People For the American Way

Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Allow Mother to Pursue Claims that State Agencies Violated Federal Law in Depriving Her of Parental Rights

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Allow Mother to Pursue Claims that State Agencies Violated Federal Law in Depriving Her of Parental Rights

Judge Roopali Desai, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth  Circuit, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that reversed a district court and allowed a mother to pursue claims that state agencies violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the constitution when they deprived her of her parental rights over her young son.  Trump judge Mark Bennett dissented in the April 2023 decision in Ploof v Arizona.


What Happened in this Case Before it Got to the Court of Appeals?

 Jessica Ploof is the mother of a young boy who is now nine years old. As the district court explained,  although she graduated from high school, she has “struggled” with an “intellectual disability since childhood” and has been diagnosed as mentally disabled. She has been able to care for her child without problems with the help of her family, especially her mother, with whom she and her son have lived.

In 2016-17, however, Ploof broke up with a boyfriend who, she maintained, made “false allegation” against her to the Arizona Department of Child Safety (DCS). Although a DCS visit found everything in order, they did determine that Ploof tested positive for drugs. Ploof’s mother was appointed as a “safety monitor,” but DCS nevertheless decided to remove her son from Jessica’s custody.

Over the next few months, Jessica participated in substance abuse and parenting classes and agreed to submit to a psychological evaluation. Nevertheless, DCS convinced a juvenile court to completely terminate Jessica’s parental rights concerning her son.

With the help of a lawyer, Jessica Ploof filed a state court lawsuit against the state and DCS, which they then removed to federal court. The complaint contends that the state failed to provide Ms. Ploof with adequate services under the ADA and violated her parental rights under the constitution.

The district court, however, granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case, without any discovery, on statute of limitations grounds. The lower court based its ruling on the fact that “the last actual date referenced in the complaint” was outside the two-year limitations period. Ms. Ploof’s lawyer appealed.


What did Judge Desai and the Ninth Circuit Do and Why is it Important?

Judge Desai cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that partly reversed the lower court and gave Ms. Ploof the opportunity to proceed with her case. The majority explained that the district court had committed “plain error” by failing to review the allegations in the complaint “in the light most favorable to Plaintiff to decide whether her claims plausibly could have occurred” within the statute of limitations period. Although some of the allegations, notably concerning the seizure of Jessica’s child, remain time-barred under this standard, many did not, and the court stated that she should have the chance to take discovery and go forward with her claims.

The majority explained that the lower court and the dissent, by Trump judge Bennett, had committed another error by shifting “the burden to Plaintiff to establish the timeliness of her claims.” As the majority went on, this was clearly contradicted by “our precedent disfavoring motions to dismiss,” especially on these grounds and at this early stage of a case.

Judge Desai’s deciding vote and the Ninth Circuit’s ruling were obviously important to Jessica Ploof to give her the chance to go forward with her case and try to vindicate her parental and ADA rights. The decision is also significant in future cases to help ensure that individual litigants like Ms. Ploof do not see their cases dismissed without discovery when the defendants raise timeliness issues. In addition, the ruling provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded judicial nominees like Judge Desai.


ADA, Biden judges, parental rights