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October 01, 2012

Agency Staff Had Qualified Immunity in Wrongful Death Action

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Hutson v. Walker, 2012 WL 3553285 (8th Cir.).

In wrongful death action filed after child’s death due to physical abuse while in grandparents’ care, agency staff were entitled to qualified immunity. Although their conduct in conducting home study of grandparents was lacking, agency staff’s actions were at worst neglectful, but did not rise to the egregious level required under the deliberate indifference test.

The Mississippi Division of Family Services became involved with a family when the mother was separating from the father due to domestic violence. The mother contacted the grandmother in hopes of staying with her. While the grandmother accepted the children in the home, she did not allow the mother to stay there because of the mother’s poor relationship with the grandfather.

Initially, the mother agreed to this arrangement. The Division of Family Services sought legal custody but maintained the placement with the grandparents. The case was assigned to the Division’s Relative Care Unit where a worker was responsible for making a court recommendation regarding the placement.

The relative care worker completed a home study. He testified that he heard from the mother that the grandmother was neglectful and had found records that indicated her children were involved with the agency due to out-of-control behaviors. The case closed when they aged out. He found no criminal history for either grandparent. He testified the references for the grandparents were all favorable. The agency had approved the home and recommended the grandparents be made guardians.

At the dispositional hearing, the court reviewed the home study and also heard testimony from the mother about the grandmother’s alleged abuse and neglect. The court found the children were neglected due to domestic violence and awarded guardianship to the grandparents. The case was closed shortly after the hearing in early 2003 and the agency was no longer involved.

In 2006, one of the children died as a result of physical abuse by the grandmother.

The parents filed a § 1983 claim for wrongful death against the agency caseworker and supervisors. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employees concluding they had qualified immunity. The parents appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals noted that a summary judgment is appropriate where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. In this case, the court held, summary judgment based on qualified immunity was appropriate because the actions of the employees and supervisors were not deliberately indifferent.

The parents would need to have shown the agency staff violated a clear constitutional right and that they knew of the risk of serious harm and ignored it. The court assumed the state had a duty to the child from making the placement recommendation.

The court discussed that although the agency could have been more thorough in following up with the early allegations of abuse, including that it appeared other agency records existed that the worker did not know about, the conduct was merely negligent. The record did not show the staff would have clearly known the placement put the child at serious risk.

Based on the above, the Court of Appeals concluded summary judgment was appropriate.