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Johnson v. Oregon Department of Human Services

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

March 13, 2018

CHAD JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
OREGON DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          ANN AIKEN, United States 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.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         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)(1), provides indigent litigants an opportunity for meaningful access to federal courts despite their inability to pay the costs and fees associated with that access. To authorize a litigant to proceed IFP, a court must make two determinations. First, a court must determine whether the litigant is unable to pay the costs of commencing the action. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1). Second, it must assess whether the action is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon 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 courts 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 Ml Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "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. The court is not required to accept legal conclusions, unsupported 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 court should construe pleadings by pro se 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

         DISCUSSION

         The Complaint in this action is somewhat disjointed and lacks sufficient factual allegations for the Court to form a clear understanding of Johnson's claims. It appears that the Oregon Department of Human Services ("DHS") initiated some sort proceeding concerning the custody of Johnson's son, presumably a juvenile dependency action, but the proceeding was subsequently terminated. Compl. 5.

         Johnson brings his claims against DHS pursuant to 42 U.S, C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth, 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 proportionality or congruence 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 supporting factual allegations, the Court dismisses Johnson's RFRA claim and confines its discussion to Johnson's claims under §1983.

         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 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 court 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 of Tramp., 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 Aitth. v. Metcalf, 506 U.S. 139, 144 (1993).

         Furthermore, § 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 ...


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