November 18, 2017

Archives for November 10, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Social Worker Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity after Violating Defendant’s Constitutional Rights

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued is opinion in T.D. v. Patton on Monday, August 28, 2017.

Ms. Patton is a social worker for the Denver Department of Human Services (DDHS) and was responsible for removing T.D., a minor, from his mother’s home, and recommending T.D. remain in the temporary custody of his father, Duerson. T.D. was removed from Duerson’s home after DDHS made a determination that T.D. had suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his father. This case concerns Ms. Patton’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that she is entitled to qualified immunity.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Ms. Patton violated T.D.’s clearly established substantive due process constitutional right to be free of a state official’s creation of danger from a private actor under a danger-creation theory. The court found that Ms. Patton violated T.D.’s substantive due process right by knowingly placing T.D. in a position of danger by recommending that T.D. be placed in Duerson’s custody despite admitted concerns about T.D.’s safety, her knowledge of Duerson’s criminal history and conviction for attempted sexual assault against a minor, and failure to investigate whether Duerson was abusing T.D. despite her awareness of evidence of potential abuse. The court found that Ms. Patton acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of a known and substantial risk that T.D. would suffer serious, immediate, and proximate harm in his father’s home.

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a person acting under color of state law who subjects any citizen of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution shall be liable to the injured party. However, a defendant in an action may raise a defense of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from damages unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of law. Once a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff has the burden to show that the defendant’s actions violated a federal constitutional or statutory right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s unlawful conduct.

The court first evaluated whether the facts satisfied T.D.’s claim of danger-creation. The court considered whether Ms. Patton created or increased the danger posed to T.D. The court concluded that Ms. Patton’s actions amounted to a failure to investigate evidence that Duerson was abusing T.D., satisfying the first element. The second element is whether T.D. was a member of a limited and specifically definable group. The court held that because the state removed T.D. from his natural parent and took him into state custody, T.D. fell within a limited and specifically definable group of children.

Third, Ms. Patton’s conduct put T.D. at substantial risk of serious, immediate, and proximate harm. This is evidenced by Ms. Patton withholding relevant information and recommending T.D. be placed with his father, by failing to investigate evidence of potential abuse, and by continuing to recommend T.D. remain with his father.

The court discussed the fourth and fifth elements simultaneously. Ms. Patton acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of a risk (element 4) that was obvious or known (element 5). Ms. Patton knew of Duerson’s criminal history, but deleted those concerns for fear of being fired. She further withheld concerns of T.D.’s safety and concerns, stemming from her professional judgment, that T.D. should be removed from the home. Her intentional exclusion of her knowledge and concerns from her hearing report showed she acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of an obvious or known risk that Duerson posed to T.D.

The last element is satisfied by Ms. Patton’s conscience-shocking conduct. Ms. Patton’s conduct was held to significantly exceed ordinary negligence or permitting unreasonable risk and rose to a degree of outrageousness and a magnitude of potential or actual harm that is truly conscience shocking.

In sum, Ms. Patton’s conduct violated T.D.’s substantive due process right by creating or increasing T.D.’s vulnerability to the danger of private violence by Duerson.

The court found that the law was clearly established at the time of Ms. Patton’s misconduct. The court held that a reasonable official in Ms. Patton’s shoes would have understood that she was violating T.D.’s constitutional right by creating or increasing T.D.’s vulnerability to the danger posed by Duerson.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals AFFIRMED the district court’s DENIAL of summary judgment.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Announcement Sheet, 11/9/2017

On Thursday, November 9, 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and 26 unpublished opinions.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions. The case announcement sheet is available here.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 11/9/2017

On Thursday, November 9, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and three unpublished opinions.

United States v. Lilak

United States v. Grigsby

United States v. Morris

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, some published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.