Ninth Circuit Upholds Social Workers’ Claim of Absolute Immunity
In 2-1 Decision, Judges Say Parents Cannot Sue Over Removal of Child From Their Custody
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Social workers are absolutely immune from liability related to their signing and verifying of juvenile dependency and custody petitions, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday.
In a 2-1 ruling, the court concluded U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte, of the Northern District of California, properly dismissed a Santa Clara County couple’s lawsuit against two social workers whose actions led to the temporary removal of their son from their custody.
Robert and Lori Beltran sued social workers Melissa Suarez and Emily Tjhin in 2002 following an unsuccessful attempt by the Santa Clara Social Services Agency to place their then-four-year-old son, Coby, under the county’s care. The child was also a named plaintiff in the civil rights suit, brought under 42 U.S.C. 1983.
The complaint alleged violations of the Beltrans’ rights of family association, privacy, and freedom from unreasonable seizure.
The county took action with regard to the Beltran family based on a referral of suspected abuse from one of Coby’s doctors. The referral was based on the claim that his mother suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a condition in which a parent takes affirmative steps to keep her child ill in order to gain medical attention.
Similar referrals had been made to the county on four prior occasions, but had been deemed “unfounded” by social workers who investigated the claims.
Up until the fifth referral, Coby had suffered from numerous ongoing medical problems connected to his premature birth in June 1998. His conditions included a bowel motility problem, which led to instances where his Body Mass Index fell below the fifth percentile, placing him at risk of significant long-term damage.
Suarez, a social worker with the county’s Child Protective Services Department, investigated the fifth referral.
In according with her findings, Tjhin, her supervisor, signed and filed a dependency petition pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 300 seeking to place Coby under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. The petition included a three-page statement of facts, verified by Tjhin, that described the findings of Suarez’s investigation.
In addition, Suarez signed and filed a custody petition pursuant to Sec. 340 requesting permission to remove Coby from his home pending the conclusion of the dependency proceedings. Suarez’s petition incorporated the dependency petition by reference.
Based on the sworn statement of facts set forth by both petitions, Coby was removed from his parents’ custody and placed in a children’s shelter on Aug. 14, 2002.
Five days later, a juvenile court judge determined at an initial detention hearing that the child should be detained and temporarily placed under the care and supervision of the Department of Family and Children Services.
Following a full hearing on Sept. 16, the judge reversed course and denied the dependency petition. The boy was ordered returned to his parents.
In their Sec. 1983 suit, the Beltrans alleged that much of the information in Tjhin’s statement of facts was untrue, and that she and Suarez deliberately fabricated evidence and suppressed information favoring the Beltrans.
Granting the defendants’ dismissal motion, Whyte ruled that the social workers were entitled to absolute immunity for their actions in connection with the signing and filing of the dependency and custody petitions.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued Tjhin was not eligible for absolute immunity for swearing to the facts in the dependency petition because she was acting as a complaining witness when she did so. With respect to Suarez’s action, they contended, custody petitions were too far removed from the judicial phase of proceedings for absolute immunity to apply.
Writing for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said in signing the petitions, both social workers were performing their responsibilities as defined by California law, and thus entitled to absolute immunity.
“Only a social worker who performed or supervised the investigation can verify the information presented to the court regarding that investigation,” he explained. “No one else can report both the opinions of those who interact with the family and the results of the investigation, which include the investigator’s observations of the home and the family interactions, and the Department’s assessment of the relative credibility of the parties.”
To hold a social worker immune for investigating a case, filing a petition and presenting evidence to a juvenile court, but not for signing and verifying the petition she is required to prepare and present, “would defy reason,” Reinhardt said.
He rejected the argument that custody petitions should be treated differently from dependency petitions:
“A custody petition cannot be filed without a dependency petition and rests on the same facts as the dependency petition. Also, like the dependency petition, it is filed with the dependency court in order to protect the child. Thus, it serves the same goal as the dependency petition and is part of the same judicial proceeding.”
Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. concurred in the opinion.
Senior Judge Warren J. Ferguson agreed with the majority that Suarez was entitled to absolute immunity for the custody petition, but dissented as to Tjhin.
“This case in particular demonstrates that the social worker cannot be obligated to swear personally to the underlying allegations,” he wrote. “This case involves allegations of medical neglect, so the social worker cannot possibly verify personally the truth of the medical opinions upon which she bases the petition: she lacks the personal knowledge and the expertise. The appropriate course of conduct would have been to attach sworn affidavits from medical professionals who were qualified to testify as to their observations.”
The case is Beltran v. Santa Clara County, 05-16976.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company