Plaintiffs file a complaint raising a variety of civil rights claims under federal and state law against the County of Albany, the Albany County Department of Social Services ("DSS"), the Commissioner of DSS in his official capacity, and three other caseworkers.
A New York Injury Lawyer said the center of each of the claims is the fact that for the first five years of the child's life, his father, plaintiff-one, was not only denied custody of his child, but also, for the most part, unsupervised visitation. Over this five-year period, to gain child custody, plaintiff-one was required to undergo drug assessments, drug screenings, drug rehabilitation programs, psychological and mental health evaluations, parenting classes, supervision in his interactions with his child, the burden of protracted Family Court litigation and continual governmental interference with his right to parent his child all in the absence of proof that he was, or had ever been, an unfit, neglectful or abusive parent to his son (or any other child).
Defendants move for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and argue that plaintiffs' claims are foreclosed by various immunities, including: judicial immunity; discretionary function immunity; qualified immunity; and immunity for the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect. Further, defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on the merits of the various constitutional and statutory claims asserted by plaintiffs. One of the defendants also argues that service upon him of the complaint and summons have not been made, therefore, the Court lacks jurisdiction over him.
On the issue of Personal Jurisdiction:
A Bronx Personal Injury Lawyer said one of the defendants moves for dismissal of the claims against him, based on lack of personal jurisdiction; that he was never served with the summons and complaint. At oral argument, plaintiffs' counsel conceded as much. Given that defendant preserved his jurisdictional objection in the amended answer and in the absence of any dispute regarding lack of service of process, defendant must be dismissed from the action.
On the issue of Judicial Immunity on Federal Claims:
The Court begins, as it must, with the presumption that qualified immunity is sufficient to protect defendants in the exercise of their duties, and that defendants bear the burden of demonstrating an entitlement to absolute immunity. With that in mind, the critical inquiry is whether the functions performed by defendants were protected by absolute immunity at common law.
The primary injury alleged by plaintiffs supported by a variety of constitutional and statutory theories is unjustified interference with the right of plaintiff-one to raise his natural child (and the corresponding right of the son to be raised by his father). A Brooklyn Personal Injury Lawyer said the determinations to place the child in DSS custody, to deny the father's numerous petitions for custody, and ultimately to terminate the father's parental rights were that of Family Court, through a series of orders issued from July 1995 through June 1999. Plaintiffs nonetheless contend that defendants can be held liable for their role in procuring such orders from Family Court. Further, plaintiffs allege that defendants engaged in other conduct giving rise to liability that was not done pursuant to express court order.
Filing of Petitions in Family Court: Defendants filed petitions with Family Court seeking to place the child in their custody and to continue such custody. Defendants also filed a petition to terminate plaintiff-one’s parental rights. The initiation and prosecution of a proceeding by a child protective agency is protected by absolute immunity, since child welfare officials are engaged in a function that is similar to that of prosecutors, for which immunity was provided at common law.
Evidentiary Submissions and Recommendations to Family Court: Defendants are not protected by absolute immunity in connection with the evidentiary submissions and programmatic recommendations that they provided to Family Court. In a similar case, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the actions of a prosecutor signing an affidavit attesting to the facts supporting the issuance of a warrant are not protected by absolute immunity. The Court reasoned that the evidentiary component of an application for an arrest warrant is a distinct and essential predicate for a finding of probable cause and does not enjoy the same absolute immunity as the preparation and filing of Information and a motion for an arrest warrant. Thus, as counsel for defendants acknowledged at oral argument, defendants are not protected by absolute immunity.
Evaluations/Preventive Services Requirements: Defendants required plaintiff-one to obtain a number of evaluations, including drug assessments, drug screenings and mental health evaluations. Further, defendants required plaintiff-one to participate in a variety of programs, including anti-drug education programs and parenting classes, ostensibly directed at uniting him with his son. The question is whether defendants are entitled to judicial immunity for the function of requiring plaintiff-one to participate in various evaluations and obtain the preventive services recommended as a result of such evaluations. In the absence of an express court order specifically directing these actions or a showing that such actions are functionally comparable to ones for which officials were rendered immune at common law, the Court concludes that defendants have not demonstrated an entitlement to immunity.
Terms & Conditions of Visitation: Defendants allegedly deprived plaintiff-one the right to visit his child while in foster care. The issue of visitation was addressed in the order of the Family Court, wherein the father was temporarily granted supervised visits with the child, upon his completion of a substance abuse evaluation and psychological assessment. Thereafter, the terms and conditions of visitation, including whether the visits were supervised or unsupervised, were established by DSS personnel, with periodic notification to Family Court. The Court concludes that defendants are not entitled to absolute immunity for their conduct in establishing the terms and conditions of visitation and in monitoring compliance therewith.
Other than the initial temporary order conditioning supervised visitation on the completion of the certain assessments, defendants' role with respect to visitation was not done pursuant to express court direction and is not functionally similar to activities protected by absolute immunity at common law.
Other Activities: Plaintiffs also identify a variety of other actions and omissions supporting their theories of liability. One such functional area is permanency planning, where plaintiffs allege that defendants failed to make appropriate efforts to unite father and child. Another broad functional area relates to the allegedly faulty investigations of plaintiff-one. Finally, plaintiffs complain that defendants failed to communicate adequately and keep plaintiff-one informed of relevant matters. It is clear that these types of activities are not protected by absolute immunity. There is no specific directive of Family Court that compelled defendants' activities. Defendants cannot identify a functional counterpart who would be provided judicial immunity at common law while engaged in such activities.
On the issue of Viability of Federal Claims:
Having determined that many of the functions performed by defendants are not protected by absolute immunity, the Court must then consider whether defendants are protected by qualified immunity. The threshold inquiry for a court ruling upon a claim of qualified immunity, however, is whether the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, show that defendants' conduct violated a federally protected right. On a motion for summary judgment, the issue then is whether defendants have demonstrated an entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. If they have, there is no need for any further inquiries concerning immunity.
It is well established that summary judgment is a drastic remedy and should only be granted if there are no material issues of disputed fact. In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a court should decide whether material issues of disputed fact preclude the grant of judgment as a matter of law. The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of coming forward with admissible evidence to support the motion, so as to warrant the Court directing judgment in movant's favor; the burden then shifts to the opposing party to demonstrate, by admissible evidence, the existence of any factual issue requiring a trial of the action.
Substantive Due Process: The first federal cause of action asserted by plaintiffs is interference with the father's fundamental liberty interest in raising his child (and the corresponding right of the child to be raised by his parent), as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiff contends that as a proximate result of defendants' unlawful interference with this liberty interest, he and his son have suffered substantial monetary, emotional and psychological damage. The Court concludes that in order to succeed on their substantive due process claims, plaintiffs must demonstrate that defendants were deliberately indifferent to, or acted in reckless disregard of, the father's right to raise his child free of State interference absent proof of neglect, abuse or unfitness (and the corresponding right of the child to be so raised).
Substantive Due Process, Caseworker Liability: The Court concludes that plaintiffs have succeeded in raising triable issues of fact regarding the liability of one of the defendants, the primary DSS case worker from mid-1995 through June 1997 and the direct supervisor of DSS case workers, on the claimed substantive due process violations. On the other defendants, while proof will be examined in greater detail with respect to their assertion of qualified immunity, it is not sufficient to establish defendants' entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on the substantive due process claim. Clearly, the decision of the Third Department conclusively establishes that there was no legal basis for depriving plaintiff-one of the custody of his child. Further, while the Court agrees with defendants that they were entitled to a reasonable opportunity to ensure that the father did not pose a danger to the health or welfare of the child prior to seeking to unite them, a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the individual defendants manifested deliberate indifference to, or reckless disregard of, the father's liberty interest in raising his child, based on their apparent long-term disregard of the primacy of the father-son relationship and their role in the five-year cycle of drug assessments, drug screening, drug rehabilitation programs, psychological and mental health evaluations, parenting classes, supervised visitation, protracted Family Court litigation and continual governmental interference with the father-son relationship all in the absence of proof that plaintiff-one was, had ever been, or would be an unfit, neglectful or abusive parent. In sum, the Court concludes that a reasonable trier of fact could find the individual defendants' conduct in keeping father and son apart for five years under the circumstances presented by this case to be "conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense."
Substantive Due Process, Municipal Liability: Under the law, a municipality cannot be held vicariously liable for the unconstitutional conduct of its employees. Rather, it may only be found liable where the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation in question. The municipality itself causes the injury when either: (1) the execution of the government's policy or custom causes the injury; or (2) the act of an employee with final policymaking authority in the particular area involved causes the injury. Here, the record demonstrates that DSS employees received substantial training regarding their responsibilities as caseworkers. It also demonstrates that the activities of defendants were subject to ongoing supervision and oversight. In addition, the caseworkers relied on consultations with DSS's legal staff and the recommendations of outside professionals. Under the circumstances, plaintiffs have failed to offer sufficient proof that the County had notice of any repeated, similar constitutional violations or that the DSS Commissioner was presented with facts and circumstances that give rise to actual or constructive knowledge of the need for additional training.
Procedural Due Process Claims: The Due Process Clause requires state actors to provide fair procedures before denying an individual a protected liberty interest. The deprivations of custody and parental rights complained of by plaintiffs ultimately were the product of determinations and orders of Family Court. While plaintiffs have come forward with evidence linking defendants' conduct to the substantive deprivations ordered by Family Court, they have not come forward with evidence establishing defendants' responsibility for the procedures used by Family Court. Accordingly, defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fourth Amendment Claims: Plaintiff-one claims that the Fourth Amendment applies in the context of the seizure of a child by a government agency official during a civil child-abuse or maltreatment investigation; that the continued retention of the child by defendants in foster care, pursuant to orders of Family Court, represents a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to characterize defendants' conduct to have been a "seizure" of the child within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Given the substantial overlap between the substantive due process and Fourth Amendment claims, the Court finds that defendants' alleged misconduct in this unique set of circumstances is more appropriately analyzed under the generalized rubric of substantive due process.
Equal Protection Claims: The record is devoid of evidence establishing that defendants intentionally singled out plaintiff-one for discriminatory treatment. In addition, other than vague comparisons to the child's mother (who had her parental rights to the child terminated in 1997), the record fails to demonstrate a class of similarly situated persons receiving superior treatment. Accordingly, defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Adoption Assistance Act: The Court concludes that the provisions of the U.S. Adoption Assistance & Child Welfare Act relied upon by plaintiff were not intended to confer individual rights enforceable in a private action under Section 1983. Accordingly, this claim must be dismissed.
On the issue of Qualified Immunity:
Qualified immunity protects public officials from liability for civil damages when one of two conditions is satisfied: (a) the defendant's action did not violate clearly established law, or (b) it was objectively reasonable for the defendant to believe that his action did not violate such law. Qualified immunity generally is a question of law to be resolved by the court and, since it is immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability, it should be decided at the earlier possible stage of the litigation.
Clearly Established Right: Given the substantial variation between the facts of this case and the precedents establishing the generalized right to rear one's child, it is questionable whether the parties have articulated the right at issue in a sufficiently particularized manner.
Nonetheless, even accepting the right in the manner framed by the parties, the Court concludes that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the ground that it would not have been clear to reasonable case workers that their actions violated such right.
Evaluation and Preventive Service Requirements: The Court concludes that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity for their role in requiring plaintiff-one to participate in various evaluations and obtain the preventive services recommended pursuant to such evaluations.
Evidentiary Submissions and Recommendations: The Court concludes that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to their submissions and recommendations to Family Court. It would not have been clear to a reasonable caseworker in the position of defendants that he or she would violate plaintiffs' familial rights by insisting that the father fully satisfy the prescribed evaluation and service requirements prior to recommending that plaintiff-one be given custody of his child. Further, defendants' reliance on the judicial process including a Law Guardian appointed to represent the interests of child, the procedural protections nominally available to Family Court litigants and the generous appellate remedies provided by the CPLR to strike an appropriate balance between the State's interest in protecting a minor child from harm and respecting the sometimes competing right of a father to rear his child, cannot be said to be unreasonable.
Visitation: Similar considerations compel the conclusion that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the issue of visitation. Defendants' actions in limiting father-son visitation were again based primarily on the reports and recommendations of the outside evaluators and the failures of the father to obtain the recommended preventive services. It would not have been apparent to a reasonable social service worker that they were violating plaintiffs' substantive due process rights by restricting visitation under these circumstances.
Other Conduct: While plaintiff complains that DSS officials and outside providers exhibited a bias against him, there is nothing in the record to support the contention that defendants had any personal animus towards plaintiff-one or that they were carrying out some predetermined agenda to deprive him of his parental rights. Further, while defendants may occasionally have relied on incorrect or suspect information in formulating their recommendations there is no basis to conclude that defendants, knowingly, submitted false information to the Family Court; turned a blind eye toward suspect information or otherwise acted in an unreasonable manner in investigating plaintiff-one.
Henceforth, defendants are not entitled to judicial immunity, except in certain limited respects; the individual defendants are entitled to summary judgment on all claims except for the substantive due process claims, where plaintiffs have succeeded in raising triable issues of fact; the municipal defendants are entitled to summary judgment on all claims; the substantive due process claims against the individual defendants must be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity; with respect to plaintiffs' state law claims, the doctrines of judicial immunity and discretionary function immunity entitle defendants to summary judgment on all claims; and that the court lacks personal jurisdiction over one of the defendants. The plaintiffs' complaint is dismissed and the plaintiffs' motion for leave to amend the complaint is denied as moot.
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