Thursday, May 3, 2007
C.A.: Adoption Assistance Act No Grounds for Civil Rights Suit
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act does not create rights enforceable in a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 action, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Affirming a summary judgment order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Helen I Bendix, Div. Seven rejected a foster care group home’s Sec. 1983 civil rights suit against the county.
Angelica Group Homes Thomas and William Foundation and its principals, married couple Otis and Lillian Benn, sued Los Angeles County in March 2000 alleging the county violated federal law and their due process rights when it placed all five of its facilities on “Do Not Refer” status in 1997.
Angelica, a non-profit corporation formerly licensed to provide foster family agency and group home foster care services for dependents of the juvenile court, had entered into contracts with the county to provide group home foster care starting in 1988.
Angelica’s group home contract provided the county was entitled to impose a “Do Not Refer” order in the event that the county, in its “sole discretion,” determined that deficiencies in services posed a health or safety risk to any child. The contract also entitled the county to terminate the parties’ agreement “for convenience” when it deemed that doing so was in its best interests.
In the fall of 1997, acting on concerns raised by a report by the county’s Grand Jury Juvenile Services Committee, the county conducted a program audit of Angelica’s group homes and found they were “seriously out of compliance with state regulations and the contract/program statement.”
The county’s written audit report detailed numerous deficiencies, including Angelica’s failure to provide individual and group counseling, timely address children’s medical and dental needs, provide adequate clothing, food and activities, and submit timely reports to the Department of Children and Family Services and case workers.
Though they were given 15 days from the date of the audit report to submit a corrective action plan, the Benns never did so, prompting the county to place four of Angelica’s homes on “Do Not Refer” status. The fifth facility, in Perris, had already been placed on “Do Not Use” stratus following an investigation by the Dependency Court Legal Services group.
A fiscal audit of Angelica in early 1998 revealed further problems with the group homes due to “serious deficiencies in Angelica’s controls over the disbursement of group home funds.” The DCFS did not institute proceedings against the Benns over the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of “questionable expenditures” it found.
In their Sec. 1983 action, Angelica and the Benns claimed the county violated the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act by failing to give them notice and an opportunity to be heard before issuing the “Do Not Refer” directive. The county, they asserted, specifically violated 42 U.S.C. Sec. 671(a)(12) of the Act, which requires the state to provide an opportunity for a fair hearing “to any individual whose claim for benefits available…is denied or is not acted upon with reasonable promptness.”
The plaintiffs also alleged violations of their procedural and substantive due process rights.
Seeking damages, they maintained the county’s action effectively put them out of business by prohibiting future placements of dependent children in any of Angelica’s facilities.
Bendix granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, finding as a matter of law that the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act did not create rights enforceable under Sec. 1983—which creates liability for anyone who under color of law deprives another of his or her constitutional rights.
The judge also ruled that Angelica’s contracts did not create for it any constitutionally protected property interest, and that the county had not acted arbitrarily or capriciously.
The appellate panel unanimously upheld Bendix’s rulings.
With regard to the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, the justices said its context and language indicate Congress intended to benefit foster children and children in need.
Writing for Div. Seven, Justice Earl Johnson Jr. concluded:
Nothing in these provisions indicates Congress’ intent in adopting these measures was to instead ensure continued funding to benefit foster care agencies or operators of group homes for foster children.”
“Although contractors are indirectly benefited by the Act, they are at least ‘two steps removed’ from the language of the statute which is instead directed to the states,” he said.
The panel rejected Angelica’s contention that its contracts with the county created the reasonable expectation it would receive continued foster children placements, and thus a protected property interest enforceable under Sec. 1983.
Pointing to the “mere inclusion” of the “termination for convenience” clause in the parties’ contracts, Johnson said:
“Because Angelica’s interest in the contracts could have been taken away for something less than cause, and indeed at the County’s convenience—at the contracts’ inception or at any time thereafter—this lack of permanence defeats Angelica’s claim it was deprived of its constitutionally protected property rights without due process of law.”
“To the extent the County failed to adhere to these contractual requirements for being placed on permanent ‘Do Not Refer’ status, Angelica had a breach of contract claim,” he noted.
He further held Angelica’s substantive due process claim was without merit.
Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon concurred in the opinion.
Angelica surrendered its foster care licenses in 2001 to the state after the Department of Social Services conducted an investigation and filed formal accusations against the corporation.
Arguing the case on appeal were El Cajon attorneys Janice R. Mazur and William E. Mazur Jr. for the plaintiffs, and Westlake Village lawyers Clayton C. Averbuck and Jennifer E. Gysler for the county.
The case is Benn v. County of Los Angeles, B185375.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company