December 12, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Social Workers Held to Have Qualified Immunity on Foster Child’s Special-Relationship Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Dahn v. Amedei on Monday, August 14, 2017.

This case concerns an exception to the general rule that states are not liable for harm caused by private actors. This exception, called the special-relationship doctrine, makes a state or its agents liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to protect people from harm if they have deprived those people of liberty and made them completely dependent on the state for their basic needs. In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided whether the geographical reach of the special-relationship doctrine crosses state lines.

A foster child, James Dahn, sued two Colorado social workers responsible for investigating reports that he was being abused. Dahn had been in Oklahoma’s custody until, in 2008, a Colorado adoption agency (Adoption Alliance) placed him for adoption with a foster father, Jeremiah Lovato, in Colorado. The foster father physically abused Dahn before and after adopting him. Many reports of suspicious abuse were reported to employees of the Moffat County Department of Social Services, Audrey Amedei and Amanda Cramer. Amedei and Cramer responded to the reports from Dahn’s school regarding Dahn’s suspicious bruising and significant, twenty-eight-pound weight loss, by interviewing Dahn and speaking with Lovato, via telephone. The reports of abuse were then determined to be unfounded. After further reports of suspicious bruising, Cramer chose not to speak with Dahn or Lovato, but instead called Vicki little, an independent contractor hired by Adoption Alliance to act as Dahn’s caseworker. Little visited the home, only speaking with Dahn alone for a few minutes, and shrugged off the concerns, determining Dahn was doing well. After two more visits where Little failed to speak to Dahn alone, she recommended that Lovato be allowed to adopt Dahn.

In 2010, the physical abuse from Lovato had escalated to the point where Dahn had to protect himself by running away. Dahn was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered that Lovato had broken Dahn’s arm months earlier, there was still ongoing abuse resulting in bruising, internal injuries, and bleeding, as well as open lesions. Lovato was tried and convicted of criminal child abuse in Colorado and sentenced to 119 ½ years-to-life in prison.

In 2013, Dahn sued Adoption Alliance, Little, Tem (Little’s supervisor), Amedei, and Cramer for his injuries. Dahn alleged (1) all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights, under a special-relationship theory; (2) all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights, under a state-created-danger theory; and (3) that defendants Adoption Alliance, Tem, and Amedei failed to properly train and supervise their employees in evaluating, monitoring, and investigating the prospective adoptive placement for abuse, resulting in violations of Dahn’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process rights. Dahn also brought state-law claims for negligence and outrageous conduct against all defendants. The issue decided by the Circuit was whether the district court erred in concluding that Amedei and Cramer had a special relationship with Dahn, and whether the law on this issue was clearly established.

Due process claims built on the special-relationship doctrine have four elements. First, the plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a special relationship, meaning that the plaintiff completely depended on the state to satisfy basic human needs. Second, the plaintiff must show that the defendant knew that the plaintiff was in danger or failed to exercise professional judgment regarding that danger. Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s injuries. And, fourth, the defendant’s actions must shock the conscience. The question the Circuit decided was whether a foster child in the custody of one state can, after being placed by a private adoption agency with a foster father in a different state, establish a special custodial relationship with that second state when the second state takes on the duties to investigate evidence suggesting abuse.

The Tenth Circuit found that the law does not clearly extend constitutional liability under the special-relationship doctrine to employees of a state that did not deprive Dahn of his liberty or supply his basic needs, even though they were social workers in the county where he resided. Although the Circuit stated that Amedei and Cramer owed some duty to Dahn, as they investigated the suspected abuse but failed to take any action to remove Dahn from Lovato’s custody, the court found that Dahn had failed to show clearly established law that created a special-relationship between him, Amedei, and Cramer. This conclusion comes from a previous case which noted that the affirmative duty to protect arises not from the state’s knowledge of the individual’s predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitations which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf. Because the state had not deprived the child of his liberty, it did not have a custodial relationship with him that required the state to protect him from harm. The Circuit declined to address the other element of his claim, which is whether Amedei and Cramer acted in an unprofessional and conscience-shocking manner.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s order denying Amedei and Cramer’s motion to dismiss Dahn’s special-relationship claim against them, and REMANDED for further proceedings.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*