Friday, March 15, 2013

Believe it or not, the plaintiff has no case here

The plaintiff in this case raises a serious allegation: that, in retaliation for complaining about her son's education, the district submitted a false report to Child Protective Services, which initiated a proceeding against her. That proceeding was then withdrawn, and a CPS worker apologized to plaintiff because the agency relied on bad information. Think she alleges a cause of action?

The case is McCaul v. Ardsley Union Free School District, a summary order decided on February 26. The district court dismissed the claim, and the Court of Appeals affirms, ending the case. This case arrives at the Court of Appeals in a Rule 12 posture, so whatever the plaintiff says in the complaint is true at this stage of the case. So how can it be that someone who was accused of child neglect and placed on the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment has no case? Because not every wrong violates the law.

Under substantive due process, you can sue the government if its misconduct is outrageous or conscience-shocking. For this constitutional claim, there also has to be the loss of a liberty interest. There is no such interest here because plaintiff did not no custody of her child. While she was placed on the central register, which impeded her ability to pursue a career around children and senior citizens and to adopt a child, there is no substantive due process claim simply by arguing that your reputation was damaged. You also have to show "stigma plus," or stigma plus some other harm. She does not allege any tangible burden beyond damage to her reputation, i.e., she does not say that she was denied a job or the opportunity to adopt a foster child as a result of her listing on the registry.

What's left for plaintiff? She also sues for malicious prosecution. That's gotta work, right? Wrong. The Second Circuit (Winter, Chin and Droney) says that she does not allege any "special injury," some interference with the plaintiff's person or property beyond the ordinary burden of defending a lawsuit. Here is how the Court of Appeals handles that issue:

Here, McCaul alleges that as a result of the neglect proceeding initiated on the basis of "bad information," she spent thousands of dollars to retain an attorney and suffered distress and anxiety. She does not, however, allege any special injury beyond the ordinary physical, psychological, or financial demands of defending herself in the civil neglect proceeding. Thus, the district court properly dismissed her malicious prosecution claim.

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