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Gutierrez v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 21, 2019




         Plaintiff Maria Irma Gutierrez Duron (“Ms. D.”) and her eleven-year-old grandson, J.G., entered the United States at an authorized port of entry in March 2018 to seek asylum from gang violence in their home country of Honduras. See Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. 71, at 5; see also Errata, Dkt. No. 25, at 1. Plaintiff Karen Yadira Rodriguez Gutierrez (“Ms. G.”), J.G.'s mother, was already present in the United States. Amended Complaint at 5. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took Ms. D. and her grandson into custody shortly after they crossed the border. Id. at 34. Immigration officials classified J.G. - who entered the United States without a biological parent or legal guardian - as an unaccompanied alien child, id. at 10, and separated him from his grandmother approximately a week after their arrival. Id. at 34-35. Ms. D. filed her claim for asylum in March 2018, id. at 37, and in late July 2018 she was released from custody, apparently for the duration of the pendency of her asylum claim. See id. at 42. The government continued to detain Ms. D's grandson as an unaccompanied alien child. Id. at 37.

         In August 2018, Ms. D. and Ms. G. filed a civil complaint [Dkt. No. 1] and an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order [Dkt. No. 4] seeking the immediate release of J.G., among other relief. The Court held a hearing on the motion on September 20, 2018. The next day, the Office of Refugee Resettlement notified the Court that J.G. would be reunited with his mother on September 22, 2018. See Notice of Release at 1. Accordingly, the Court dismissed as moot the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order. See September 26, 2018 Minute Order.

         Ms. G. and Ms. D. filed an Amended Complaint [Dkt. No. 71] in March 2019, and this matter is now before the court on the defendants' second motion to dismiss the claims against the defendants sued in their official capacities [Dkt. No. 75], who are the only named defendants remaining in this case. See also Defendants' First Motion to Dismiss, Dkt. No. 69; Stipulation of Dismissal, Dkt. No. 72. Upon careful consideration of the briefs, the relevant legal authorities, and the entire record in this case, the Court will (i) deny as moot the first motion to dismiss, which is directed at a superseded complaint, and (ii) grant defendants' second motion to dismiss, which is directed at the Amended Complaint.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         The defendants represent that J.G. was classified as an unaccompanied alien child because he entered the United States in the company of his grandmother, rather than a biological parent or other legal guardian. Under these circumstances, the government believed it had a statutory obligation to transfer J.G. to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (“ORR”). Opposition to TRO Motion at 2. Defendants represent that, as soon as J.G. entered the shelter - and well before plaintiffs filed this suit - the government began to “work[] diligently” to reunite J.G. with his mother, Ms. G., who was already in the United States. Opposition to TRO Motion at 2. The government's efforts to satisfy its requirements and reunite Ms. G. and J.G., however, were “hindered by [Ms. G.'s] failure to timely respond to its requests for information, her unexpected movement from one location to another, and her failure to provide information about the persons who will be living with the reunited family, ” as required for reunification under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (“TVPRA”). Id. Indeed, the Amended Complaint acknowledges some of these difficulties. See Amended Complaint at 35-36. Finally, in September 2018 - after the Court heard argument on the TRO but before it ruled - ORR released J.G. to the custody of his mother. He and Ms. G. are now living together in the United States, awaiting the adjudication of their asylum claims. See Motion at 3. Ms. D. is also living with J.G. and Ms. G. The Court has no information to suggest that Ms. G., Ms. D., or J.G. have any concrete expectation of being returned to the custody of the United States government.

         The Amended Complaint, filed after the family's reunification, narrows the dispute before the Court: it abandons the plaintiffs' initial claims for an injunction and money damages, see Complaint at 66, and drops all claims against the named government officials sued in their individual capacities, see id. at 1-2. See also Stipulation of Dismissal at 1. The defendants remaining before the Court are several government agencies and individuals connected with the immigration system, who are sued in their official capacities, and five unnamed John Doe defendants, sued in their individual capacities. See Amended Complaint at 1-3.[2] The Amended Complaint seeks a declaratory judgment (i) that the defendants' conduct violated the plaintiffs' substantive due process rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count I), see Amended Complaint at 46-49; and (ii) that the defendants' conduct violated the plaintiffs' procedural due process rights (Count II), see id. at 51-52. Ms. D. and Ms. G. also continue to seek attorneys' fees (Count III). See id. at 51.[3]

         The named defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the claims of Ms. D. and Ms. G. are moot because no actual controversy persists between the parties now that Ms. D. has been released and J.G. has been reunited with his mother. See Motion at 2-3. Further, the government notes that the “capable of repetition yet evading review” exception to mootness does not apply because there is no indication that the challenged separation is likely to reoccur. See id. at 3-4.[4] For their part, Ms. D. and Ms. G. argue that another exception to mootness - voluntary cessation - does apply, and is sufficient to preserve their claims. Response at 5.


         A. Motions to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing only those powers authorized by the Constitution and an act of Congress. See, e.g., Janko v. Gates, 741 F.3d 136, 139 (D.C. Cir. 2014); Abulhawa v. U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, 239 F.Supp.3d 24, 30 (D.D.C. 2017). The plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing that the Court has jurisdiction. See Walen v. United States, 246 F.Supp.3d 449, 452 (D.D.C. 2017).

         In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must construe the complaint in plaintiffs' favor and treat all well-pleaded factual allegations as true. See Attias v. CareFirst, Inc., 865 F.3d 620, 627 (D.C. Cir. 2017).[5] Although the Court must grant plaintiffs the benefit of all reasonable inferences, the Court “need not accept factual inferences drawn by plaintiffs if those inferences are not supported by facts alleged in the complaint, ” and the Court need not accept plaintiffs' legal conclusions. Disner v. United States, 888 F.Supp.2d 83, 87 (D.D.C. 2012). Finally, in determining whether plaintiffs have met the burden of establishing jurisdiction, the Court may consider materials beyond the pleadings where appropriate. Am. Nat'l Ins. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011); Cumis Ins. Society Inc. v. Clark, 318 F.Supp.3d 199, 207 (D.D.C. 2018).

         The doctrine of mootness, on which defendants' arguments rely, is a jurisdictional inquiry. Safari Club Int'l v. Jewell, 842 F.3d 1280, 1285, 1287 (D.C. Cir. 2016); Mine Reclamation Corp. v. FERC, 30 F.3d 1519, 1522 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (“[M]ootness goes to the jurisdiction of this court.”). Accordingly, motions to dismiss for mootness are properly brought under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d. 95, 102 (D.D.C. 2016). “The initial heavy burden of establishing mootness lies with the party asserting a case is moot, but the opposing party bears the burden of showing an exception applies.” J.D. v. Azar, 925 F.3d 1291, 1307 (D.C. Cir. 2019) (quoting Honeywell Int'l v. Nuclear Regulatory Comm'n, 628 F.3d 568, 576 (D.C. Cir. 2010)). Once a court determines that a claim is moot, it lacks jurisdiction to entertain the claim and must dismiss it. Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d at 103.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Court Lacks Jurisdiction over the ...

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