Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 92 C 8424 -- James B. Moran, Chief Judge. *fn*
Before COFFEY and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and FOREMAN, District Judge. *fn**
Anthony Young died on his sixteenth birthday. At the time of his death, Anthony was under the guardianship of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS"). His aunt and former guardian, Elnora Camp, brought this suit contending that George Gregory, the DCFS caseworker assigned to Anthony, had denied Anthony substantive due process by failing to ensure that Anthony was placed in a safe living environment. The district court dismissed the suit, believing that the Supreme Court's decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 109 S. Ct. 998 (1989), shielded Gregory from liability for his decision where to place Anthony. Because the DCFS had assumed guardianship over Anthony, we do not think DeShaney necessarily bars Camp's due process claim. However, we do conclude that Gregory is entitled to qualified immunity, as prior caselaw did not make clear that a state official could be liable under facts analogous to those alleged here.
Our recitation of the facts derives from the allegations of Camp's amended complaint. *fn1 For present purposes, we accept these allegations as true, extending to Camp the benefit of every reasonable inference that may be drawn from the amended complaint. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 113 S. Ct. 1160, 1161 (1993); MCM Partners, Inc. v. Andrews-Bartlett & Assocs., Inc., No. 94-3019, 1995 WL 475702, at *3 (7th Cir. Aug. 11, 1995). We may affirm the dismissal of that complaint only if "it appears 'beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [her] claim which would entitle [her] to relief.' " Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21, 92 S. Ct. 594, 596 (1972) (per curiam) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S. Ct. 99, 102 (1957)); see also Graehling v. Village of Lombard, Ill., 58 F.3d 295, 297 (7th Cir. 1995).
The DCFS became Anthony's guardian on June 25, 1991, by order of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Prior to that time, Camp had assumed guardianship of Anthony from his mother, whose medical condition rendered her unable to care for him. Camp ultimately sought appointment of another guardian, however, after concluding that she could not provide the highly structured and closely supervised environment necessary to assure Anthony's safety and well-being. *fn2 The state court granted her request and by agreement appointed the DCFS Anthony's guardian. Gregory was subsequently assigned to be Anthony's caseworker.
A DCFS referral form completed by a probation officer assigned to the Cook County Juvenile Court recommended that Anthony be placed in a highly structured environment. Despite knowing that Camp could not provide the degree of supervision and care that Anthony required and that Anthony faced a greater than normal risk of physical harm while living in her home, Gregory returned him to Camp's care. Subsequently, he neglected to make any referral or application for any appropriate educational or guidance program and failed to follow up on Anthony's progress. Yet, on September 20, 1991, he represented under oath to the state court (which had retained jurisdiction over Anthony's case to monitor his progress) that Anthony had been returned to Camp at the request of the Camp family, that Anthony was attending school, and that he was "doing fine." Amended Complaint para. 13. Each of these representations was false and Gregory knew as much.
Ten days later, on September 30, 1991, Camp wrote to Gregory noting that her previous telephone calls to him had gone unanswered. She requested information concerning appropriate referrals and advised Gregory that Anthony was not attending school and was "placing himself in situations jeopardizing his physical safety as well as his education." Amended Complaint para. 14. She also reiterated that she could not ensure Anthony's safety.
Anthony remained in Camp's care until he died on December 30, 1991. Camp contends that his death resulted directly from Gregory's failure to arrange for Anthony to be placed in an appropriate environment and to be given the types of services he required in order to ensure his safety and well-being.
II. AMENDMENT OF THE COMPLAINT
Before we address the viability of Camp's claims, we must first consider whether the district court abused its discretion in permitting her to file an amended complaint. The district court granted Gregory's motion to dismiss the original complaint in an opinion dated August 10, 1993. That opinion was entered on the docket on the following day along with a civil judgment form stating that "defendant's motion to dismiss is granted." R. 22. On September 10, 1993, the parties appeared before the court on the plaintiff's motion for leave to file an amended complaint. Gregory's counsel objected to the request, contending that final judgment had been entered terminating the case and that the court consequently lacked jurisdiction to entertain the motion. The district court opted to construe Camp's papers as both a motion for relief from the judgment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b), which it granted, as well as a motion for leave to file an amended complaint, which it also granted. However, convinced that the amended complaint still did not present a viable claim, the court entertained Gregory's oral request to dismiss the new complaint and granted that request as well.
Here, Gregory renews his contention that the district court was without jurisdiction to entertain Camp's motion for leave to file an amended complaint and that we should therefore confine our attention to the original complaint. One might think this argument was rendered moot by the district court's decision to dismiss the amended complaint for the same reasons it disposed of the first. There are significant differences between the two complaints, however. In particular, the original complaint alluded to Anthony's "history of ongoing street-gang involvement" (Complaint para. 10(c)), and in its opinion granting the motion to dismiss that complaint, the district court "read[ ] between the lines" and assumed that Anthony was a gang member and that his death was gang related. Mem. Op. at 1. The court went on to hold that "a claim under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 cannot be founded on a gang-related killing, at least not in the circumstances alleged." Id. at 1-2. (We do not know, on the present record, whether Anthony's death was in fact gang related.) To the extent the viability of the complaint turns on whether Anthony's death occurred outside of the Camp household at the hands of third parties, omission of the reference to gang involvement arguably strengthens the complaint.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) dictates that leave to amend a pleading "shall be given whenever justice so requires," see Sanders v. Venture Stores, Inc., 56 F.3d 771, 773 (7th Cir. 1995); and, indeed, the rule expressly grants a plaintiff one opportunity to amend her complaint as a matter of course before a responsive pleading is served. A motion to dismiss does not constitute a responsive pleading for purposes of Rule 15(a); thus, an order dismissing the original complaint normally does not eliminate the plaintiff's right to amend once as a matter of right. See Bieneman v. City of Chicago, 838 F.2d 962, 963 (7th Cir. 1988) (per curiam); Willhelm v. Eastern Airlines, Inc., 927 F.2d 971, 972 (7th Cir. 1991). If final judgment is entered dismissing the case, however, the plaintiff loses that right. Car Carriers, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 745 F.2d 1101, 1111 (7th Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1054, 105 S. Ct. 1758 (1985); see also Vicom, Inc. v. Harbridge Merchant Servs., Inc., 20 F.3d 771, 784 (7th Cir. 1994). At that juncture, the plaintiff must either appeal the dismissal or seek to have the case reopened so that she may pursue amendment of the complaint. Car Carriers, 745 F.2d at 1111; see also Rothner v. City of Chicago, 929 F.2d 297, 300 (7th Cir. 1991). Camp opted to follow the latter course here, although she did so under the guise of a Rule 15(a) motion alone, without first seeking relief from the judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e) or 60(b).
Under the circumstances presented, we do not find Camp's failure to file a Rule 59 or 60 motion fatal to the amended complaint. As Gregory points out, we have held that once final judgment has been entered, the district court lacks jurisdiction to entertain a motion for leave to amend the complaint unless the plaintiff also moves for relief from the judgment. Paganis v. Blonstein, 3 F.3d 1067, 1073 (7th Cir. 1993); see also Garner v. Kinnear Mfg. Co., 37 F.3d 263, 270 (7th Cir. 1994); Harris v. City of Auburn, 27 F.3d 1284, 1286-87 (7th Cir. 1994); Vicom, 20 F.3d at 784 & n.12 (7th Cir. 1994). Our cases also suggest that when the plaintiff files a motion for leave to amend alone, the court is not obligated to construe it as a simultaneous request for relief under Rules 59 or 60. See Vicom, 20 F.3d at 784-85 & n.13. But we have never held that a district court may not do so. On the contrary, absent a showing of prejudice to the defendants, we believe that the district court retains the discretion to treat a Rule 15(a) motion as one also made under Rules 59 or 60. See Car Carriers, 745 F.2d at 1112 (district court correct to characterize plaintiff's "Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint" as a motion for relief under Rule 59(e) or 60(b)); Paganis, 3 F.3d at 1074 (Cudahy, J., concurring) (suggesting that "a requirement of two separate pieces of paper may serve only a formalistic end"). Gregory has identified no prejudice to himself in the district court's decision to so construe Camp's motion, nor has he otherwise demonstrated that the court's liberal interpretation of the motion constituted an abuse of discretion.
Gregory goes on to argue that the district court erred in granting relief under Rule 60(b). It is true that relief under Rule 60(b) is an extraordinary remedy reserved for the exceptional case (e.g., Dickerson v. Bd. of Educ. of Ford Heights, Ill., 32 F.3d 1114, 1116 (7th Cir. 1994)), and the mere desire to expand the allegations of a dismissed complaint does not, by itself, normally merit lifting the judgment. See Car Carriers, 745 F.2d at 1112; Garner, 37 F.3d at 270. Nonetheless, whether to grant a Rule 60(b) motion is a question committed to the district court's discretion, and our review is correspondingly limited. E.g., Mares v. Busby, 34 F.3d 533, 535 (7th Cir. 1994). We detect no abuse of the court's discretion here. In granting the defendant's motion to dismiss the original complaint, the district court had "read[ ] between the lines" of a complaint that "state[d] very few facts." Mem. Op. at 1. Lack of factual clarity is normally a flaw that can be corrected through amendment of the complaint, and in seeking leave to amend, Camp's counsel reminded the district court that while the motion to dismiss was under advisement, he had sought and received assurance from the court that he be given an opportunity to replead in the event the original complaint were dismissed. R. 30 at 2, 4-5. The court itself pointed out that the amended complaint "does certainly state with greater ...