Defibaugh et al v. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio Board of Trustees et al
Memorandum of Opinion and Order: Motion of Defendants CASA for Kids of Geauga County and Margaret Vaughan to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 27 ); Defendant Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio Board of Trustees' Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 22 ); Defendant David Guarnera's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 21 ); and Defendants' Morning Star Friend's Church and Reverend Matthew Chesnes's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 28 ) are GRANTED. Judge Patricia A. Gaughan on 10/16/17. (LC,S)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
APRIL DEFIBAUGH, et al.,
BIG BROTHERS/BIG SISTERS OF
NORTHEAST OHIO BOARD OF
TRUSTEES, et al.,
CASE NO. 1:17 CV 645
JUDGE PATRICIA A. GAUGHAN
MEMORANDUM OF OPINION AND
This matter is before the Court upon: (1) Motion of Defendants CASA for Kids of
Geauga County and Margaret Vaughan to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 27); (2)
Defendant Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Northeast Ohio Board of Trustees’ Motion to Dismiss
Amended Complaint (Doc. 22); (3) Defendant David Guarnera’s Motion to Dismiss Amended
Complaint (Doc. 21); and (4) Defendants’ Morning Star Friend’s Church and Reverend Matthew
Chesnes’s Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 24). This is a First Amendment case.
For the reasons that follow, defendants’ motions are GRANTED.
Plaintiffs April DeFibaugh and Gregg DeFibaugh bring this lawsuit on behalf of
themselves and on behalf of their minor child, V, against defendants Big Brothers/Big Sisters of
Northeast Ohio Board of Trustees (“BBBS”), David Guarnera, Morning Star Friends Church
(“Morning Star”), Matthew Chesnes, Casa for Kids of Geauga County (“CASA”), and Margaret
Vaughan, alleging violations of the First Amendment as to BBBS, Mr. Guarnera, CASA, and
Ms. Vaughan (Count One); civil assault and battery as to Mr. Guarnera and Mr. Chesnes (Count
Two); and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count Three), negligence and negligent
supervision (Count Four), federal civil conspiracy (Count Five), and state civil conspiracy
(Count Six) as to all defendants. For purposes of ruling on the motions, the facts in the amended
complaint are presumed true.
According to the amended complaint, plaintiffs are the parents and natural guardians of
V, a minor with disabilities. V’s older sister had behavioral problems, which caused Geauga
County’s social services agency to open a case file on her. During the court proceedings relating
to V’s sister, the Geauga County Juvenile Court determined that V was a “dependent” in need of
a guardian ad litem (“GAL”), and ordered CASA to assign a GAL to V.
Defendant CASA is a nonprofit entity that exists solely to train and supervise the
assignment of GALs to children in juvenile court cases, and CASA has an exclusive contract
with the Geauga County Juvenile Court. Pursuant to the court’s order, CASA assigned its
employee defendant Vaughan to be V’s GAL, which the court approved.
Vaughan was a member of defendant Morning Star Friends Church. According to the
amended complaint, Vaughan preached to plaintiffs about Christianity and “left” plaintiffs with
books, tapes, CDs, and other works of religious content. Mr. and Mrs. DeFibaugh complained to
Vaughan’s supervisors at CASA because they felt that Vaughan was trying to influence their
religion and children’s upbringing, and if they did not follow Vaughan’s directives, Vaughan
could recommend V’s removal from their home. Despite these complaints, Vaughan continued
to serve as GAL to V and continued preaching to plaintiffs.
According to the amended complaint, Vaughan believed that V would benefit from adult
socialization, and introduced him to defendant Guarnera, another member of Morning Star.
Plaintiffs allege that Vaughan recommended that Guarnera become a volunteer with defendant
BBBS so that his social contacts with V could be provided under the auspices of a non-sectarian
organization. Vaughan recommended to the juvenile court that BBBS and Guarnera be assigned
to help V. The court accepted her recommendation and approved Guarnera as V’s Big Brother.
Plaintiffs allege that throughout 2015 and 2016, Guarnera was V’s Big Brother and took
him to baseball games, his own house, and to defendant Morning Star for picnics and other
events. Against the express wishes of Mr. and Mrs. DeFibaugh, Guarnera often spoke to V
about religion. He also told V that he did not like families that did not believe in God.
On August 28, 2016, Guarnera told V’s parents that he would be taking V to a picnic at
Morning Star. Plaintiff alleges that Guarnera, Chesnes, who is the pastor at Morning Star, and
Morning Star planned to have V baptized at the picnic. Guarnera told V that he would no longer
take him to baseball games if he did not go through with the baptism. At the picnic, Chesnes
asked whether anyone in attendance wished to be baptized, and Guarnera pushed V out of his
chair to indicate that he wanted to be baptized. Plaintiffs allege that V was confused and did not
fully understand the concept of a baptism. Chesnes conducted the baptism by forcing V under
water and holding his head to the point where V felt like he was choking and could not breathe.
Guarnera took V home after the picnic and informed V’s parents about the baptism. V’s parents
then ceased contact with Guarnera and BBBS.1
Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit alleging federal and state claims. This matter is now before
the Court upon all defendants’ motions to dismiss.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of
civil procedure, “[d]ismissal is appropriate when a plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). We assume the factual allegations in the complaint
are true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Comtide
Defendants submit a journal entry from the Geauga County
Juvenile Court showing that the guardianship was terminated on
June 5, 2015, which was fourteen months before the alleged
baptism. Plaintiffs urge the Court not to consider that journal entry
or any other facts outside of the amended complaint without
converting the motions into motions for summary judgment.
Although the Court generally may not consider facts that are
outside of the amended complaint, the law is clear that this Court
“may consider . . . public records . . . and exhibits attached to
defendant’s motion to dismiss, so long as they are referred to in the
complaint and are central to the claims therein, without converting
the motion to one for summary judgment.” Gavitt v. Born, 835
F.3d 623 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Kreipke v. Wayne State Univ., 807
F.3d 768, 774 (6th Cir. 2015) and Bassett v. Nat’l Collegiate
Athletic Ass’n., 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008)). The journal
entry is a public record central to plaintiffs’ claims, so this Court
may consider it. However, dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims is
warranted regardless of the journal entry.
Holdings, LLC v. Booth Creek Management Corp., 2009 WL 1884445 (6th Cir. July 2, 2009)
(citing Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir.2008)). In construing
the complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, “the court does not accept the
bare assertion of legal conclusions as enough, nor does it accept as true unwarranted factual
inferences.” Gritton v. Disponett, 2009 WL 1505256 (6th Cir. May 27, 2009) (citing In re
Sofamor Danek Group, Inc., 123 F.3d 394, 400 (6th Cir.1997). As outlined by the Sixth Circuit:
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “Specific
facts are not necessary; the statement need only give the defendant fair notice
of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Erickson v.
Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). However, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to
raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and to “state a claim to
relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570. A
plaintiff must “plead[ ] 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).
Keys v. Humana, Inc., 684 F.3d 605, 608 (6th Cir.2012). Thus, Twombly and Iqbal require that
the complaint contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face based on factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570;
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.2
Although all six defendants moved for dismissal under Fed. R.
Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6), some defendants additionally moved under
Rules 12(b)(1), 12(h)(3), and 12(c). In that all of defendants’
arguments amount to a failure to state a claim, this Court will
address all of them under Rule 12(b)(6).
I. Count One (42 U.S.C. § 1983)
A. State Action
Defendants move to dismiss on the basis that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for
violation of the First Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To prevail on a claim under this
statute, plaintiffs must establish (1) the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution and
(2) that the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law. Wittstock v.
Mark A. Van Sile, Inc., 330 F.3d 899, 902 (6th Cir. 2003). Defendants will be considered state
actors for the purposes of §1983 only if the conduct that allegedly gave rise to the deprivation of
the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights may be “fairly attributable to the state.” Marie v. American
Red Cross, 771 F.3d 344, 362 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Lugar v. Edmonson Oil Co., Inc., 457 U.S.
922 (1982)). Whether defendants are state actors is a question of law for the Court. See Neuens
v. City of Columbus, 303 F.3d 667, 670 (6th Cir. 2002). Plaintiffs allege that defendants
unlawfully deprived them of their First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Defendants
argue that the federal claims against them must be dismissed because their actions cannot be
considered “state action” taken under color of state law.
The Sixth Circuit has recognized as many as four tests to aid courts in determining
whether challenged conduct is fairly attributable to the state. Marie v. American Red Cross, 771
F.3d at 362. Plaintiffs have identified and argued three of these tests: (1) the substantial nexus
test (also known as the symbiotic relationship test); (2) the state compulsion test; and (3) the
Plaintiffs argue that CASA was a state actor for purposes of § 1983. CASA does not
disagree but rather focuses on its absolute judicial immunity, which is addressed below. Given
CASA’s lack of defense in this regard, the Court will assume for purposes of these motions that
the actions allegedly taken by CASA were taken under color of state law.4
2. Margaret Vaughan
Plaintiffs argue that Vaughan, the GAL who derived her authority from CASA and the
juvenile court, was a state actor under both the nexus and entwinement tests. Plaintiffs argue
that Vaughan used her authority as GAL to coerce and pressure plaintiffs into accommodating
her religious beliefs. Defendants argue that, as a matter of law, actions taken by GALs are not
taken under the color of state law. Upon review, the Court agrees with defendants that
Vaughan’s conduct was not fairly attributable to the state under either the nexus or entwinement
Plaintiffs also argue that all the defendants should be considered
state actors because they conspired with state officials to violate
plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. (Doc. 30 at 10). The Court
will address this argument in the context of plaintiffs’ federal
conspiracy claim below.
The Court questions whether CASA is a state actor given that
CASA is, according to the Amended Complaint, “a nonprofit
entity that exists solely to train and supervise . . . GALs . . . in
juvenile court cases.” (Doc. 20, ¶ 13).
Under the nexus test, private conduct constitutes state action when there is a “sufficiently
close nexus between the state and the challenged action of the regulated entity so that the action
of the latter may be fairly treated as that of the state itself.” Wolotsky v. Huhn, 960 F.2d 1331,
1336 (6th Cir. 1992); Reguli v. Guffee, 2010 WL 1252950, *9 (6th Cir. Mar. 31, 2010). It must
be demonstrated that the state is “intimately involved” in the challenged private conduct in order
for that conduct to be attributed to the state for purposes of § 1983. Id. GALs in particular are
not state actors under the nexus test where the “state exercised no coercive power over
defendant’s independent judgment.” Reguli v. Guffee, 2010 WL 1252950 at *10. This is
because the role of the guardian is to act as an advocate of the child. See, e.g. McClear v.
Donaldson,1987 WL 36589 (6th Cir. Jan. 28, 1987); Ismaiyl v. Brown, 2016 WL 4581335 (N.D.
Ohio, Sept. 1, 2016) (Nugent); Catudal v. Browne, 2012 WL 1068530 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 29, 2012)
(report and recommendation, adopted in Catudal v. Brown, 2012 WL 1476088 (S.D. Ohio April
24, 2012)). Plaintiffs allege that Vaughan was selected by CASA and appointed by the juvenile
court. (Doc. 20, ¶ 15). Plaintiffs further allege that they complained to employees at CASA
about Vaughan but that she was not removed as GAL. Id. at ¶¶ 18-19. These sparse allegations
do not demonstrate that CASA or the juvenile court were “intimately involved” in Vaughan’s
conduct or exercised “coercive power” over her independent judgment as the nexus test requires.
Although plaintiffs argue that CASA “apparently approved of and encouraged” Vaughan’s
conduct, this conclusion is not supported by any of the statements or allegations in the amended
Plaintiffs argue that Reguli supports their position. In Reguli, the court stated that “it is
conceivable that a more expansive type of guardianship role could satisfy the nexus test.” Id.;
see also Kirtley v. Rainey, 326 F.3d 1088, 1095 (9th Cir. 2003) (“Although it is conceivable that
a more expansive type of guardianship role could satisfy the nexus test . . . the actions of the
guardian at issue here do not appear to be ‘fairly attributable to the state.’”). For example, in
Thomas v. Morrow, 781 F.2d 367, 377 (4th Cir. 1986), the guardian at issue had significant
authoritative powers, including custody of his ward, power to enable the ward to receive
medical, legal, psychological, or other professional care, and the power to replace the ward’s
authority to make decisions. Id. The Fourth Circuit held that the guardian, who performed a
custodial function pursuant to state law and worked closely with state officials to perform his
duties, was a state actor for purposes of § 1983. Id. at 378. Plaintiffs ask this Court to apply
Reguli and Thomas here because GALs in Ohio are court-appointed and wield significant
authority, including performing “whatever functions are necessary to protect the best interest of
the child.” Ohio Rev. Code § 2151.281(I); see also In re Alfrey, 2003 WL 262587 (Ct. App. July
3, 2003) (“A guardian ad litem is an agent of the court and, while charged to protect the child’s
best interest, owes his or her first duty to the court itself.”).
This Court finds that plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to support their argument
that Vaughan’s role as GAL was expansive enough to satisfy the nexus test and the standards set
forth in Thomas and Reguli. Plaintiffs allege that Vaughan was GAL for V, a minor. In her
capacity as GAL, Vaughan was empowered to investigate, mediate, monitor court proceedings,
and file motions and other court papers on behalf of V. See Ohio Rev. Code § 2151.281(I).
These powers fall short of the expansive powers granted to the custodial guardian in Thomas,
which included establishing the adult ward’s domicile and replacing the adult ward’s authority to
make decisions for himself. Thomas, 781 F.2d at 377. Plaintiffs do not make any factual
allegations that demonstrate that Vaughan was given power or authority that would rise to the
“expansive guardianship role” contemplated by the Sixth Circuit in Reguli.
The crux of plaintiffs’ argument seems to be that Vaughan abused her court-granted
authority by mixing her Christian beliefs with her role as GAL and imposing those beliefs on
plaintiffs. While Vaughan may have abused her power, this unilateral abuse of authority is not
sufficient to render Vaughan a state actor under the nexus test.
Plaintiffs also cannot establish that Vaughan was a state actor under the entwinement test.
Under the entwinement test, plaintiffs must show that Vaughan was “entwined with
governmental policies” or that the government was entwined in Vaughan’s management or
control. Marie v. American Red Cross, 771 F.3d at 363. As with the nexus test, “mere
cooperation simply does not rise to the level of merger required for a finding of state action.” Id.
at 364. The Sixth Circuit has stated that the “crucial inquiry” under this test is whether the
“nominally private character” of Vaughan was “overborne by the pervasive entwinement of
public institutions and public officials in [her] composition and workings such that there is no
substantial reason to claim unfairness in applying constitutional standards to [her].” Id. The fact
that a public entity has acted in compliance with a private entity’s recommendations does not
transform the private entity into a state actor. Hinton v. Teodosio, 2012 WL 5354584, *9 (N.D.
Ohio Oct. 29, 2012) (citing Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179 (1988)).
Plaintiffs argue the following governmental actions were entwined with Vaughan: CASA
selected and then subsequently failed to remove Vaughan as GAL after plaintiffs complained
about her, and the juvenile court later accepted Vaughan’s recommendations with respect to
BBBS and Guarnera, which contributed to the deprivation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.
Upon review, the Court finds that Plaintiffs’ allegations do not rise to the level of state
involvement required by the entwinement test. As set forth above, plaintiffs’ allegations amount
to an alleged abuse of power by Vaughan alone. The fact that the juvenile court appointed
Vaughan and accepted her recommendations with regard to BBBS and Guarnera does not
transform her into a state actor. Further, plaintiffs’ allegations do not suggest that the juvenile
court or CASA was excessively intertwined with Vaughan’s management or control such that
her conduct is fairly attributable to the state.
As such, this Court finds that plaintiffs have failed to adequately allege that Vaughan’s
conduct rises to the level of state action under the nexus test or the entwinement test.
3. BBBS and David Guarnera
Plaintiffs argue that Defendants BBBS and Guarnera were state actors under the nexus
test because the juvenile court appointed BBBS and Guarnera to assist V. As a result of
Guarnera’s appointment, plaintiffs felt compelled to allow V to spend time with Guarnera.
Plaintiffs allege that Guarnera’s actions were condoned, encouraged and made possible by
Vaughan. BBBS and Guarnera argue that they were not state actors because Guarnera was
merely a private volunteer working for a private nonprofit organization, and Vaughan’s
recommendation to the juvenile court did not elevate their conduct to state action.
Upon review, this Court agrees with defendants. The Court has already found that
Vaughan was not a state actor. Therefore, plaintiffs must allege that CASA or the juvenile court
had a sufficiently close nexus with either BBBS or Guarnera for their conduct to constitute state
action. Plaintiffs have not done so. The court appointment of BBBS and Guarnera does not
establish that the state was “intimately involved” in the private conduct such that a sufficiently
close nexus existed. See Wolotsky, 960 F.2d at 1336; Reguli, 2010 WL 1252950 at *9.
Plaintiffs also have not set forth factual allegations sufficient to establish that BBBS or
Guarnera were state actors under the state compulsion test. The state compulsion test requires
that a state “exercise such coercive power or provide such significant encouragement, either
overt or covert, that in law the choice of the private actor is deemed to be that of the state.”
Wolotsky v. Huhn, 960 F.2d at 1335. “More than mere approval or acquiescence in the
initiatives of the private party is necessary to hold the state responsible for those initiatives.” Id.
Plaintiffs’ argument – that Vaughan recruited Guarnera and directed him to volunteer
with BBBS, constituting “significant encouragement, if not outright compulsion” under the
compulsion test – assumes that Vaughan was a state actor. Vaughan was not a state actor, so her
actions with regard to Guarnera cannot bind the state. Further, there are no factual allegations
that CASA had any knowledge of the involvement of BBBS or Guarnera in V’s case. As set
forth above, the allegations that BBBS and Guarnera were appointed by the juvenile court also
do not elevate defendants’ private conduct to that of state action. Wolotsky v. Huhn, 960 F.2d at
1335 (“More than mere approval or acquiescence in the initiatives of the private party is
necessary to hold the state responsible for those initiatives.”).
For the same reasons, plaintiffs’ allegations fail under the entwinement test. Plaintiffs
have not alleged that BBBS or Guarnera were “entwined with governmental policies” beyond
being appointed by the court. That appointment does not elevate defendants’ private conduct to
4. Morning Star and Matthew Chesnes
Although Defendants Morning Star and Chesnes set forth arguments as to why they are
not state actors under § 1983, Count I of the amended complaint was not asserted against these
defendants. Therefore, the Court will not reach these arguments.
Because Vaughan, Guarnera, and BBBS did not act under color of state law and, as set
forth below, did not conspire with state actors to deprive plaintiffs of their First Amendment
rights, the § 1983 claims against them will be dismissed.
Defendant CASA argues that it is an arm of the Geauga County Juvenile Court and plays
an integral role in the judicial process and is therefore immune from § 1983 liability. CASA
cites Gardner v. Parson, 874 F.2d 131, 146 (3d Cir. 1989), in support of its argument. In
response, plaintiff argues that CASA acquiesced to Vaughan’s improper conduct by failing to
remove her as GAL after plaintiffs complained about her. (Doc. 20, ¶ 19). Plaintiffs provide no
other argument specific to CASA as to whether CASA should be entitled to absolute immunity.
Neither plaintiffs nor defendants cites any case involving an entity such as CASA.5
Upon review, and assuming for purposes of these motions that CASA is a state actor, the
Court finds that CASA is absolutely immune from liability. The Court agrees with defendants
that it should adopt a “functional approach” as to whether the actions of CASA fit within the
The case cited by defendants in support of their argument,
Gardner v. Parson, 874 F.2d 131 (3d Cir. 1989), adopts a
functional analysis as to guardians ad litem as individuals, not to
entities such as CASA.
common law tradition of absolute immunity. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 269 (1993);
Cooper v. Parrish, 203 F.3d 937, 944 (6th. Cir. 2000).
The central issue with regard to CASA’s immunity is whether CASA’s conduct can be
considered judicial in nature. Bush v. Rauch, 38 F.3d 842, 847 (6th Cir. 1994). Plaintiffs allege
that CASA is a quasi-governmental entity and that CASA’s purpose is to provide GALs to
families who have cases in juvenile court. (Doc. 20, ¶ 8). CASA was ordered by the juvenile
court to assign a GAL to V. (Doc. 20, ¶ 15). Pursuant to this order, CASA assigned Vaughan.
Id. Enforcing or executing a court order is intrinsically associated with a judicial proceeding,
and CASA is therefore entitled to immunity from plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim. Bush, 38 F.3d at 847.
Plaintiffs argue that CASA’s failure to respond to their complaints about Vaughan strips
CASA of its immunity. The Court disagrees. CASA’s actions in appointing (and subsequently
not removing) Vaughan as GAL were taken in its official capacity and pursuant to the juvenile
court order. As such, CASA is entitled to absolute immunity from plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim.
2. Margaret Vaughan
Vaughan argues that even if this Court were to find that she acted under the color of state
law, dismissal is still appropriate because she is absolutely immune from plaintiffs’ claims. In
support of her argument, Vaughan cites Kurzawa v. Mueller, 732 F.2d 1456 (6th Cir. 1984). In
response, plaintiff argues that absolute immunity is not without limits and that immunity only
extends to acts integral to the judicial process, not to officials whose role happens to include
judicial functions. Plaintiff argues that Vaughan’s conduct exceeded her responsibilities as GAL
and fell outside the scope of any immunity to which she might otherwise have been entitled.
This Court has already found that Vaughan was not a state actor for purposes of § 1983.
Even if this Court had found that Vaughan was a state actor, however, she would be absolutely
immune from liability for plaintiffs’ claims.
The United States Supreme Court has applied a “functional approach” in determining
whether particular actions of government officials fit within a common-law tradition of absolute
immunity. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. at 269; Cooper v. Parrish, 203 F.3d at 944. This
approach looks to “the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who
performed it.” Id. A guardian ad litem is not immune “for acts taken in the clear absence of all
jurisdiction.” Dahl v. Charles F. Dahl, M.D., P.C., Defined Ben. Pension Trust, 744 F.3d 623,
630 (10th Cir. 2014) (quoting Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 357 (1978)). However, an act
is not outside of a GAL’s jurisdiction just because it is wrongful, or even unlawful. Id.
“Immunity is conferred so judicial officers can exercise their judgment (which on occasion may
not be very good) without fear of being sued in tort.” Id. GALs are entitled to absolute quasijudicial immunity for performing job duties that are a part of the judicial process. Kurzawa v.
Mueller, 732 F.2d 1456 (6th Cir. 1984); Cok v. Cosentino, 876 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1989)
(allegations of malice, bad faith, or a claim of conspiracy will not defeat the protection of
absolute immunity for actions taken by GAL pursuant to court orders).
Upon review, the Court agrees that, even if Vaughan’s actions were taken under color of
state law, she would be entitled to absolute immunity for her actions taken as GAL. Plaintiffs
allege that Vaughan, in her capacity as GAL, preached to plaintiffs and “left” them with books,
tapes, CDs, and other works of religious content. (Doc. 20, ¶ 17). Plaintiffs also allege that
Vaughan, as GAL, recommended that Guarnera and BBBS work with V to assist with his “social
awkwardness.” (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 20-24). These allegations explicitly state that Vaughan’s
misconduct took place in her role as GAL. Indeed, plaintiffs’ argument that Vaughan acted
under color of state law requires that Vaughan took her action in her capacity as GAL. Because
plaintiffs have not alleged facts to demonstrate that Vaughan’s misconduct took place outside of
her role as GAL, she would be entitled to absolute immunity for those actions if she were found
to be a state actor. See Chee v. Washtenaw County, Mich., 2008 WL 2415374 (E.D. Mich. June
12, 2008) (“Because plaintiff accuses Towler of misconduct in her role as guardian ad litem,
Towler is entitled to absolute immunity from suit and must be dismissed from this lawsuit.”)
In sum, as to Count One, this Court finds that Vaughan, Guarnera, and BBBS did not act
under color of state law and CASA is immune from § 1983 liability.6 Therefore, the Court need
not address the first prong of the § 1983 claim (whether plaintiffs have adequately alleged the
deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution). Count One will be dismissed.
II. Count Five (Federal Conspiracy under § 1983)
Plaintiffs have alleged a federal civil conspiracy claim against all the defendants. A civil
conspiracy is “an agreement between two or more persons to injure another by unlawful action.”
Hooks v. Hooks, 771 F.2d 935, 943-44 (6th Cir. 1985). Express agreement among all the
conspirators is not necessary to find that a civil conspiracy existed. Id. at 944. Instead, plaintiffs
must show that there was a single plan, that the alleged coconspirator shared in the general
conspiratorial objective, and that an overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy,
causing injury to plaintiffs. Id.
As set forth in detail below, defendants are also not state actors by
virtue of having engaged in a conspiracy to violate plaintiffs’ First
In the case of civil conspiracy based on a § 1983 claim, plaintiff must come forward with
factual allegations showing (1) the existence of a conspiracy; and (2) an actual deprivation of a
right secured under the Constitution by persons acting under the color of state law. Jackim v.
City of Brooklyn, 2007 WL 893868, *16 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 22, 2007) (citing Abdullah v.
Harrington, 1994 WL 532932, *2 (6th Cir. 1994)). Conspiracy claims under § 1983 must be
pled with some degree of specificity, and vague and conclusory allegations unsupported by
material facts are not sufficient. Gutierrez v. Lynch, 826 F.2d 1534, 1538 (6th Cir. 1987). When
private persons willfully participated in a joint action with state agents, those private persons may
be held liable under § 1983. Memphis, Tennessee Area Local, American Postal Workers Union,
AFL-CIO v. Memphis, 361 F.3d 898, 905 (6th Cir. 2003); Moore v. City of Paducah, 890 F.2d
831, 834 (6th Cir. 1989) (“Thus, a private party may conspire with the state and be liable under §
1983.”); Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 27-28 (1980) (“Private persons, jointly engaged with
state officials in the challenged action, are acting . . . ‘under color’ of law for purposes of § 1983
actions”). As set forth above, the Court has concluded that Vaughan, BBBS, Guarnera, Morning
Star, and Chesnes are not state actors. CASA, however, did not argue that it is not a state actor,
choosing instead to focus on its own immunity.7 Therefore, in order to state a claim for federal
civil conspiracy based on § 1983, plaintiffs’ amended complaint must sufficiently allege that a
conspiracy existed between CASA and the private defendants in an effort to deprive plaintiffs of
their First Amendment rights.
In Dennis, the Supreme Court held that the private parties were
acting under color of law when they allegedly bribed a judge, even
though the judge with whom they were alleged to have conspired
was immune from liability. 449 U.S. at 28.
Plaintiffs allege that Guarnera conspired with Vaughan and the other defendants to coerce
the DeFibaugh family into religious practice. (Doc. 20, ¶¶ 21-24). Defendants argue that
plaintiffs’ conspiracy claim should be dismissed because it is not pled with the requisite
specificity.8 In response, plaintiffs argue that they have specifically alleged that Vaughan and
Guarnera used their official positions, as appointed by the juvenile court and CASA, to
unlawfully coerce the DeFibaugh family into religious practice. Plaintiffs argue that Vaughan
and Guarnera, supported by CASA and BBBS, engaged in a two-year effort to deprive plaintiffs
of their First Amendment rights, culminating in the baptism of V.
Upon review, the Court agrees with defendants. In order to state a claim for federal civil
conspiracy under § 1983, plaintiffs must allege that the private actors (Vaughan, Guarnera,
BBBS, Chesnes, and Morning Star) jointly engaged with the state actor (CASA) to deprive
plaintiffs of their First Amendment rights. Plaintiffs’ amended complaint is wholly devoid of
factual allegations that CASA conspired with the private defendants. Plaintiffs’ allegations
relating to CASA’s recommendation of Vaughan to the juvenile court and CASA’s failure to
subsequently remove Vaughan as GAL do not demonstrate that CASA had entered into an
agreement with Vaughan to deprive plaintiffs of their First Amendment rights. Plaintiffs allege
that Vaughan conspired with Guarnera, but there is no allegation that CASA had any knowledge
of Guernera’s involvement in V’s case. Plaintiffs have alleged nothing to support the existence
Defendants Morning Star and Chesnes also set forth a variety of
arguments which rely on facts not alleged in the amended
complaint as bases for their motion to dismiss. This Court will not
consider facts that were not alleged in the amended complaint and
will address only the argument that the federal conspiracy claim
was not pled with the requisite specificity.
of an agreement, express or implied, between CASA and any other defendant to deprive plaintiffs
of their First Amendment rights. Without the necessary factual allegations, plaintiffs have not
stated a claim for federal civil conspiracy and this claim against all defendants must be
III. Counts Two, Three, Four, and Six (State Law Claims)
Because the Court disposes of plaintiffs’ federal claims by this Order, the Court declines
to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over their state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
1367(c)(3). Plaintiffs’ state law claims are hereby dismissed without prejudice. Brandenburg v.
Housing Auth. of Irvine, 253 F.3d 891, 900 (6th Cir. 2001) (citing United Mine Workers of Am. v.
Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 726 (1966)).
For the foregoing reasons, Motion of Defendants CASA for Kids of Geauga County and
Margaret Vaughan to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 27); Defendant Big Brothers/Big
Sisters of Northeast Ohio Board of Trustees’ Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 22);
Defendant David Guarnera’s Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. 21); and Defendants’
Morning Star Friend’s Church and Reverend Matthew Chesnes’s Motion to Dismiss Amended
Complaint (Doc. 28) are GRANTED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Patricia A. Gaughan
PATRICIA A. GAUGHAN
United States District Judge
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