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Alvarado v. Collins-Bazant

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

January 8, 2020

MELISSA ALVARADO, Parent, Natural Guardian, and Next Friend of M.A., and M. A., a minor Child, Plaintiffs,
v.
GAIL COLLINS-BAZANT, in both her Individual and Official Capacities, and MADISON COUNTY, NEBRASKA, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Richard G. Kopf Senior United States District Judge

         This is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action challenging the removal of Plaintiff Melissa Alvarado's minor child (“M.A.”) from her care for more than two years based on what Alvarado characterizes as false allegations that M.A. was in danger and that she was unfit to care for her child. Alvarado and M.A. sue Madison County, Nebraska, and its deputy county attorney, Defendant Gail Collins-Bazant (“Collins”), claiming that Collins “knowingly obtained, compiled, and utilized false or misrepresented evidence to remove M.A. from Alvarado's care.” (Filing 6, Amended Complaint ¶ 45.) Plaintiffs claim that Collins “perpetuated an untrue narrative” that Alvarado was a drug addict-a narrative that influenced medical diagnoses, witness testimony and evidence offered in the juvenile-court proceedings, and the court's decisions that resulted in the continued separation of Alvardo from her minor child.

         Alvarado and M.A. bring two section 1983 claims in this lawsuit: (1) a claim against Collins alleging that she violated Alvarado and M.A.'s rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment when she fabricated evidence “to support or strengthen the removal of M.A. from Alvarado's care based upon an alleged drug addiction that was not substantiated” (Filing 6 ¶ 70); and (2) a claim against Madison County for having a policy, custom, or procedure of “prosecutors investigating witnesses, gathering information, and disclosing and disseminating confidential health information to private third parties with the purpose of influencing the evidence received by the Court” (Filing 6 ¶ 82), as well as inadequate training and supervision regarding “the scope of [Collins's] role in juvenile court proceedings, limitations of [Collins's] role as a prosecutor, and the proper investigatory and administrative functions of a prosecutor in Madison County, Nebraska.” (Filing 6 ¶ 87.)

         Defendants Collins and Madison County have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Filing 12) and Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions (Filing 18), arguing that: (1) Collins did not make the decision to remove Alvarado's child from her care and, therefore, cannot be held liable under section 1983 for such removal; (2) Collins is absolutely immune from suit; (3) Collins is entitled to qualified immunity from suit; (4) Alvarado cannot prove the existence of a Madison County policy, custom, procedure, or failure to train that caused any constitutional violation; (5) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents this court from reviewing or altering the final judgment of a state-court judicial proceeding; and (6) this court should impose sanctions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(b)(3) because Alvarado and M.A. brought this lawsuit either without investigating the truth of their allegations before filing suit or filing suit with the knowledge that their allegations were false.

         I. UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS

         1. On May 19, 2015, records of the Juvenile Court of Madison County, Nebraska, show that Melissa Alvarado's minor child, M.A., was removed from her physical custody and placed with the child's grandparents. (Filing 13-1 at CM/ECF p. 13.) At the time the removal occurred, the Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) had legal custody of the child.[1] (Filing 13-1 at CM/ECF pp. 1-14.)

         2. On the same date that Advarado's child was removed from her physical custody, M.A., then two years old, tested positive for methamphetamine. (Filing 13-2 at CM/ECF p. 3.) Melissa Alvarado likewise tested positive for methamphetamine on June 3, 2015. (Filing 13-3 at CM/ECF pp. 2-3.)[2]

         3. On July 7, 2015, the juvenile court found that “continuation of the juvenile in his/her home would be contrary to the welfare of the juvenile, ” and awarded custody to the DHHS. (Filing 13-1 at CM/ECF p. 15.)

         4. Melissa Alvarado admitted to using methamphetamine on July 28, 2015. (Filing 13-4 at CM/ECF p. 2.)[3]

         5. Melissa Alvarado again tested positive for methamphetamine on January 20, 2016. (Filing 13-5 at CM/ECF p. 2.)[4]

         6. According to the records before this court, the Madison County Juvenile Court held nine hearings regarding the custody of M.A. between May 19, 2015, and February 5, 2018. (Filing 13-1 at CM/ECF pp. 6-42.) During this time period, Defendant Gail Collins-Bazant was a deputy county attorney for Madison County who filed the juvenile petitions involving M.A. and appeared on behalf of the State of Nebraska throughout the proceedings at issue. (Filing 6 ¶¶ 10, 31, 33-37; Filing 13-1.)

         7. The Madison County Juvenile Court discharged DHHS, awarded custody of M.A. back to Alvarado, and closed the case on February 5, 2018. (Filing 13-1 at CM/ECF p. 42.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The movant bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and must identify those portions of [the record] . . . which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “If the movant does so, the nonmovant must respond by submitting evidentiary materials that set out specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.”[5] Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The nonmovant must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, and must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Further, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Barber v. C1 Truck Driver Training, LLC, 656 F.3d 782, 791-92 (8th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         “On a motion for summary judgment, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a genuine dispute as to those facts. Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1042 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for ...


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