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Shuler v. South Carolina Department of Social Services

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

May 24, 2019

Melodie Shuler, Plaintiff,
South Carolina Department of Social Services; Sylvia Mitchum; Traci Alter; Michele Blue; Gillum; One Unknown Individual; Six Unknown DSS Workers, Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Melodie Shuler, proceeding pro se, brings this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915.[1] This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.). Having reviewed the Complaint in accordance with applicable law, the court finds this action is subject to summary dismissal if Plaintiff does not amend the Complaint to cure the deficiencies identified herein.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff claims she and her minor children were abused by her ex-husband, and she received an order of protection from a South Carolina court. (Compl., ECF No. 3 at 20.) However, Plaintiff claims the judge called the South Carolina Department of Social Services (“DSS”), telling DSS that Plaintiff had failed to protect her children from abuse. (Id. ¶ 89.) Plaintiff claims DSS employees harassed her and her children from June 2016 to January 2017 by making visits to Plaintiff's home and her children's school without having any indication that abuse or neglect was occurring. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 189, ECF No. 3 at 7, 44.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that DSS employees Michele Blue and Traci Alter asked Plaintiff if she had a mental disorder or was prescribed any medication. (Id. ¶ 189, ECF No. 3 at 44.) Plaintiff further alleges that Blue and Alter wrote false reports that Plaintiff was mentally ill and not taking her medication, and “provided wrongful procedures” when they told Plaintiff they would take her children if Plaintiff did not sign certain papers. (Id.) Plaintiff claims she told Sylvia Mitchum[2] about the harassment by DSS employees, but Mitchum did not correct the behavior. (Id.) Finally, Plaintiff claims DSS refused to “close her public benefits” so that she could receive benefits in Washington, D.C. (Id. ¶ 33, ECF No. 3 at 7.)

         Plaintiff raises claims against DSS pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her right to substantive and procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. at 3, 20.) As to Mitchum, Plaintiff purports to raise a state law tort claim of supervisory liability.[3] (Id. at 43-44.) Plaintiff generally raises claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence against all of the defendants. (Id. at 47-48.) Plaintiff seeks damages. (Id. at 48.)

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of the pro se Complaint. The Complaint has been filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, which permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in federal court without prepaying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. This statute allows a district court to dismiss the case upon a finding that the action “is frivolous or malicious, ” “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         In order to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the plaintiff must do more than make mere conclusory statements. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. The reviewing court need only accept as true the complaint's factual allegations, not its legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         This court is required to liberally construe pro se complaints, which are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2016). Nonetheless, the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684 (2009) (outlining pleading requirements under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for “all civil actions”).

         B. Analysis

         A legal action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 allows “a party who has been deprived of a federal right under the color of state law to seek relief.” City of Monterey v. Del Monte Dunes at Monterey, Ltd., 526 U.S. 687, 707 (1999). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988).

         However, DSS itself is not “person” amenable to suit under § 1983. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) (noting that for purposes of § 1983 a “person” includes individuals and “bodies politic and corporate”). And even liberally construing Plaintiff's § 1983 claims to assert causes of action against the State of South Carolina, such claims would be barred. The Eleventh Amendment bars suits by citizens against non-consenting states brought either in state or federal court. See Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 712-13 (1999); Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996); Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890). Such immunity extends to arms of the state, including a state's agencies, instrumentalities and employees. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101-02 (1984); see also Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997). While sovereign immunity does not bar suit where a state has given consent to be sued, or where Congress abrogates the sovereign immunity of a state, neither of those exceptions applies in the instant case.[4] Similarly, South Carolina's sovereign immunity bars Plaintiff's assertion of state law tort causes of action against the State, including torts committed by state employees, [5] even if she could bring those claims in a state court of competent jurisdiction. Cf. Lapides v. Bd. of Regents, 535 U.S. 613, 622 (2002). Therefore, Plaintiff's claims against DSS or the State of South Carolina are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and the state's sovereign immunity.

         To the extent Plaintiff seeks to raise state law tort claims against the individual defendants outside of their capacity as DSS employees, she fails to provide any facts that would plausibly support a claim that the individuals caused Plaintiff any injury. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (requiring that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief”); Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (stating Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 does not require detailed factual ...

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