The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Thomas v. Kaven on Tuesday, August 26, 2014.
M.T., the minor daughter of plaintiffs Legina and Todd Thomas, was placed in a mental health center after revealing suicidal ideation to a police officer who was interviewing her after her parents learned she may have been sexually assaulted. While in the hospital, M.T.’s doctors diagnosed her with a panoply of psychiatric disorders and wanted to start psychotropic medicine. Plaintiffs refused, concerned that the diagnoses were inaccurate and worried about serious side effects. The doctors reported Plaintiffs to the New Mexico Child, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) for their resistance to M.T.’s treatment. After several weeks, Plaintiffs attempted to remove M.T. from the hospital, and the doctors instituted a medical hold to prevent Plaintiffs from removing M.T. The doctors and hospital initiated court proceedings five days later, but discharged M.T. after holding her for seven days because her insurance would no longer authorize treatment. The doctors again reported Plaintiffs to CYFD for medical neglect based on their decision not to medicate their child. M.T. returned to school and nothing came of the report.
Plaintiffs sued, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on violations of their Fourteenth Amendment right to direct their child’s medical care and right to familial association. The defendant doctors asserted absolute and qualified immunity and moved to dismiss. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, holding Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the district court erred in granting the motion to dismiss because their complaint alleged sufficient facts to sustain their claims of violations of their right to direct their child’s medical care and right to familial association.
The Tenth Circuit clarified that Defendants are not entitled to absolute immunity for seeking a judicial order regarding M.T.’s care. Defendants’ decision to prevent M.T.’s discharge was based on a medical hold that did not invoke the judicial process. The Tenth Circuit next evaluated whether dismissal was appropriate based on qualified immunity, which is usually applied at the summary judgment stage rather than in a motion to dismiss.
As to Plaintiffs’ claims that their right to direct their child’s medical care was violated, the Tenth Circuit disagreed, noting that Plaintiffs’ claim rested on Defendants’ report to CYFD, and since nothing ever came of the report, mere allegations were not enough to violate their parental rights. However, as to Plaintiffs’ claim of violation of the right to familial association, the Tenth Circuit determined Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to illustrate a violation. The Tenth Circuit could not tell from the record whether Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and remanded for this determination.
The district court’s dismissal was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.