Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Second Circuit revives parental rights claims

Here's a civil rights case that's unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the Second Circuit, for now, rules against the government in a child abuse case, even finding that the government caseworker who sent the kids to foster care is not entitled to qualified immunity, which normally gives defendants the benefit of the doubt. Second, it took the Court of Appeals two years to decide this case, which was filed in the district court in 1999.

The case is Southerland v. City of New York, decided on June 10. Investigator Woo was assigned to the case after one of the Southerland daughters, Ciara, was behaving strangely in school. Woo came to the house and claimed that the Southerland's children were living in squalor; Southerland strongly disputed this characterization. Concluding that their safety was threatened, Woo removed the children from their home and sent them to foster care. While Kings County Family Court concluded that Southerland had abused and neglected his children and sexually abused Ciara, none of this damning information was in Woo's possession when he entered the home and took away the kids. For that reason, the Second Circuit (Sack, Kearse and Hall) disregards the Family Court's findings in determining whether Woo violated the Constitution. That's unusual, as federal courts like to defer to the evidentiary findings of state courts. Except that qualified immunity cases ask what the government defendants knew and when they knew it.

The district court granted Woo's motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. Again, this kind of immunity gives government officials the benefit of the doubt in close cases. But the Court of Appeals reverses and remands the case for trial on Southerland's substantive due process claim that Woo violated his parental rights, and on the childrens' Fourth Amendment search and seizure claim.

First, the district court analyzed the childrens' claim under the wrong law, applying instead the amended version that did not apply at the time. Under the correct law, Woo could only get a search warrant if he believed that an abused child lived at the premises. At the time, Woo knew that Ciara did not live with her father. He went to the house anyway and seized the other kids. Another problem was the search warrant affidavit erroneously listed the children of Southerland's wife, who did not live there; they lived with their mother. The search warrant affidavit had other factual errors that further allowed Woo to take the children. Since the Court of Appeals says that a jury may find that Woo intentionally made these search warrant affidavit errors, he does not get qualified immunity. This overcomes the presumption that court-issued search warrants support a finding of probable cause, which normally kills off any civil rights lawsuit. Not this one.

The due process claims are also revived. Although Woo removed the children from their home without a court order, he was not faced with exigent circumstances, the only basis upon which could proceed without an order. Since the law was clear in this area, Woo does not get qualified immunity. As for Southerland's substantive due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, on the theory that Woo's actions were shocking and outrageous, while caseworkers may temporarily remove children from the home if there is a prompt and adequate judicial confirmation proceeding, the record is not clear that such a proceeding took place. The Second Circuit is not clear as to "the nature of the proceeding in terms of its timeliness and adequacy." In addition, the jury may find that Woo's conduct was not objectively reasonable under the circumstances, since the parties dispute whether Southerland's children were living in squalor. As the law in this area of constitutional parental rights was clear in 1997, Woo also cannot claim that vague constitutional standards at the time entitled him to qualified immunity.

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