Friday, September 11, 2020
Retaining Unfounded Abuse Reports in Database Is Justified
Summary Judgment in Favor of County of Los Angeles Is Affirmed
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The County of Los Angeles does not violate a man’s due process and privacy rights by retaining in its internal database 2014 allegations against him of child abuse which had been determined by a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court’s Juvenile Court to be unfounded, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday.
Judge Consuelo M. Callahan wrote the opinion which affirms a summary judgment granted to the county and its Department of Children and Family Services by District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California.
“An accusation of child sexual abuse, in particular, is far more damning to a person’s reputation in our society than perhaps any other kind of accusation, including those in which the Supreme Court has identified stigma,” Callahan acknowledged.
However, she said, plaintiff James Endy has failed to show that he is suffering a stigma plus loss of state benefits—which, under a 2009 decision constitutes a due process violation—from the county’s retention of the 2014 allegations against him in the statewide Child Welfare Services Case Management System (“CWS/CMS”), explaining:
“[T]he record demonstrates that, under the existing legal framework, access to CWS/CMS is limited to specific governmental entities for primarily investigative and case management purposes, and records contained within the database cannot be disclosed to non-designated entities without a court order.”
“Nonetheless, Endy broadly argues that his inclusion in CWS/CMS has negatively impacted his rights with respect to his employment at Caltrans, visitation at his daughter’s school, and his ability to adopt or foster a child. None of these claims is viable as Endy fails to present a triable issue that any of these consequences was a result of his inclusion in CWS/CMS.”
Callahan looked with skepticism on Endy’s claim that his government employer denied him a promotion based on the inclusion of the allegation in CWS/CMS, noting that Caltrans—the abbreviated name of the California Department of Transportation—would not have access to the database. Citing the lack of lawful access to the database by a principal, she likewise expressed doubt that the principal of his daughter’s school told Endy, while the county’s investigation was in progress, not to come on the school grounds.
Endy’s contention that his ability to adopt a child or to become a guardian is thwarted by the presence of the accusation in the computer system was also met with disbelief. Callahan said that the State Department of Social Services would, in fact, have access to the information without a court order, but that the allegation is marked “unfounded,” so there is no reason to suspect it would affect the plaintiff’s child placement rights.
Addressing Endy’s claim that there is an intrusion on his privacy rights, the jurist said:
“Endy’s constitutional privacy claim fails under both state and federal law because he provides no evidence that his information has been publicly disseminated or disclosed. Rather, Endy claims that the mere inclusion of his personal information in the internal child welfare databases violates his constitutional right to privacy because numerous agencies can access the information. However, Endy presents no evidence that the County discloses information about anyone with only ‘unfounded’ allegations in the databases. Moreover. Endy is unable to show that the County’s important governmental interest in preventing child abuse is outweighed by the minimal risk of disclosure of Endy’s information in CWS/CMS.”
Callahan went on to comment:
“Understandably, Endy is troubled by the knowledge that the County continues to keep an internal record of prior child abuse allegations made against him, even though these allegations were dismissed by a court of law. The County, however, has a strong interest in maintaining all reports of suspected child abuse in CWS/CMS—even those that result in “unfounded” dispositions—because doing so helps its child welfare and law enforcement agencies protect children from abuse and neglect.”
She differentiated the facts from those present in Humphries v. County of Los Angeles, decided by the Ninth Circuit in 2009. There, it was held that a person whose name is included in the state’s Child Abuse Central Index (“CACI”) does have a due-process right to notice of that inclusion and “some kind of hearing” to challenge that inclusion.
Only substantiated allegations are included in the CACI, while the allegation against Endy in CWS/CMS is labeled “unfounded,” Callahan pointed out. Too, CACI is “more publicly accessible” than CWS/CMS, she said.
Endy argued that even though access to CWS/CMS is limited, to the extent the allegation is viewed, he will be stigmatized by it. Callahan responded:
“Here, however, the record demonstrates that Endy’s information in CWS/CMS is accessed and maintained by child welfare agencies and shared only with other governmental entities responsible for the safety and welfare of children. In effect, the entities who are able to view Endy’s listing in CWS/CMS are those who should be familiar with the meaning of an ‘unfounded’ allegation and the high burden that attaches to such a finding. Endy offers no evidence that those with access to CWS/CMS might misconstrue his ‘unfounded’ listing as equivalent to a ‘substantiated’ or ‘inconclusive’ one.”
The case is Endy v. County of Los Angeles, 19-55663.
Diane B. Weissburg and Jerry A. Weissburg of the Weissburg Law Firm in Culver City represented Endy. Scott J. Carpenter and Jill Williams of the downtown Los Angeles firm of Carpenter Romans & Dumont acted for the city.
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