit v. Gears Unlimited, Inc.,
347 F.3d 72, 76—77 (3d Cir. 2003).
Full Faith and Credit statute, 28 U.S.C.
§ 1738, therefore obligates me to give it
“the same effect as would the adjudicating state,” even in a Section 1983 suit
for damages brought in this federal court. Davis, 903 F.2d at 220.6 When his
parental rights over D.M. are removed from the calculus, Mazzetti cannot allege
how he has been harmed by these alleged violations of D.M. ‘s rights, or how
that harm is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.
Mazzetti seeks do what he has already been adjudicated unfit to do: to
exercise control and authority over D.M.’s legal interests. To permit standing in
a case like this would run contrary to the “special solicitude” given to “state
interests ‘in the field of family and family-property arrangements.”’ Davis, 903
F.2d at 222. It would, in other words, allow an end-run around a valid state
court judgment. “Unless and until that decree is vacated or modified by the
state courts,” Mazzetti lacks “the legal capacity to assert or control any of the
rights of [D.M.] in this or any other court.” Crawford v. Wash. Cty. Children &
Youth Servs., 2:06cv1698, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6416, at *14.46 (W.D. Pa.
Jan. 29, 2008) summ. jmt. granted, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21635 (W.D. Pa.
Mar. 12, 2009), affd, 353 F. App’x 726, 730 (3d Cir. 2009) (“[T]he district court
Drawing on Judge Becker’s dissent in Davis, at least two courts have reasoned
that a parent whose rights have been terminated has standing to bring a claim on
behalf of their alienated children if they are “challenging the specific state court order
terminating [their] parental rights.” Faison v. Sex Crimes Unit, 845 F. Supp. 1079,
1082-83 (E.D. Pa. 1994); see also Pelino v. Hens-Greco, Civ. No. 16-1140, 2017 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 8684 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2017). The argument, it seems, is that a state
“cannot conclusively eliminate [the parent’s] interest [in the child] if it is those
procedures that she is challenging.” Davis, 903 F.2d at 228 (Becker, J. dissenting);
Faison, 845 F. Supp. at 1082-83; Pelino, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8684, at *7 That is
certainly hard to square with the Rooker-Feidman doctrine, discussed infra, especially
since the plaintiffs in Davis and Faison both sought orders reinstating their parental
rights. See Exzon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)
(ruling that federal courts lack jurisdiction over “cases brought by state-court losers
complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments before by the district court
proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those
judgments”). Mazzetti, at any rate, has standing to seek damages for the alleged
deprivation of his constitutional rights by DCP&P policies and procedures. In light of
the state court order terminating Mazzetti’s rights over D.M., those are the only actual
injuries likely to be redressed by a favorable decision that have been demonstrated
properly concluded that, to the extent Appellants appear to raise claims on
behalf of [the child], they lack standing to assert such claims as their parental
rights were severed.”).
Apart from the bedrock Article Ill “case or controversy” limitations on
standing, there are also prudential limitations on the exercise of federal
jurisdiction over third-party claims. A “‘litigant must assert his or her own legal
rights and interests, and cannot rest a claim to relief on the legal rights or
interests of third parties.”’ Pa. Psychiatric Soc’y v. Green Spring Health Servs.
280 F.3d 278, 288 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 410
(1991)). This rule, however, permits an exception: “Where rightholders are
unable to raise their own rights and their relationship with the plaintiff
suggests an identity of interests,” a plaintiff may be permitted to assert a third
party’s rights. Amato v. Wilentz, 952 F.2d 742, 748 (3d Cir. 1991). To do so, “1)
the plaintiff must suffer injury; 2) the plaintiff and the third-party must have a
‘close relationship’; and 3) the third party must face some obstacles that
prevent it from pursuing its own claims.” Pa. Psychiatric Soc’y, 280 F.3d at
As noted above, Mazzetti has not shown that he personally has
suffered an actual injury as a result of violation of D.M.’s rights. See Taliaferro
v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 189 (3d Cir. 2006) (“Whether asserting
first party standing or third party standing, a plaintiff must state an injury in
fact.”) But even if we assume away the injury-in-fact requirement, Mazzetti still
has not shown that he has a sufficiently close relationship to D.M. to allow him
to assert claims on D.M.’s behalf. It is not enough that Mazzetti is D.M.’s
biological father. Amczto, 952 F.2d at 751-52 (“A close personal relationship is
neither necessary nor sufficient for third-party standing.”) Mazzetti instead
must show that he can “operate ‘fully, or very nearly, as effective a proponent”’
of D.M.’s rights as D.M. himself. Pa Psychiatric Soc’y, 280 F.3d at 289 (quoting
Powers, 499 U.S. at 413)); Amato, at 752 (“The key aspects of the ‘relationship’
a common link to the right asserted, consistency of the parties’
interests, and effective advocacy—not the intimacy of the relationship per se.”)
He has not done that here.
By definition, Mazzetti, whose relationship with D.M. has been
completely severed for good cause, is no better position to advocate on D.M.’s
behalf than a member of the public generally. The state appellate opinion
upholding the termination of Mazzetti’s parental rights suggests that he is
actually in a worse position. By strong implication, Mazzetti’s interest in
securing custody over D.M. is not in D.M.’s best interest, and if granted would
undermine a more general interest in familial stability and security. And while
Counts 1-7 do not seek a reinstatement of Mazzetti’s parental rights, they
essentially rehash the claims that Mazzetti asserted, and ultimately lost, in the
Nor is there any “obstacle” to the assertion of D.M.’s rights. Granted,
D.M., like any minor, cannot assert his own claims, but he does not lack a
champion. D.M. is now in the custody of a foster parent, who is not alleged to
be part of the scheme to deprive Mazzetti of his rights. (Compi.
foster parent is the person who would have standing to bring claims on behalf
of D.M. if, as Mazzetti contends, the child was injured by the defendants’
actions. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c).
Mazzetti cannot demonstrate that he is a necessary, desirable, or even
appropriate proponent of D.M.’s rights. To the extent that Mazzetti’s complaint
advances third-party claims on D.M.’s behalf, then, it is DISMISSED for lack of
Defendants assert that Mazzetti’s complaint “is a thinly veiled attempt
to collaterally appeal the New Jersey Superior Court’s termination of his
parental rights.” (Def. Br. 16) Therefore, they say, it must be dismissed for lack
Mazzetti’s closely related claim to sue as D.M.’s “next friend” is discussed in
Section IV, infra.
of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feidman doctrine. See generally Rooker v.
Fidelty Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923); District of Columbia Court of
Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983). I will deny those portions of the
motions. State court findings will surely have relevance here; claim or issue
preclusion, for example, may come into play at a later stage. But Counts 1-7 do
not, or at least do not solely, seek to directly invalidate the state court
judgment by reversing the termination of Mazzetti’s rights as a parent.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prohibits federal courts from exercising
jurisdiction over “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries
caused by state-court judgments rendered by the district court proceedings
commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those
judgments.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284
(2005). In the Third Circuit, Rooker-Feldman bars clams in federal court if: “(1)
the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff ‘complain[s] of injuries
caused by [thel state-court judgments’; (3) those judgments were rendered
before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff is inviting the district court
to review and reject the state judgments.” Great Western Mining & Mineral Co.
v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir 2010). The doctrine does not
apply, however, even “[ijf the matter was previously litigated, as long as the
federal plaintiff present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a
legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a
Id. Post—Exxon, a court must be cautious in applying Rooker
Feldman where the federal claims do not directly clash with the state claims,
but are merely “intertwined” with them. See also Gary v. Braddock Cemetery,
517 F.3d 195, 200 n. 5 (3d Cir. 2008)) (advising caution in employing pre
Exxon Third Circuit precedent under Rooker—Feidman).
Counts 1 and 2 have already been dismissed of lack of standing. For
completeness, however, I note that they seek forward-looking injunctive relief,
Count 8 perhaps does, but that habeas claim will be dismissed for reasons
explained in Part IV, infra.
not reversal of a past state court judgment, and hence do not implicate Rooker
Feldman. Counts 3—7 request damages for alleged abuses of process and
violations of constitutional and civil rights by DCP&P, its employees, and state
officials. Those counts do not directly assert injuries caused by the state court
judgment terminating parental rights; nor do they explicitly ask this Court to
overturn that judgment. True, these claims, if granted, might tend to
undermine the state court’s conclusions, but would not require that they be
overruled. Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at 166, 173 (holding that if plaintiffs
could prove that constitutional violations precipitated an adverse state court
decision, and that an award of damages would not require overruling that
decision then Rooker-Feldman does not bar their claim); see also B.S. v.
Somerset Cnty., 704 F.3d 250, 260 (3d Cir. 2013) (holding that injuries
traceable to defendants’ actions, rather than the resulting state court orders
themselves, are not barred by Rooker-Feldman).
I therefore DENY the motion to dismiss on Rooker-Feidman grounds.
Defendants alternatively contend that I should dismiss the complaint based on
the federalism-based abstention doctrine of Younger u. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).
Younger, they say, bars Mazzetti’s claims because he alleges that there are ongoing
proceedings in the New Jersey courts concerning his attempts to vacate the
termination order and assume guardianship of D.M. I disagree.
As explained in Part II.B., supra, Mazzetti does not seek to enjoin the current
state court proceedings, but rather to enjoin future abuses of process by defendants—
relief he in any event lacks standing to seek. See Part II.A. 1., supra. See also Marran v.
Marran, 376 F.3d 143, 154-55 (3d Cir. 2004) (“A federal court will only consider
Younger abstention when the requested equitable relief would constitute federal
interference in state judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.”) (emphasis in original)
(quoting Marks v. Stinson, 19 F.3d 873, 883 (3d Cir. 1994)). And Younger abstention
on the basis of damages claims is on shaky legal ground. Id. at 155 (“These cases
LDeakins u. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 202 (1988) and Quakenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co.,
517 U.S. 706, 719 (1996)1 seem to indicate that abstention under Younger principles is
not proper when damages are sought.”)
At any rate, as explained infra, there is only one claim for damages, against
Zapata and Roberts, that survives the defendants’ barrage of jurisdictional and
immunity arguments. The proceedings underlying the termination of Mazzetti’s
parental rights—in which Zapata and Roberts played no part—ran their course years
ago. There is no risk that a judgment in favor of Mazzetti as against these defendants
Eleventh Amendment and “Persons” Under
Defendants argue that they are immune from suit under the Eleventh
Amendment. The Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the
states immunity from certain claims: “The Judicial power of the United States
shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or
prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by
Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. Amend. )U. Despite the
seemingly limited scope of its wording, the Eleventh Amendment has long been
held to incorporate a more general principle of sovereign immunity that bars
citizens from bringing suit against any state in federal court. Pennhurst State
Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984). The Eleventh Amendment, as a
bar to suit, is of jurisdictional stature.
In general, Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to state agencies
and state officials in their official capacities. In doubtful cases, the Court will
analyze several factors to determine whether the state is the real party in
interest. See Fitchik v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 873 F.2d 655,
659-60 (3d Cir. 1989). Eleventh Amendment immunity is subject to three
exceptions: “(1) congressional abrogation, (2) waiver by the state, and (3) suits
against individual state officers for prospective injunctive and declaratory relief
to end an ongoing violation of federal law.” Id. No such exception applies here,
however, so I will GRANT the motion to dismiss as to DCP&P, which is
indisputably a State agency, and to the individual defendants insofar as they
have been sued for damages in their official capacities.
will interfere in whatever matters may still be pending in New Jersey probate or
§ 1983, 1985, & 1986 (Counts 3-6)
Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the complaint seek damages under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983, 1985, and 1986. Section § 1983 provides:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance,
regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the
District of Columbia, 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, shall be
liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity,
or other proper proceeding for redress.
§ 1983 (emphasis added).
As to Section 1983 in particular, there is another issue that is parallel to,
and customarily analyzed together with, Eleventh Amendment immunity. I
refer to the issue of who or what is a suable “person” under section 1983. A
state and its departments are not considered “persons” amenable to suit under
section 1983. Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 67-70 (1989).
Also barred are section 1983 suits for damages against “governmental entities
that are considered ‘arms of the state’ for Eleventh Amendment purposes,”
which are “no different from a suit against the State itself.” Id. at 70-71. State
officials, sued in their official capacities, are likewise not “persons” subject to a
damages suit under section 1983. Will, 491 U.S. at 71 n. 10; Kentucky v.
Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n.14 (1985).
It is well-established that DCP&P (formerly DYFS) is an arm of the
State of New Jersey, and as such is immune from suit. See Howard v. N.J. Div.
of Youth and Family Servs., 398 F. App’x 807, 811-812 (3d Cir. 2010); see also
Mammaro v. The N.J. Div. of Child Permanency & Prot., No. 13-CV-6483 FLW,
2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5321, at *45 (D.N.J. Jan. 15, 2015), rev’d on other
Logically, the same analysis applies to sections 1985 and 1986, which were
passed along with section 1983 as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. See Quem v.
Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979) (the Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not abrogate the
states’ sovereign immunity); Muhammad v. Dempsey, No. 1 1-CV-350, 2011 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 118867, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 14, 2011) affd, 531 F. App’x 216 (3d Cir. 2013).
grounds, 814 F.3d 164 (3d Cir. 2016); Love v. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family
Servs., No. 07-CV-3661 JET, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73977, at *2 (D.N.J. July
22, 2010) (collecting cases). Mazzetti offers no rationale under which this Court
could or should depart from these holdings. As to DCP&P, I will GRANT the
motion to dismiss Counts 3-6 on Eleventh Amendment and
§ 1983 “person”
As to the remaining individual defendants, these immunity principles
have less bite. Mazzetti sues Governor Christie, Judge Foti, Judge Mizdol,
Justice Long, and Prosecutor Molinefli for damages in both their official and
personal capacities. Deputy Attorney General Buckwalter, Zapata, and Roberts
are sued in their personal capacities only. A state official sued in his or her
personal capacity is a “person” amenable to suit under section 1983, and does
not enjoy Eleventh Amendment protection. Hafer v. Melo, U.S. 21, 30-31
(1991). And an award of damages from an individual defendant, as opposed to
the public treasury, is a “permissible remedy in some circumstances.” Scheuer
v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 238 (1974). Thus these defendants, insofar as they
are sued in their personal capacities, are not immune under the Eleventh
Amendment and are amenable to suit as “persons.”
The motions to dismiss Counts 3—6 on these grounds are therefore
GRANTED as to DCP&P and the individuals sued in their official capacities,
and DENIED as to the individuals sued in their personal capacities.
ADA (Count 7)
Mazzetti also sues DCP&P, Governor Christie, Judge Foti, Judge
Mizdol, Justice Long, Deputy Attorney General Buckwalter, Prosecutor
Members of the New Jersey state judiciary stand in the shoes of the state and
are entitled to the same Eleventh Amendment protection against official-capacity
claims. See Robinson v. New Jersey Mercer Cty. Vicinage-Family Div., 514 F. Appx 146,
149 (3d Cir. 2013); Dongon v. Banar 363 F. App’x 153, 155 (3d Cir. 2010). Justice
Long is now retired, but she is the Chairperson of the ACJC. Members of that entity
are also entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. Capogrosso v. Supreme Court of
N.J., 588 F.3d 180, 185 (3d Cir. 2009).
Molinelli, Roberts, and Zapata under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities
Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C.
§ 12131 et seq.). Title II of the ADA provides that “no
qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be
excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services,
programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by
any such entity.” 42 U.S.C.
§ 12132. Mazzetti alleges that he “may have
become permanently disabled” as a result of an infected hernia and that he
was refused unidentified “services to protect his civil rights.” (Compi.
¶J 66, 68,
If Mazzetti’s Title II claim is to survive Eleventh Amendment
immunity, it must be because Congress, in enacting the ADA pursuant to its
powers under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, abrogated that
immunity. “Title II of the ADA validly abrogates state sovereign immunity
insofar as it creates a private cause of action for damages against the states for
conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment.” United States v.
Georgia, 546 U.S. 151 (2006) (emphasis in the original). For borderline claims,
a fact-intensive analysis may be required in order to determine whether
immunity has been abrogated for purposes of Title II. See Bowers v. National
Collegiate AthleticAss’n, 475 F.3d 524, 554-56 (3d Cir. 2007).12
Mazzetti has not identified which aspects of defendants’ conduct
violated Title II or the Fourteenth Amendment. To the contrary, he basically
alleges that everyone played some role in depriving him of all of his civil and
constitutional rights. Defendants, moreover, have not briefed the issue of their
sovereign immunity for Mazzetti’s particular Title II claims. I am therefore in no
position to rule on this issue at this time. See Floyd v. N.J. Casino Comm’n, No.
The relevant factors are canvassed and discussed in Bowers; Lane, 541 U.S.
509 (2004). For certain well-established ADA claims (for example, denial of
handicapped-access facilities in courthouses) the relevant analysis has been
performed in the case law and enshrined as precedent. See Lane, 541 U.S. at 534;
Bowers, 475 F.3d. at 550-55 (sovereign immunity abrogated in cases involving the
denial of access to public education).
05-CV-3949 RMB, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44924, 2007 WL 1797656, at *4
(D.N.J. June 19, 2007) (The defendant “has not come close to performing the
requisite analysis and, thus, the Court is in no position to make the immunity
determination as to Plaintiffs ADA claims at this juncture.”)
Jurisdictional issues are, of course, prior to the merits. I do not now,
however, call for discovery and resolution of such factual issues on a Rule
12(b)(1) basis. Looking ahead, I will rule that this claim lacks specificity and
dismiss it without prejudice for failure to state a claim under the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—the best fit for the allegations
advanced here—and the ADA. See Sections III.A.2.ii., III.C., infra. Should the
ADA claim be reasserted, the parties should address the Eleventh Amendment
issue in their briefs, and the court will take the necessary steps to resolve it.
For now, however, the motion to dismiss the ADA claim (Claim 7) on
Eleventh Amendment grounds is DENIED.
RULE 12(b)(6) ISSUES
As to the claims that have survived the threshold jurisdictional
analysis, I proceed to consider the Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R.
Civ. P., provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails
to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving
party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Animal
Science Products, Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 469 n. 9 (3d Cir.
2011). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the
complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor
of the plaintiff. New Jersey Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const.
Corp. of New Jersey, 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014).
Federal Rule of Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint
contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, “a plaintiff’s obligation to
provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitlement to relief’ requires more than labels and
conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will
not do.” Bell Ati. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the
complaint’s factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiff’s right to
relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is “plausible on its face.” Id. at
570; see also West Run Student Housing Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat. Bank,
712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013). That facial-plausibility standard is met
“when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
While “[tihe plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement’.
it asks for more than a sheer possibility.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Judges Foti and Mizdol
Judges Foti and Mizdol correctly assert that they are entitled to
absolute judicial immunity. As to them, the Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the
complaint on absolute immunity grounds will be GRANTED.
A judicial officer in the performance of his or her duties enjoys
absolute immunity from suit. Mire/es v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 12 (1991) Absolute
judicial immunity applies to all claims, whether official-capacity or personal—
capacity, that are based on judicial acts. See Dongon v. Banar, 363 F. Appx
153, 155 (“[J]udges are entitled to absolute immunity from liability based on
actions taken in their official judicial capacity.”) (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Briscoe v.
LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 334 (1983)). “A judge will not be deprived of immunity
because the action [s]he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in
excess of [her] authority.
Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57
(1978). The immunity is not vitiated by “allegations of malice or corruption of
motive.” Gromek v. Maerzza, 614 F. App’x 42, 45 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Gallas
v. Supreme Ct. of Pa., 211 F.3d 760, 768 (3d Cir. 2000)).
There are two exceptions to absolute judicial immunity: (1) “a judge is
not immune from liability for nonjudicial actions”;
and (2) “a judge is not
immune for actions, though judicial in nature, taken in the complete absence
of all jurisdiction.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11. Mazzetti relies on the second
exception; he essentially argues that Judges Mizdol and Foti, Superior Court
Judges in the Chancery Division, Family Part, had no jurisdiction over his case
while the matter of Linda Mazzetti’s will was pending in Surrogate Court. That
is incorrect. Superior Court judges have original jurisdiction in all causes,
including “all controversies respecting wills, trusts, and estates,” regardless of
division. N.J. Const. Art. VI
§ 3; N.J. Stat. Ann. § 3B:2-2. The Surrogate Court’s
jurisdiction, by contrast, is a creature of statute and cannot be “construed in
any way to affect, impair or limit the original jurisdiction of the Superior Court
given to it by the Constitution.” N.J. Stat. Ann.
§ 3B:2- 1. Empowered with
original jurisdiction, Judges Mizdol and Foti could have “acted in a manner to
defeat” the intent of Linda’s will in parallel family court proceedings; indeed,
they could have assumed the matter of Linda Mazzetti’s will and denied
Mazzetti guardianship outright. (P1. Br. 19-2 1)
The motion to dismiss the claims against Judges Foti and Mizdol on
grounds of absolute judicial immunity, then, is GRANTED.
Justice Long, now retired from the New Jersey Supreme Court, is the
Chairperson of ACJC. Sued in her personal capacity, she states that she is
entitled to absolute judicial immunity under N.J. Ct. R. 2:15-22. Whether
under state rules or more general federal immunity principles, Justice Long, as
At any rate, the application of plaintiffs theory to Judge Mizdol is not clear.
Judge Mizdol, recall, allegedly terminated Mazzetti’s visitation rights months before
Linda Mazzetti executed the codicil to her will designating her son as D.M.’s guardian.
Without legal or factual support, Mazzetti claims that she did so without subject
matter or personal jurisdiction. That conclusory allegation is not enough to repel an
absolute immunity defense, even at the pleading stage.
a member of the ACJC, is absolutely immune from suit. As to her, the motion
to dismiss will be GRANTED.
The first source of absolute immunity is the very Rule of Court by
which the ACJC is formed. It confers absolute immunity on its members “for
any conduct in the performance of their official duties.” N.J. Ct. R. 2:15-22.
The ACJC, whose members are appointed by the New Jersey Supreme
Court, sits to perform investigations and hold hearings on misconduct, fitness
to serve, and like matters with respect to State Judges. Mazzetti alleges that he
petitioned the ACJC to investigate Judge Mizdol. He sues Justice Long as
Chairperson, because the ACJC found “no basis to charge Judge Mizdol with
judicial misconduct.” (Compi.
156) That determination was plainly within the
scope of the ACJC’s function, and within the scope of Justice Long’s duties as
Chairperson. Campell v. Supreme CL of N.J., Civ. No. 11-555 ES, 2012 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 41650, at *26...28 (D.N.J. Mar. 27, 2012) (granting immunity based
on R. 2:15-22 because “investigating complaints of judicial misconduct.
encapsulates the essential functions of the ACJC” and “arises out of the
performance” of defendants’ official duties). Under the State rules creating the
ACJC, then, Justice Long is immune.’
Even setting aside the applicable New Jersey Court Rule, Justice Long
would be entitled to either quasi-judicial or prosecutorial immunity. Public
employees “who perform judge-like functions” and whose “role is functionally
comparable to that of a judge” are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. Ingram
v. Twp. of Deptforcl, 858 F. Supp. 2d 386, 390 (D.N.J. 2012) (citing Hamilton v.
Leavy, 322 F.3d 776, 785 (3d Cir. 2003)). “When judicial immunity is extended
to officials other than judges, it is because their judgments are ‘functionally
comparable’ to those of judges—that is because they, too, ‘exercise a
discretionary judgment’ as part of their function.” Id. (quoting Antoine v. Byers
See also Adamo v. Jones, No. CV 15-1073 (MCA), 2016 WL 356031, at *89
(D.N.J. Jan. 29, 2016) (suit against state entities, including ACJC, is in substance a
suit against the State of New Jersey, subject to the Eleventh Amendment).
& Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 436 (1993)). At the core of the ACJC’s
functions are the kind of discretionary acts normally performed by a judge or a
prosecutor. See Kwasnik v. LeBlori, 288 F. App’x 238, 243-44 (3d Cir. 2007);
JL.D. v. Estate of Gannon, Civ. No. 15-386, U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100312, at *39.42
(D.N.J. July 29, 2016); Adamo, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10698, at *8; Campbell,
U.S. Dist LEXIS 41650, at *3o32. Where, as here, the ACJC investigates but
declines to pursue charges against a judge, an ACJC official is entitled to
absolute immunity from suit. Id.
Justice Long is alleged to have erred in concluding that there was no
basis to charge Judge Mizdol with judicial misconduct. But it is the nature of
the function, not the rightful or wrongful manner in which it was performed,
that governs the immunity inquiry. Whether viewed under N.J. Ct. R. 2:15-22
or more general principles of judicial and prosecutorial immunity, that decision
was discretionary and within the scope of Justice Long’s official duties. As to
Justice Long, then, the motion to dismiss based on absolute immunity is
Prosecutor Molinelli asserts the defense of absolute prosecutorial
immunity. Prosecutorial immunity erects a liability shield, not unlimited in
breadth, but virtually impenetrable. Mazzetti cannot pierce it here.
A prosecutor is immune for all acts that are “intimately associated
with the judicial process.” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-3 1 (1976);
see also Kuiwicki v. Dawson, 969 F.2d 1454, 1463 (3d Cir. 1992). Mazzetti
faults Molinelli for failing to prosecute Roberts for her actions during the July
2014 emergency removal of D.M, even though a municipal court judge allegedly
found probable cause to issue a criminal complaint. Besides the vague
allegation that Molinelli “served as a witness to events set forth in this
Complaint,” there is no indication that Molinelli had participated in, or even
had personal knowledge of, D.M.’s emergency removal or any proceedings
before the municipal court. Either way, however, there is no doubt that
Molinelli’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion would be an act closely
associated with the judicial system itself. Kuiwicki, 969 F.2d at 1463-64
(holding that a prosecutor was entitled to absolute immunity even though he
allegedly directed a police officer to file baseless charges against the
prosecutor’s political rival); see also Schaeffer v. Wilson, 240 F. App’x 974, 975
(3d Cir. 2007) (“The decision to initiate a prosecution is at the core of a
prosecutor’s judicial role.
And we have found no authority creating a
mandatory duty upon [a police officer and district attorney] to investigate and
pursue the prosecution of [others].”) (citing Inmates of Attica Corr. Facility v.
Rockefeller, 477 F.2d 375, 382 (2d Cir. 1973)). Even assuming arguendo that
there was probable cause to charge Roberts, then, the Prosecutor’s decision to
decline criminal prosecution is shielded by absolute immunity.’ See Sanders
An allegation, by the way, that is also levied against Governor Christie, Deputy
Attorney General Buckwalter, Prosecutor Molinelli, Judges Mizdol and Foti, and
In United States v. Lovasco, the Supreme Court has explained why the existence
of probable cause is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an indictment:
It requires no extended argument to establish that prosecutors do
not deviate from “fundamental conceptions of justice” when they
defer seeking indictments until they have probable cause to
believe an accused is guilty; indeed it is unprofessional conduct
for a prosecutor to recommend an indictment on less than
probable cause. It should be equally obvious that prosecutors are
under no duty to file charges as soon as probable cause exists but
before they are satisfied they will be able to establish the suspects
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To impose such a duty “would
have a deleterious effect both upon the rights of the accused and
upon the ability of society to protect itself,” United States u. Ewell,
[383 U.S. 116, 122 (1966)]. From the perspective of potential
defendants, requiring prosecutions to commence when probable
cause is established is undesirable because it would increase the
likelihood of unwarranted charges being filed, and would add to
the time during which defendants stand accused but untried.
These costs are by no means insubstantial since, as we recognized
in [United States v. Marion], a formal accusation may “interfere
v. Downs, 420 F. App’x 175, 180 (3d Cir. 2011) (“Sanders’ claims against
necessarily fail because prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity
for the failure to adequately investigate a case and for the decision to initiate,
or decline to initiate, a prosecution.”) (citing Kuiwicki, 969 F.3d at 1463)).
As to Prosecutor Molinelli, then, the motion to dismiss on the basis of
absolute immunity is GRANTED.
Deputy Attorney General Buckwalter
DAG Buckwalter also claims that she enjoys quasi-judicial immunity.
I agree. The only fact pled as to her is that she acted as the State’s attorney in
the July 2014 emergency removal proceedings before Judge Mizdol. As noted
above, “certain officials ‘functioning as integral parts of the judicial process’ are
absolutely immune from civil suits under
§ 1983.” Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs
108 F.3d 486, 494 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting McArdle v. Tronetti, 961 F,2d 1083,
1084 (3d Cir. 1992); Briscoe v. Lahue, 460 U.S. 325, 334 (1983) (affirming that,
under traditional common law principles, section 1983 does not impose
persons—governmental or otherwise—who [are] integral parts
of the judicial process”). Attorneys who assist the state in preparing and
prosecuting an emergency removal petition are undoubtedly integral to such
proceedings. See Ernst, 108 F.3d at 488-89 (holding that attorneys who
disrupt his employment, drain his
with the defendants liberty,
financial resources, curtail his associations, subject him to public
obloquy, and create anxiety in him, his family and his friends.”
404 U.S. [307,] 320 1(197 1)]. From the perspective of law
enforcement officials, a requirement of immediate prosecution
upon probable cause is equally unacceptable because it could
make obtaining proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
impossible by causing potentially fruitful sources of information to
evaporate before they are fully exploited. And from the standpoint
of the courts, such a requirement is unwise because it would
cause scarce resources to be consumed on cases that prove to be
insubstantial, or that involve only some of the responsible parties
or some of the criminal acts. Thus, no one’s interests would be
well served by compelling prosecutors to initiate prosecutions as
soon as they are legally entitled to do so.
431 U.S. 783, 790-792 (1977).
prosecute dependency proceedings on behalf of the state are entitled to
absolute immunity); Ma.zzetti v. Wood, 573 F. App’x 165, 167 (3d Cir. 2014)
(affirming district court’s dismissal of DAG Susan M. Slaff, whom Mazzetti sued
in the parallel district court action, on absolute immunity grounds).
In the absence of any other immunity-destroying fact or allegation,
the complaint as against Buckwalter is DISMISSED.
Roberts and Zapata
Mazzetti alleges that Roberts, a DCP&P caseworker, unlawfully seized
D.M in July 2014. Zapata, also a DCP&P caseworker, allegedly provided false
information to the Child Placement and Review Board (“CPRB”) and to a doctor,
who as a result improperly prescribed Ritalin for D.M. Roberts and Zapata both
claim they are entitled to absolute immunity. At this stage, however, the
motion to dismiss cannot be granted on immunity grounds, because further
factual development is required.
Absolute immunity “attaches to actions intimately associated with the
judicial phases of litigation, but not to administrative or investigatory actions
unrelated to initiating and conducting judicial proceedings.” Odd v. Malone,
538 F.3d 202, 2008 (3d Cir. 2008). A court must therefore perform a
“meticulous analysis of [the] actions and functions” of those seeking immunity.
Light v. Haws, 472 F.3d 74, 79 (3d Cir. 2007); accord Odd, 538 F.3d at 208.
Under Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs. of Chester Cty., child welfare workers are
“entitled to absolute immunity for their actions on behalf of a state in preparing
for, initiating, and prosecuting dependency proceedings.” 108 F.3d at 495. The
key inquiry is whether Zapata or Roberts “functioned as the state’s advocate
when performing the actions that gave rise to the due process violations [that
the plaintiff] seeks to address, or whether those claims instead arose from
unprotected administrative or investigatory actions.” B.S. v. Somerset Cty., 704
F.3d at 265 (internal quotation marks omitted). As it is the case here, often
such an analysis will involve facts beyond the scope of the pleadings.
Mazzetti faults Zapata for acts that occurred after the 2011 or 2012
dependency proceedings in which his parental rights were terminated. In 2014,
he says, Zapata relayed false information to the CPRB.’ That same year,
Zapata allegedly gave a doctor false information, which led to D.M. being
improperly prescribed Ritalin. In either case, the nature of Zapata’s acts—
whether administrative, investigative, prosecutorial, or something else—are not
entirely clear from the face of the complaint. What is clear is that they are not
alleged to have been undertaken during the underlying dependency proceeding.
Without further development of the factual record, I cannot now say that
Zapata is clearly entitled to absolute immunity.
Mazzetti’s allegations as to Roberts present a closer call. Reading
between the lines of the complaint, I gather that Judge Mizdol allegedly illegally
brought about Roberts’s emergency removal order of D.M. from Linda
Mazzetti’s home.’ If this was done pursuant to an emergent removal order,
Roberts could be absolutely immune for any actions she took to obtain that
order. See, e.g. B.S. v. Somerset
704 F.3d at 264-27 1 (holding that DCP&P
CPRB is a creature of the New Jersey court system. See
www.judiciary. state .nj .us/volunteer/vscprb .html. No party has addressed whether
proceedings before the CPRB are merely administrative, or whether they are an
extension of the dependency or other judicial proceedings.
Or perhaps Mazzetti is alleging that the order was not issued at all. In his
motion papers, Mazzetti contends that the emergency removal of D.M. was done
without a court order. (Def. Br. 23) The complaint, however, seems to imply, without
actually stating, that the removal was authorized by an ex parte order issued by Judge
Mizdol. (See Compi. ¶J 124) (“On Tuesday, July 1, the DYFS, without notice to his
family, and without any allegations of child abuse or neglect, seized D.M..
came in armed with the threat of force
aid of Elmwood Park Police Department, who
and several patrol cars that lit up the entire neighborhood.”); 125 (“When asked why
she was there, caseworker Kimberly Roberts only indicated that she had been before
earlier that day, but refused to provide any paperwork or
Honorable Bonnie Mizdol.
explanation for her conduct.”); 129 (“DYFS, aided and abetted by Ellen Buckwalter,
D.A.G., claimed in its Verified Complaint.. that Linda Mazzetti, the child’s paternal
grandmother and adoptive mother, was “no longer able to care for [D.M.] due to her
hospitalization.”); 132 (“Judge Mizdol furthered fabrication of DYFS’ justification for
the emergent removal stating that “Ms. Mazzetti told the Division worker that she did
not have the energy or ability to care for (D.M.] anymore as he was such an active
caseworkers were absolutely immune for actions taken in seeking a court order
transferring custody from one parent to another). She could also be absolutely
immune for any actions taken to implement such an order. Hamilton v. Leavy,
332 F.3d 776, 782-83 (3d Cir. 2003) (“[A]ction taken pursuant to a facially
valid court order receives absolute immunity from
§ 1983 lawsuits for
damages.”) Missing from the record, however, is the order (if it exists), or facts
about the process by which it was obtained (if it was). So I do not have the facts
before me to perform the necessary absolute immunity analysis.
The motion to dismiss on absolute immunity grounds as to Zapata
and Roberts is therefore DENIED. Because I am mindful that issues of
immunity should be resolved as early as possible, I will grant leave for
defendant Roberts or Zapata to file an early summary judgment motion once
any necessary discovery has been had.
Zapata and Roberts alternatively argue that they are entitled to
qualified immunity. Governor Christie joins in this argument. Qualified
immunity protects government officials from insubstantial claims in order to
“shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform
their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231(2009). “When
properly applied, it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who
knowingly violate the law.”’ Ashcroft v. al-Kidcl, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011)
(quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). To overcome qualified
immunity, a plaintiff must plead facts “showing (1) that the official violated a
statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’
at the time of the challenged conduct.” Id. at 735. The Court has discretion to
analyze the steps in either order. Pearson, at 236 (partially overruling Saucier v.
Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001), and no longer requiring courts to determine
issues (1) and (2) in that order).
As to Governor Christie, I find that the complaint fails to allege
sufficient facts to make out a violation of any federal constitutional right. With
respect to Zapata and Roberts, the complaint also fails to allege sufficient facts
to make a violation of a constitutional right, except as to the First Amendment
retaliation claim. My findings as to that first qualified immunity prong is really
no different from finding, under the usual Rule 12(b)(6) standard, that the
complaint does not sufficiently allege a constitutional cause of action as a
matter of law.
As against Governor Christie, Mazzetti alleges violations of the First,
Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The only fact alleged to
Governor Christie is that he failed or refused to investigate DCP&P and
impeach Judge Mizdol. Mazzetti, however, has not cited to any legal authority
suggesting the Constitution obligated the governor to investigate his grievances
on command. To the contrary, Mazzetti has no legally cognizable interest in
compelling an executive branch official to investigate or prosecute others for
the alleged violation of his rights. See Aruanno u. Fishman, 443 F. App’x 679,
680-81 (3d Cir. 2011)
(“[Al private citizen lacks a judicially cognizable interest
in the prosecution or nonprosecution of another.”) (quoting Linda R. S. v.
Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 619 (1973)); Sanders, 420 F. App’x at 180 (same);
Wise v. Augustine, Civ. No. 97-265 1, 1997 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12350, at
Pa. Aug. 8, 1997) (“A private citizen has no constitutional, statutory, or
common law right to require a public official to investigate or prosecute a
Mazzetti’s claim that the Constitution required Governor Christie to
impeach Judge Mizdol requires no analysis; there simply is no such
requirement. The Governor’s failure to institute impeachment proceedings
violated no Constitutional command at all, let alone a clearly established one.
The motion to dismiss Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6 against Governor Christie on
qualified immunity grounds is GRANTED.
Zapata and Roberts
Mazzetti alleges that Zapata and Roberts, too, violated his rights
under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Defendants argue that Mazzetti’s “conclusory, formulaic, and bare” allegations
are not entitled to the presumption of truth. For the most part, I agree; as to
the First Amendment, however, a claim has been stated.
First Amendment Retaliation: The First Amendment retaliation
claim against Zapata and Roberts is essentially a recasting of the claims
already discussed. See Section III.A. 1 .v, supra. Mazzetti alleges that Roberts
illegally took D.M. from Linda Mazzetti’s home in July 2014, and that Zapata
made false statements to the CPRB and a doctor, who improperly prescribed
D.M. Ritalin. He generally avers that these actions were taken in retaliation for
his lawsuits against DCP&P, as well as his attempt to instigate investigations
into DCP&P practices.
“In order to plead a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, a
plaintiff must allege: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory
action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary fitness from exercising his
constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally
protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp., 463 F.3d
285, 296 (3d Cir. 2006). The first element is a matter of law; the second two are
questions of fact. See Baldassare v. New Jersey, 250 F.3d 188, 195 (3d Cir.
2001). Filing a civil rights lawsuit is protected conduct, satisfying the first
element. Anderson v. Davila, 125 F.3d 148, 161 (3d Cir. 1997). The parties,
have not briefed the fact-sensitive second and third elements of Mazzetti’s First
Amendment retaliation claim, nor the fact-intensive “clearly established” step
in the qualified immunity analysis.’ For these reasons, the motion to dismiss
I do note, however, that Zapata and Roberts are not defendants in Mazzetti’s
parallel civil rights lawsuit.
Mazzetti’s Section 1983 claim under First Amendment on qualified immunity
grounds is DENIED.
That said, I will grant the motion on qualified immunity grounds as to
Mazzetti’s other constitutional claims. Even a cursory review of the applicable
law demonstrates that these claims cannot be sustained.
Fourth Amendment: Mazzetti repeatedly quotes the Fourth
Amendment as stating that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law.” Presumably he intended to refer to the
Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment, not the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits
unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fifth Amendment claim is analyzed
separately below. No Fourth Amendment claim is stated. Mazzetti’s section
1983 claim under the Fourth Amendment is DISMISSED.
Fifth/Fourteenth Amendments: Mazzetti says that he has been
deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, in violation of
the Fifth Amendment. (Because Roberts and Zapata are state, not federal,
officials, the Fourteenth Amendment may have been intended.)
As to Roberts, I interpret this as a claim that Mazzetti was deprived of
his legal rights without procedural due process when D.M. was removed from
Linda Mazzetti’s home, allegedly without a proper court order or without any
order at all. The problem with this claim is that Mazzetti had no rights with
respect to D.M. at the time D.M. was taken from Linda Mazzetti’s home. See
Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 334-35 (1976) (holding that a court must
consider “the private interest affected by the official action”). Whether with or
without due process, he was not deprived of anything to which he had a right
or entitlement. As to Zapata, the due process claim has a similar fundamental
flaw: Zapata’s alleged wrongdoing occurred long after Mazzetti’s parental rights
had been terminated.
Mazzetti’s section 1983 procedural due process claim is therefore
Sixth Amendment: Mazzetti inexplicably claims violations of his
Sixth Amendment rights. Those would consist of the rights to a speedy and
public trial; to an impartial jury; to be informed of the accusations against him;
to confront the witnesses against him; to subpoena favorable witnesses; and to
have the assistance of counsel in his defense. U.S. Const. Amend. VI. These are
rights afforded to defendants in criminal prosecutions. This is not a criminal
prosecution, and the underlying termination proceedings were not criminal
prosecutions. Mazzetti’s sectionl983 claim under the Sixth Amendment is
Eighth Amendment: Mazzetti next contends that his Eighth
Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment has been
violated. The right to the companionship, care, custody, and management of a
biological child is a precious one that commands respect. State-initiated
termination proceedings, however, are not a “punishment,” but an effort to
secure and advance the best interests of the child. Mazzetti has offered no
authority for the proposition that the Eighth Amendment applies in such a
situation. Nor has he identified which, if any, of the actions of Zapata or
Roberts constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Accordingly, the section
1983 claim under the Eighth Amendment is DISMISSED.
Equal Protection: Mazzetti claims his Fourteenth Amendment right
to equal protection has been violated. Equal Protection claims come in two
basic varieties: “(1) [the plaintiff] is a member of a protected class similarly
situated to members of an unprotected class and was treated differently from
Mazzetti might be trying to say that he was not afforded the assistance of
counsel, or received ineffective assistance of counsel, during the underlying
termination proceedings. (See, e.g., Compi. ¶ 53) Although New Jersey has granted
indigent parents in state-initiated termination proceedings the right to counsel, see
N.J. Stat. Ann. 30:4C-15.4(a), federal law provides no such guarantee. See Lassiter v.
Dep’t of Social Servs., 42 U.S. 18 (1981). At any rate, however, Mazzetti has not
explained how these particular defendants deprived him of whatever right to counsel
he may have had. A defendant’s personal involvement is an essential ingredient of a
civil rights claim under section 1983. Gittlemacker v. Prasse, 428 F.2d 1, 3 (3d Cir.
the unprotected class; or (2) he belongs to a ‘class of one’ and was intentionally
treated differently from others similarly situated without any rational basis.”
Mayer v. Gottheiner, 382 F. Supp. 2d. 635, 651 (D.N.J. 2005) (citing And rews v.
City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1478 (3d Cir. 1990) and Village of
Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000)). Mazzetti fails to state a claim under
the first theory because he has not alleged that he is a member of a protected
class. He fares no better under the second, because there are no allegations
that any defendant, let alone Zapata or Roberts, intentionally treated him
differently from others similarly situated without a rational basis. See Phillips v.
Cty. Of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 243 (3d Cir. 2008). Nor are there any specific
allegations as to what services or accommodations others similarly situated
received that Mazzetti did not. (Compi.
76, 280-81) Mazzetti’s section 1983
Equal Protection Clause claim is therefore DISMISSED.
Substantive Due Process: Mazzetti contends that Zapata and
Roberts arbitrarily interfered with his rights as the parent of D. M., in violation
of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See Troxel v.
Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 66 (2000). The right he claims is the right to be free
from State interference with his parental relation with D.M., “unless [the State]
has some reasonable and articulable evidence giving rise to a reasonable
suspicion that child has been abused or is in imminent danger of abuse.” See
Croft v. Westmoreland Cnty. Children & Youth Servs., 103 F.3d 1123, 1126 (3d
Once again, however, the claims against all other defendants have
been dismissed on grounds of jurisdiction and immunity. The actions of the
remaining defendants, Roberts and Zapata, took place long after Mazzetti’s
parental rights with respect to D.M. had been terminated. He had no right-—let
alone a clearly established right—at that time to be free from interference in his
He alleges equivocally that his medical condition “may” have rendered him
permanently disabled. (Compi. ¶ 66) Illness or disability, however, is not a suspect
classification. Bd. of Trs. of Univ. of Al. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 366-67 (2001).
relationship with D.M., because, as a matter of law, there no longer was any
such relationship. The substantive due process claim is therefore DISMISSED.
§ 1985 (Count 3)
Mazzetti alleges that there is a conspiracy to deprive him of his civil
rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1985. To bring a claim under that section 1985,
a plaintiff must show: “(1) a conspiracy; (2) for the purpose of depriving, either
directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of
the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws; and (3) an act
in furtherance of the conspiracy; (4) whereby a person is injured in his person
or property or deprived of any right or privilege of a citizen of the United
States.” Farber v. City of Paterson, 440 F.3d 131, 134 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing
United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners v. Scott, 463 U.S. 825, 828-29 (1983)).
Mazzetti generally avers that defendants “reached a meeting of the minds
amongst themselves that incidents of abuse of process would be tolerated
notwithstanding the constitutional implications of such abuse and the
likelihood such conduct would be repeated.” (Compl.
¶ 249) The specifics about
the formation of that agreement are not stated. There are no allegations
concerning any sort of racial or class-based animus, or really any identifiable
class. See Farber 440 F.3d at 135. Mazzetti himself does not allege that he is
part of a protected class, or that he was denied equal protection of the law
because of his class membership. The section 1985 conspiracy claim is
Considering this exact allegation, Judge Wolfson cogently observed that no
abuse of process claim exists under section 1985, which prohibits conspiracies to
violate federal civil rights, not to commit state law torts. See Mammaro v. N.J. Div. of
Child Permanency & Prot., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5321, at *2728 (D.N.J. Jan. 15,
2015), rev’d on other grounds, 814 F.3d 164 (3d Cir. 2016).
Mazzetti also brings a claim under section 1986 in Count 2, which I have
already dismissed for lack of standing as to the injunctive relief sought. Even if the
section 1986 claim had sought damages, however, I would dismiss it. A cause of
action under section 1986 is dependent on whether there is a conspiracy under
section 1985. See Clark v. Clabaugh, 20 F.3d 1290, 1295 (3d Cir. 1994). I have
dismissed the section 1985 claim.
ADA Claim (Count 7)
Mazzetti’s last claim for damages is asserted under Title II of the ADA.
Title II provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of
such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of
the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to
discrimination by any such entity.’ 42 U.S.C.
§ 12132. Because the Eleventh
Amendment immunity question cannot be resolved on the present record, this
claim was not dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. See Section II.C.2, supra. It
nevertheless must be dismissed for failure to state a claim.
The individual defendants, sued in their individual capacities, are not
“public entities,” and therefore are not eligible defendants. Se Bowens v.
Wetzel, No. 16-3036, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 92, at *3.4 (3d Cir. Jan. 4, 2017);
Alsbrook v. City of Maumelle, 184 F.3d 999, 1005 n.8 (8th Cir. 1999) (en banc).
As against any individual defendant, the Title II claim must be dismissed.
Beyond that, Mazzetti has not clearly alleged that he is a qualified
individual with a disability, or that he was denied specific services, programs,
or activities because of his hernia condition. There is in fact no allegation that
he is actually disabled—only that he “may” be. Nor is there any clear allegation
that he was denied any services because of a disability. (Compi.
¶ 64-68, 76).
Nor is there any factual, non-speculative allegation that his parental rights
were terminated because of a disability. (See id.
¶J 28 1-284).
For these reasons, Mazzetti has failed to state a claim under the ADA.
As to all defendants, the motion to dismiss Count 7 is GRANTED.
The final count of the complaint, Count 8, is a habeas corpus petition
under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254. Defendants contend that because termination of
parental rights and placement of a child in foster care is not “custody” within
the meaning of section 2254, the Court is without jurisdiction to entertain the
petition. See Lehman v. Lycoming Cty. Children’s Servs. Agency, 458 U.S. 502
(1982). To get out from under Lehman, Mazzetti argues that he brings the
petition as D.M.’s “next friend” under Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149,
163-74 (1990). The custody and next friend issues are intertwined, but the
analysis is mostly controlled by Lehman. The upshot is that I do not have the
statutory jurisdiction to entertain the habeas claim in Count 8.
Under Section 2254, a district court has jurisdiction to hear a petition
on behalf of an individual who is “in custody pursuant to a judgment of a State
court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution
or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C.
2254(a). Generally, the
“custody” requirement is met where the petitioner is subject to “significant
restraints on liberty.
which were not shared by the public generally, along
with some type of continuing governmental supervision.” Obado v. New Jersey,
328 F.3d 716, 717 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Barry v. Bergen Cty. Prob. Dep’t. 128
F.3d 152, 160 (3d Cir. 1997)). But children who are placed with a foster parent
pursuant to a court order “are not in the ‘custody’ of the State in the sense in
which that term has been used by [the Supreme Court] in determining the
availability of the writ of habeas corpus.” Lehman, 458 U.S. at 510. That is
because “they are in the ‘custody’ of their foster parents in essentially the same
way, and to the same extent, other children are in the custody of their natural
or adoptive parents.” Id. at 510-11. In short, the term “custody” is a miscue; it
does not mean the same thing for purposes of family law and habeas law.
Mazzetti’s response—that he has standing to pursue a habeas petition
as D.M.’s “next friend”—is something of a non sequitur. Since Linda Mazzetti’s
death, D.M. has been under the care of a foster parent. (Compi.
289) D.M. himself is not in custody, and has no right to bring a habeas
petition. It follows that Mazzetti can have no greater right to bring a petition on
D.M.’s behalf. Under Lehman, this Court cannot hear a habeas petition
challenging that placement, which does not qualify as “custody” under 28
§ 2254.24 The complaint, to be sure, alleges that D.M. has suffered side
effects from taking Ritalin and that D.M would rather live with his natural
father. These are not insignificant restraints on D.M.’s liberty—but they are not
any more significant than those imposed on children of adoptive or natural
parents. Id. at 510-11; see also Obado, 328 F.3d at 717. Foster parents, like
adoptive parents or natural parents, have the power and duty to decide
whether the benefits of placing a child on prescription medication outweigh the
side effects. And Mazzetti’s parental rights, it must be remembered, have been
terminated; D.M., a child, has no greater right to live with Mazzetti than he
does with any other person he might select. In other words, D.M. “suffer[sl no
unusual restraints not imposed on other children.” Lehman, at 510-11.
Mazzetti, though he tries to talk around it, really stands in the shoes
of the petitioner in Lehman. Like that petitioner, Mazzetti seeks “to relitigate,
through federal habeas, not any liberty interest of [D.M.j, but the interest in
[his] own parental rights.” Id. at 511; see also Lehman v. Lycoming Cty.
Children’s Serus., 648 F.2d 135, 140 (3d Cir. 1981) (en banc) (the Court of
Appeals decision affirmed by the Supreme Court in Lehman, supra) (“[U]nlawful
custody is simply not the issue in a parental rights termination case. It is not
the liberty interest of the children that is sought to be protected in such a case,
but only the right of the particular parent to raise them.”). Under the law of
this Circuit and the Supreme Court, this district court has no statutory basis
to hear what amounts to a collateral challenge to the state court order
terminating Mazzetti’s rights.
Lehman left open the possibility that habeas relief might be possible “when a
child is actually confined in a state institution rather than being at liberty in the
custody of a foster parent pursuant to a court order.” Lehman, at 511 n. 12. Mazzetti
alleges that “D.M. has been held in custody of DYFS, as a Ward of the State of New
Jersey, in violation of the Constitution for the United States of America since July 1,
2014.” (Compl. ¶ 289) Not the same thing. That argument was advanced by Justice
Blackmun. Id at 522 (“I have difficulty finding that minor children, who as state wards
are fully subject to state-court custody orders, are not sufficiently and peculiarly
restrained to be deemed ‘in custody’ for the purposes of the habeas corpus statute.”)
(Blackmun, J.) (dissenting)). It was rejected, however, by six other Justices.
Even if the “custody” requirement were met, however, I would still
decline to hear a habeas petition brought by Mazzetti as D.M.’s “next friend.”
The “next friend has [the] burden to establish why [the] real party in interest
cannot prosecute a habeas petition, that [the] ‘next friend’ is ‘truly dedicated’ to
the best interests on whose behalf she litigates, and that she has some
significant relationship with real party in interest.” Amerson
Iowa Dep’t of
Human Serus. v. Palmer, 59 F.3d 92, 93 n.3 (8th Cir. 1995) (citing Whitmore,
495 U.S. at 163-64). Granting that D.M. is a minor and that Mazzetti is his
biological father, I still have serious doubts that Mazzetti’s interests in this
litigation are aligned with D.M.’s interests. My reasons are substantially the
same as those detailed in Part II.A.2: that Mazzetti has been adjudicated unfit
to make decisions in D.M.’s interests; that returning D.M. to Mazzetti’s custody
may not be in D.M.’s best interest; and that D.M. has a legal guardian who
possesses the legal authority to make decisions in D.M.’s best interests.
Finally, even assuming that Mazzetti could proceed as D.M.’s next
friend, the claims he asserts here do not actually involve the liberty interests of
D.M. See Lehman, 458 U.S. at 511-12 (“[F]ederal habeas has never been
available to challenge parental rights or child custody.”); Amerson, 59 F.3d 93
(“Jurisdiction over a habeas petition brought by a next friend exists only if the
litigation actually involves the concerns of the real party in interest and simply
the grievances of the next friend.”) Id. at 93. The complaint largely seeks relief
for Mazzetti’s primary grievance: the allegedly wrongful termination of his
parental rights. Virtually all of its allegations center around the actions and
processes that led to that termination. Federal habeas is not a vehicle for
Mazzetti to relitigate those grievances.
The request for habeas corpus is therefore DENIED WITH
For the reasons set forth above, the defendants’ motion to dismiss is
GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, as follows.
1. Because amendment would be futile, the following are DISMISSED
Counts 1 and 2, for lack of standing;
Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6 against defendant DCP&P, on sovereign
Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6, against defendants Governor Christie,
Judge Foti, Judge Mizdol, Deputy Attorney Buckwalter, Justice
Long, and Prosecutor Molinelli, on sovereign immunity and
absolute immunity grounds or qualified immunity grounds;
Counts 4 and 5 against defendants Roberts and Zapata, on
qualified immunity grounds; and
Count 8, for lack of habeas jurisdiction.
The following are DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE:
Count 3, against Roberts and Zapata, for failure to state a
Count 7, for failure to state a claim.
The motion to dismiss Count 6 (First Amendment retaliation) as to
defendants Roberts and Zapata is DENIED.
A separate ORDER will issue.
Dated: March 27, 2017
United States District
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