Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Circuit upholds plaintiff's verdict in Section 1983 child removal case

The Southerland child abuse/Section 1983 case has been going on for years. It was filed in 1999 and went to the Court of Appeals twice before going to trial in 2015, resulting in a plaintiff's verdict. The Court of Appeals has upheld the verdict.

The case is Southerland v. Woo, a summary order decided on September 26. It started when DSS caseworkers removed Southerland's children from the home without a Family Court order. Believing the children were in danger, the Administration for Childrens' Services (ACS) removed five kids in all. Children are rarely removed from the home without a court order. The children were placed in foster care, where they remained until they reached the age of majority. At trial, plaintiffs put on evidence that the children were not in danger. On the removal claims, the jury gave Southerland $10,000. The five children each won $75,000 verdicts.

In upholding the verdicts, the trial court judge said the defendant Woo was not entitled to qualified immunity, which protects governmental defendants when they act in good faith, even if in hindsight it appears they screwed up. Judge Cogan said Woo could not objectively rely on the "exigent circumstances" exception to the Fourth Amendment in seizing the children. "The problems that the jury found Woo had observed at the Southerland home -- the extension cords, electrical equipment stacked haphazardly in one of the bedrooms, and lamp without a shade near the mates and/or blankets where the boys were sleeping, and the lack of food in the refrigerator -- could not lead a reasonable caseworker to believe that there was an immediate danger to the plaintiff children." There was no reason to think there was risk of sexual or physical abuse. "At most, the problems in the Southerland home ...  presented a 'possibility of danger,' which the Second Circuit [has] clearly stated was not enough for removal without a court order." The detailed trial court opinion is found at 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126305 (EDNY 2014).

The Second Circuit (Sack, Lohier and Carney) does not disturb this verdict, essentially adopting the trial court's reasoning. After more than 15 years, it looks like the Southerland case is over.

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