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Dahn v. Amedei

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 14, 2017

JAMES DAHN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
AUDREY AMEDEI, individually and in her official capacity; AMANDA CRAMER, individually and in her official capacity, Defendants - Appellants, and ADOPTION ALLIANCE; MELANIE TEM; VICKI LITTLE, Defendants.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:13-CV-02504-RM-CBS)

          Gillian Dale (Thomas J. Lyons, with her on the briefs), Hall & Evans, LLC, Denver, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellants.

          Mari Newman (Michael P. Fairhurst, with her on the briefs), Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before PHILLIPS and SEYMOUR, Circuit Judges [*]

          PHILLIPS, Circuit Judge.

         When a state fails to protect a foster child from harm, the foster child can sue the state under the special-relationship doctrine. The special-relationship doctrine provides an exception to the general rule that states aren't liable for harm caused by private actors. See DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 199-200 (1989). Under this doctrine, a state or its agents can be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to protect people from harm if they have deprived those people of liberty and made them completely dependent on the state for their basic needs. But the special-relationship doctrine has limits-for instance, it requires plaintiffs to show that the state assumed control over them, thus triggering a duty to protect them.

         This case is about the geographical reach of the special-relationship doctrine. Specifically, the parties ask us to decide whether the special relationship-and its accompanying duty to protect-crosses state lines. Here, a foster child, James Dahn, sued two Colorado social workers responsible for investigating reports that he was being abused, along with others involved with his adoption. Dahn had been in Oklahoma's custody until, with Oklahoma's approval, a Colorado-based private adoption agency placed him for adoption with a foster father in Colorado. The foster father physically abused Dahn before and after adopting him. The private adoption agency was responsible for monitoring Dahn's placement. Together with Colorado, it recommended approval of his adoption by the abusive foster father. Dahn eventually escaped his abusive foster father by fleeing his home.

         Dahn then sued the private adoption agency (Adoption Alliance), its employees responsible for monitoring his placement, and the Colorado caseworkers who were assigned to investigate reports of abuse from officials at Dahn's public school. The district court dismissed all of Dahn's claims except a § 1983 claim against the two Colorado caseworkers and two state-law claims against Adoption Alliance and its employees. The district court concluded that the special-relationship doctrine allowed Dahn to move forward with the § 1983 claim, and it exercised supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims. The Colorado caseworkers appealed. Though, accepting the facts alleged in the light most favorable to Dahn, we condemn their efforts to protect the vulnerable child, we conclude under the controlling precedents that the Colorado caseworkers are entitled to qualified immunity, and reverse.


         I. Dahn's Placement, Abuse, and Adoption

         Plaintiff James Dahn led a tragically difficult young life. When he was five years old, Oklahoma removed Dahn from his parents' custody for physically abusing him. For the next six years, he bounced from one foster home to another, living with a total of twelve different families. In 2007, Dahn was placed with a potential adoptive parent in Colorado. Adoption Alliance, a private, nonprofit adoption agency licensed by Colorado, [2] approved a match between Dahn and his prospective adoptive father, Jeremiah Lovato. In January 2008, Dahn, then thirteen years old, arrived in Colorado and Adoption Alliance delivered him to Mr. Lovato's physical custody. As the placing agency-and under a contract with Colorado-Adoption Alliance was responsible for ongoing monitoring to ensure that Dahn and Lovato made a good match before recommending that the district court in Moffat County, Colorado finalize the adoption.

         Adoption Alliance hired independent contractor Vicki Little and assigned her to act as Dahn's caseworker and conduct in-home interviews with Dahn and Lovato. Another Adoption Alliance employee, Melanie Tem, supervised Little and reviewed her reports. Little was responsible for conducting monthly visits with Dahn and Lovato. But Lovato cancelled two scheduled visits in June and July 2008. In June, instead of meeting with Dahn and Lovato, Little spoke with Dahn on the phone, and in July she neither met with nor spoke to Dahn. So, in the first seven months, Little missed two of her seven required meetings with Dahn.

         Despite Little's semi-regular visits, Adoption Alliance missed some very important details. Audrey Amedei and Amanda Cramer, employees of the Moffat County Department of Social Services ("the Department") responded to reports from Dahn's school of suspected abuse. On September 16, 2008, after missing the first two weeks of school, Dahn showed up with a fading black eye. He had also lost twenty-eight pounds in eight months (though Dahn was 5'1", his weight dropped from 138 pounds in January 2008 to 110 pounds in September 2008). Alarmed, school officials reported Dahn's black eye and weight loss to the Department. Amedei and Cramer responded to the report by interviewing Dahn at his school. They didn't photograph Dahn's black eye. For his part, Dahn denied that he had a black eye, and later complained to his school counselor about having to meet with Department employees. Six days later, Cramer and Amedei spoke with Lovato by telephone, and determined that the abuse report was unfounded and that no further action was necessary. But on September 24, 2008, the school again reported to the Department that Dahn had suspicious bruising, this time on his arm. Cramer chose not to speak to Dahn or Lovato, but she did call Little to tell her about the reports of suspected abuse.

         On September 28, a few days after the call from Cramer, Little met with Dahn at Lovato's house, but only spoke with Dahn alone for a few minutes. According to Little, Dahn didn't want to talk with her and tried to avoid answering her questions. Little later met with officials from Dahn's school, shrugging off the officials' concerns and telling them that Dahn was doing well. She also noted in her report that Lovato wanted to finalize the adoption quickly. On October 18, 2008, Little again visited Lovato's home to meet with him and Dahn. She didn't follow up on the previous months' concerns, and she didn't speak with Dahn alone. On November 22, at her next and final visit before the adoption, Little again failed to speak with Dahn alone. Five days later, in a home-study addendum to a Structured Analysis Family Evaluation, she recommended that Lovato be allowed to adopt Dahn.[3]

         On December 1, 2008, just four days after defendants Little and Tem officially recommended Dahn's adoption, a Colorado police officer responded to yet another report from school officials, this time concerning yet another bruise around Dahn's eye. The officer called Lovato, who yelled at the officer and wouldn't allow him to talk to Dahn. Because of Lovato's brusque response, the officer remained worried about Dahn, so he contacted Amedei and asked her why she hadn't responded to the school. Amedei became angry and defensive, and implied that the officer had no jurisdiction to investigate the case. Amedei didn't follow up with Lovato on the new information about suspected abuse, choosing to assume that if Lovato wouldn't speak to the police, then he wouldn't speak to Amedei either. Ten days after this incident, the Colorado court signed the adoption decree. Dahn claims that the defendants' disregard of warning signs of his abuse caused Oklahoma and Colorado to transfer legal custody from Oklahoma to Lovato.

         About two months later, on February 27, 2009, the Department heard a fourth time from Dahn's school. This time, Dahn had missed six straight days of school. The School Resource Officer had gone to Lovato's house but found no one home. On March 3, four days after the report, Amedei and Cramer visited the Lovato home. Lovato answered the door and, as Cramer and Amedei had expected, he angrily refused to let them in for over an hour. Lovato claimed that he had agreed to only a phone interview, and was being "very disagreeable, " as well as "defensive and uncooperative." Appellants' App. sealed vol. at 129-30. Lovato answered questions outside his house, requesting that Amedei and Cramer set up a meeting with Dahn's school to discuss the school's concerns, before finally permitting the two social workers to go into the house and see Dahn. When they finally got into the house, they spoke to Dahn only momentarily, saw him only from the neck up, and never saw him alone. In their report of this visit, Cramer and Amedei noted that Dahn avoided eye contact and was evasive in conversation.

         Soon after this, Lovato cancelled the March 6, 2009 meeting with Dahn's school and then withdrew him from school, opting for home-schooling. Amedei and Cramer knew that home-schooling would isolate Dahn and Lovato from observation. Amedei noted that Dahn's home-schooling meant that the Department would likely be unable to maintain contact with Dahn. But Amedei and Cramer expressed no concern about this, because they had concluded that all the reports of suspected abuse, including the most recent report, were unfounded.

         But they were wrong. Lovato had been physically abusing Dahn since September 2008. The beatings had escalated until Dahn protected himself by running away. On January 3, 2010, at age fifteen, Dahn fled from Lovato and told another young boy about Lovato's continued physical abuse.[4] He was taken immediately to the hospital for treatment of his injuries. Lovato had broken Dahn's arm months earlier and had continued beating him up through the weekend before he fled, leaving bruises on his back, face, ear, head, and buttocks. The beating had left severe internal injuries and bleeding, as well as open lesions on Dahn's buttocks which were still ...

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