Thursday, January 7, 2010

A heartbreaker, but no remedy

Not all governmental actors are liable under the civil rights laws when citizens are deprived of their liberties. Some defendants are immune from suit. While a tie goes to runner in baseball, close calls go to the individual defendants in Section 1983 cases.

The case is Cornejo v. Bell, decided on January 4. Cornejo and her fiance were charged with child neglect when her son was brought to the hospital where someone determined the baby had a broken rib and suffered a heart attack. Cerrito, an investigator from the State Central Registry of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR), spoke to a doctor who thought baby Kenny's brain and heart injuries were caused by Shaken Baby Syndrome but that Cornejo had nothing to do with the immediate injuries (thereby implicating her fiance) but that she could have been responsible for the older injuries. Cornejo's two children were taken from her and placed in foster care. Kenny, meanwhile, was examined at the hospital and they found no signs of abuse. He died on November 7, 2002, about a week after this episode began.

After the City's medical examiner concluded that he "could not say" that Kenny had Shaken Baby Syndrome and that his broken rib resulted from a congenital malformation, the City asked the Family Court to return the surviving son, Kevin, to Cornejo's care. But the judge denied that request on testimony from a doctor who maintained that Kenny was shaken. After the medical examiner then concluded that Kenny died from a rare heart defect, Cornejo got Kevin back.

Her lawsuit against the government actors who wronged her is dismissed, at least as against the individual defendants. The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Miner and Rakoff, D.J.) hold that the lawyers who prosecuted the case in Family Court have absolute immunity; they cannot be sued at all. Contrary to the district court, which denied summary judgment on the basis of a non-precedential trial court ruling from 1993, the caseworkers who made the initial decision to remove Kevin from Cornejo acted reasonably under the circumstances. The Second Circuit summarizes why:

[I]t is undisputed that at the time of Kevin’s removal on October 31, ACS had received two ORTs reporting a medical opinion that Kenny had suffered violent shaking and a fractured rib. Although Salas, not Cornejo, was suspected of having shaken Kenny, the rib fracture was diagnosed as several weeks old. There was thus evidence of at least two instances of apparent abuse –- one occurring at an unknown time when Cornejo may have been present –- for which neither parent had an apparent explanation. Moreover, a caseworker had confirmed the substance of the ORTs with Dr. Esernio-Jenssen, and the injuries to Kenny were extremely serious.

Qualified immunity makes it very difficult to win cases against individual defendants in cases that require quick judgments in difficult circumstances, even if hindsight shows that the government defendants were wrong. As Judge Rakoff notes in opening the opinion, "[f]or centuries, Anglo-American law has protected public officials against claims for damages arising from actions taken in the course of duty." That immunity is not always absolute. It is qualified, hence the phrase "qualified immunity." This unfortunate case shows how it works. A heartbreaker, but no damages for Cornejo.

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