Johnson v. Oregon Department of Human Services
OPINION & ORDER: The Complaint 1 is DISMISSED with leave to amend. Plaintiff shall have thirty (30) days from the date of this Order in which to file an amended complaint. Plaintiff is advised that failure to file an amended complaint wit hin the allotted time will result in the entry of a judgment of dismissal. The Court defers ruling on Plaintiff's petition to proceed IFP 2 until Plaintiff files an amended complaint or the time for doing so has expired. Amended Complaint is due by 4/13/2018. Signed on 3/13/2018 by Judge Ann L. Aiken. A copy of this Opinion and Order was mailed to pro se plaintiff Chad Johnson. (ck)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
Civ. No. 1:18-cv-00377-AA
OPINION & ORDER
OF HUMAN SERVICES,
AIKEN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Chad Johnson seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP") in this action.
ECF No. 2. For the reasons set forth below, this case is DISMISSED with leave to amend. The
Court shall defer ruling on Plaintiffs IFP petition pending submission of an amended complaint.
Generally, all parties instituting any civil action in United States District Court must pay
a statutory filing fee. 28 U.S.C. § 1914(a). However, the federal IFP statute, 28 U.S.C. §
1915(a)(l), provides indigent litigants an oppotiunity for meaningful access to federal comis
despite their inability to pay the costs and fees associated with that access. To authorize a
litigant to proceed IFP, a cou11 must make two determinations. First, a co mi must dete1mine
whether the litigant is unable to pay the costs of commencing the action. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(l).
Second, it must assess whether the action is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon
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which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune to such
relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).
In regard to the second of these determinations, district comis have the power under 28
U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) to screen complaints even before service of the complaint on the
defendants, and must dismiss a complaint if it fails to state a claim. Courts apply the same
standard under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) as when addressing a motion to dismiss under Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Watison v. Carter, 668 F.3d 1108, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). To
survive a motion to dismiss under the federal pleading standards, the complaint must include a
short and plain statement of the claim and "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to
'state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face."' Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(quoting Bell At!. C01p. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility
when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the comi to draw the reasonable inference
that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard . . . asks for
more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.
The court is not
required to accept legal conclusions, unsuppo1ied by alleged facts, as true. Id.
Pro se pleadings are held to less stringent standards than pleadings by attorneys. Haines
v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). That is, the comi should construe pleadings by prose
plaintiffs liberally and afford the plaintiffs the benefit of any doubt. Karim-Panahi v. Los
Angeles Police Dep 't, 839 F.2d 621, 623 (9th Cir. 1988). Additionally, a pro se litigant is
entitled to notice of the deficiencies in the complaint and the opportunity to amend, unless the
complaint's deficiencies cannot be cured by amendment. Id.
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The Complaint in this action is somewhat disjointed and Jacks sufficient factual
allegations for the Court to foim a clear understanding of Johnson's claims. It appears that the
Oregon Department of Human Services ("DHS") initiated some s01t proceeding concerning the
custody of Johnson's son, presumably a juvenile dependency action, but the proceeding was
subsequently terminated. Comp!. 5.
Johnson brings his claims against DHS pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations
of his Fomth, Fifth, and Twelfth Amendment rights, apparently for actions taken by DHS during
the juvenile dependency proceeding. 1 Johnson also invokes the Religious Freedom Restoration
Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq, as a basis for federal question jurisdiction, but the
Complaint contains no further references to RFRA or any allegation that DHS burdened
Johnson's religious practice. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has invalidated RFRA, holding
that it was an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power pursuant to Section Five of the
Fourteenth Amendment because of a "lack of propo1tionality or congrnence between the means
adopted and the legitimate end to be achieved." City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 532-36
(1997). In light of City of Boerne, and in the absence of any clear supp01ting factual allegations,
the Comt dismisses Johnson's RFRA claim and confines its discussion to Johnson's claims
Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 "provides a federal cause of action against any person who, acting
under color of state law, deprives another of his federal rights." Conn v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286,
290 (1999). To maintain a claim under§ 1983, "a plaintiff must both (1) allege the deprivation
of a right secured by the federal Constitution or statutory law, and (2) allege that the deprivation
The Complaint alleges that DHS interfered with Johnson's "12th amendment right to raise my child." Comp!. 6.
This citation appears to be in error because tbe Twelfth Amendment concerns the procedure for electing the
President of the United States. U.S. Const. Amend. XII.
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was committed by a person acting under color of state law." Anderson v. Warner, 451 F.3d
1063, 1067 (9th Cir. 2006).
Even at this early stage, the Court notes two major issues with the Complaint: (1) as a
state agency, DHS is not a "person" within the meaning of § 1983 and is entitled to sovereign
immunity; and (2) the Complaint lack sufficient factual allegations for the Court to understand
the basis for Johnson's claims.
A. Sovereign Immunity
The Eleventh Amendment provides that a state is immune from suit in federal comi
unless Congress has abrogated the state's immunity by appropriate federal legislation or the state
itself has waived it. Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart, 563 U.S. 247, 253-54 (2011).
Congress has not abrogated state sovereign immunity in 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Braunstein v.
Ariz. Dep't o/Transp., 683 F.3d 1177, 1188 (9th Cir. 2012). It is similarly well settled that a
state agency is entitled to sovereign immunity from suit. P. R. Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v.
Metcalf, 506 U.S. 139, 144 (1993).
Fu1ihe1more, § 1983 allows suits against state and local officials who have violated
federal law, but does not allow claims against states or state agencies because they are not
"persons" within the meaning of§ 1983. Will v. Mich. Dep 't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71
(1989) (holding that "neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacity are 'persons'
under § 1983."); Maldonado v. Harris, 370 F.3d 945, 951 (9th Cir. 2004) ("State agencies ...
are not 'persons' within the meaning of§ 1983, and are therefore not amendable to suit under
In this case, DHS is the only named defendant. As an Oregon state agency, DHS is
entitled to the protection of sovereign immunity. DHS is also not a "person" within the meaning
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of § 1983, and therefore not a proper defendant in an action under that statute. In drafting his
amended complaint, Johnson should find some other basis or other defendant for his claims.
B. Insufficient Factual Allegations
The most fundamental problem with Jolmson's Complaint is its lack of clear factual
allegations. As noted above, a federal complaint must include a short and plain statement of the
claim and "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim for relief that is
plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has
facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility
standard ... asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.
Although Johnson alleges that DHS violated his rights, he does not clearly allege how. It
is not clear, for instance, what actions DHS took during the juvenile dependency action, or
whether Johnson lost, retained, or regained custody of his son. The Complaint itself provides
contradictory allegations. For instance, the Complaint alleges that DHS "dismissed/dropped my
family case but never notified me with written notice ifI may or may not be a father to my son,"
and that Johnson has "been without a clear concise legal document citing an action plan to get
home and back with my blessed boy," which suggest Johnson lost custody of his son. Comp!. 56. But the Complaint also alleges that Johnson "had to take a psycho sexual in order to keep
DHS from maybe taking my son into custody," which, together with the fact that the DHS case
has apparently been dismissed, suggests Johnson never lost custody of his son. Comp!. 5.
The factual allegations contained in Johnson's Complaint fall short of federal pleading
standards. The Comi is mindful of the latitude accorded to pro se plaintiffs, however, and
Johnson will be given an opportunity to amend his complaint.
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In drafting his amended
complaint, Johnson should take care to include enough facts for the Court to understand what has
happened, how the defendants violated Johnson's rights and why he believes the defendants
should be held liable.
For the reasons set forth above, the Complaint, ECF No. 1, is DISMISSED with leave to
amend. Plaintiff shall have thirty (30) days from the date of this Order in which to file an
amended complaint. Plaintiff is advised that failure to file an amended complaint within the
allotted time will result in the entry of a judgment of dismissal.
The Court defers ruling on Plaintiffs petition to proceed IFP, ECF No. 2, until Plaintiff
files an amended complaint or the time for doing so has expired.
It is so ORDERED and DATED this
day of March, 2018.
United States District Judge
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