March 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Child Died While in Foster Care–Denial of County Employees’ Motion to Dismiss Based on Qualified Immunity Affirmed

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Schwartz v. Booker on Wednesday, December 19, 2012.

After their son, Chandler Grafner, died while in the foster care of Jon Phillips and Sarah Berry, Chandler’s biological parents and Melissa R. Schwartz, personal representative and administrator of Chandler’s estate, filed suit against two human services departments and two Denver County Department of Human Services employees alleging, among other claims, a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violation of Chandler’s substantive due process rights. The two employees, Defendants-Appellants Margaret Booker and Mary Peagler, filed this interlocutory appeal from the district court’s order denying their Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects governmental officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. This doctrine balances the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably. To survive a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, the plaintiffs must allege sufficient facts that show—when taken as true—the defendant plausibly violated his constitutional rights, which were clearly established at the time of violation.

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that “[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Section 1983 provides a private cause of action for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.”  42 U.S.C. § 1983. Generally, state actors are only liable for their own acts, not for acts of private violence. One exception to this principle is the special relationship doctrine, which applies when the state assumes control over an individual sufficient to trigger an affirmative duty to provide protection to that individual.

The Tenth Circuit has explicitly recognized that foster children have a substantive due process right to protection while in foster care. The special relationship triggers a continuing duty which is subsequently violated if a state official knew of the asserted danger to a foster child or failed to exercise professional judgment with respect thereto, and if an affirmative link to the injuries the child suffered can be shown.

Denver County Department of Human Services effectively exercised custody over Chandler. Defendants were aware of Chandler’s circumstances and were the custodial officials responsible for overseeing Chandler’s foster care case. Consequently, the Tenth Circuit was persuaded that plaintiffs sufficiently pled a custodial relationship between the State and Chandler to potentially hold Booker and Peagler individually liable under the special relationship doctrine. The district court correctly determined that plaintiffs sufficiently pled facts, when taken as true, show Booker and Peagler plausibly violated Chandler’s substantive due process right to be reasonably safe while in foster care, which right was clearly established at the time.

Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was AFFIRMED.

 

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  1. […] years later, father, the child’s mother, and the personal representative of the child’s estate commenced a federal court action against the Division, the Denver County Department of Human Services (Department), and two […]

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