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Alexander v. South Carolina Department of Social Services

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

January 26, 2018

John Alexander and Amanda Alexander, Individually and as Parents and Guardian Ad Litem for J.A., a Minor Under the Age Of Fourteen 14 Years Plaintiffs,
South Carolina Department of Social Services, Defendant.



         This matter comes before the court on John and Amanda Alexander's (together, the “Alexanders”) motion summary judgment, ECF No. 33. For the reasons set forth below, the court dismisses the Alexanders' federal claims. Finding no subject-matter jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims, the court remands the case to state court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This litigation arises from the removal of the Alexanders' minor child, J.A., from their home by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (“SCDSS”). J.A. was born on January 22, 2008, and the Alexanders separated in February of 2012. ECF No. 33 at 2. After their separation, Mr. Alexander was stationed as a military police officer in Georgia while Mrs. Alexander lived with J.A. in Ladson, South Carolina. Id. In May of 2012, when J.A. was four years old, she began attending Life Christian Development Center (“Life Christian”). Id. On April 15, 2013, Dawn Simmons, an employee of Life Christian, called SCDSS and reported that J.A. had been exhibiting behaviors consistent with sexual abuse. Id.

         SCDSS Case Manager Diane Langston (“Langston”) was assigned the case that same day. Id. at 3. Langston observed J.A. at Life Christian, and then visited Mrs. Alexander's home on April 16, 2013. Id. Mr. Alexander was in town at the time and was at home with J.A. when Langston arrived. Id. Langston explained the allegations of sexual abuse to Mr. Alexander and had him sign a Safety Plan, which provides that J.A. must: (1) have a Forensic Interview with Dorchester Children's Center; (2) have no unsupervised contact with her grandfather, the suspected abuser, or any other male besides her father; and (3) be supervised by her parents or grandmother. Id. at 4. On April 18, 2013, the Alexanders and J.A.'s grandmother met with Mrs. Langston at SCDSS. Id. The Alexanders claim that Langston assured them during this meeting that there was no reason to expect that J.A. would be removed from their home. Id.

         On April 19, 2013, SCDSS employee Elizabeth Snider (“Snider”) visited the Alexanders' home, which Snider claims was in response to a concerned call from Life Christian that J.A. had not come in that day. Id. 4-5. On the way to the Alexanders' home, Snider contacted the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department to have them meet her at the Alexanders' home in order to determine whether to take J.A. into emergency protective custody (“EPC”). Id. at 5. Officer Stephen Tillman (“Officer Tillman”) met Snider at the scene and eventually removed J.A. from the home. Id. On April 23, 2013, a probable cause hearing was held in state court, at which the Alexanders agreed to a finding that probable cause existed at the time of removal, but that probable cause no longer existed for SCDSS to keep J.A. ECF No. 39-10. Legal and physical custody of J.A. was then returned to the Alexanders, and the case was dismissed by a Consent Order. The Alexanders filed the instant action in the Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas on May 12, 2014, alleging that SCDSS was negligent, grossly negligent, and reckless in: (1) failing to properly investigate claims and follow protocol; (2) failing to properly hire and train personnel; (3) taking J.A. from the Alexanders and placing her in DSS custody without properly investigating the claims against them; (4) failing to return J.A. to the Alexanders' home; (5) abusing their power by taking J.A. out of the Alexanders' home with a reckless attitude towards the Alexanders' Constitutional rights; and (6) in depriving the Alexanders of their Constitutional right to Due Process and the protection of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. ECF No. 1-1. The case was removed to this court on June 17, 2014. ECF No. 1. On August 22, 2017, SCDSS filed their motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 33. On September 22, 2017, the Alexanders filed their reply. The matters have been fully briefed and are now ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         A. Dismissal of a Claim for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         A party challenging the court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a pending action may bring a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Even when a party does not move to dismiss on this ground, the court has the right and obligation to ensure that it possesses subject-matter jurisdiction over every case that comes before it. Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134, 141 (2012) (“When a requirement goes to subject-matter jurisdiction, courts are obligated to consider sua sponte issues that the parties have disclaimed or have not presented.”). When a federal court does not possess subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim, it must sua sponte dismiss the claim. Id.

         B. Supplemental Jurisdiction

         A federal district court “has jurisdiction over an entire action, including state-law claims, whenever the federal-law claims and state-law claims in the case ‘derive from a common nucleus of operative fact' and are ‘such that [a plaintiff] would ordinarily be expected to try them all in one judicial proceeding.'” Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 349 (1988) (quoting Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 725 (1966)). When evaluating whether to exercise jurisdiction over pendent state-law claims, a district court should consider the values of “judicial economy, convenience, fairness, and comity.” Id. at 350. “Because in some circumstances a remand of a removed case involving pendent claims will better accommodate these values than will dismissal of the case, the animating principle behind the pendent jurisdiction doctrine supports giving a district court discretion to remand when the exercise of pendent jurisdiction is inappropriate.” Id. at 351; see also Shanaghan v. Cahill, 58 F.3d 106, 110 (4th Cir. 1995). A district court may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over pendent state claims if:

(1) the claim raises a novel or complex issue of State law,
(2) the claim substantially predominates over the claim or claims over which the district court has ...

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