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Gutteridge v. State of Oklahoma

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

January 3, 2018

DONALD JOE GUTTERIDGE, JR., as limited guardian of D.C., a minor child, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
STATE OF OKLAHOMA; OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; BETHANIE KUZMA, an individual; SHANNON MCELROY, an individual; SCOTT BATISTE, an individual; MISTY JENNINGS-NELSON, an individual; BETTY JOHNSON, an individual; RENEE FIELDS, an individual; REGINA BENSON, an individual, Defendants-Appellees,

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma (D.C. No. 5:13-CV-00816-C)

          Michael L. Brooks, The Brooks Law Firm, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (David W.Van Meter, Van Meter Law Firm, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Charles J. Watts, and Ellen M. Watts, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with him on the briefs), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          John K.F. Langford (Emily B. Fagan, with him on the brief), Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before KELLY, MURPHY, and MORITZ, Circuit Judges.

          MORITZ, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Donald Gutteridge, Jr. appeals the district court's order granting summary judgment to the defendants on two claims arising from injuries suffered by D.C., a child who was then in Oklahoma's foster-care system.

         We agree with the district court that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on Gutteridge's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. Likewise, we agree that Gutteridge's state-law tort claim is barred to the extent it arises from D.C.'s placement in two different foster homes. Accordingly, we affirm in part. But to the extent Gutteridge's state-law law claim instead arises from the alleged failure to timely remove D.C. from one of those homes and the alleged failure to provide D.C. with timely medical care for injuries she suffered there, the placement exemption doesn't apply. Thus, we reverse in part and remand for further proceedings.

         I

         D.C. is a minor child who was born in April 2008. Soon thereafter, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Gutteridge is her limited guardian.

         In 2010, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) removed D.C. from the home of her biological parents and placed her in the foster-care home of Carolyn Funk. While there, D.C. suffered an unexplained shoulder fracture. OKDHS removed D.C. from Funk's home pending an investigation. But it returned D.C. to the Funk home after concluding that any allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated.

         A few months later, D.C.'s biological father reported to OKDHS that Funk had allowed D.C. to fall backward and hit her head in the bathtub in order to teach D.C. not to lean back in the tub. And approximately seven months after that, OKDHS learned of severe bruising and a raised knot on D.C.'s forehead. OKDHS again investigated and again found no evidence of neglect or abuse. Nevertheless, OKDHS immediately removed D.C. from Funk's home at Funk's request.

         OKDHS then placed D.C. in the foster-care home of Pat LeBarre. Approximately two weeks later, LeBarre noticed D.C. having what appeared to be a seizure. After LeBarre reported D.C.'s condition to OKDHS, LeBarre and an OKDHS employee took D.C. to a local doctor's office. D.C. was then transported to a hospital, where testing revealed injuries consistent with abusive head trauma. OKDHS later concluded that this head trauma-which ultimately resulted in permanent brain damage-was the result of abuse or neglect that D.C. suffered while in LeBarre's care.

         D.C.'s biological father brought suit in state court against OKDHS and several of its employees. After the defendants removed the action to federal court, Gutteridge substituted himself as the plaintiff and filed an amended complaint. As relevant here, Gutteridge asserted two claims: (1) a state-law tort claim against OKDHS; and (2) a § 1983 claim against OKDHS employees Bethanie Kuzma, Shannon McElroy, Scott Batiste, Misty Jennings-Nelson, Betty Johnson, Renee Fields, and Regina Benson (the individual defendants), alleging they violated D.C.'s substantive due process rights.

         The individual defendants and OKDHS moved for summary judgment. In relevant part, the individual defendants asserted that they are entitled to qualified immunity. And OKDHS argued that it's exempt from liability under Oklahoma's Governmental Tort Claims Act (GTCA). See Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 51, § 155(29) ("The state or a political subdivision shall not be liable if a loss or claim results from . . . [a]ny claim based upon an act or omission of an employee in the placement of children.").

         The district court agreed on both counts. First, in concluding that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, it ruled that Gutteridge failed to establish a Fourteenth Amendment violation because the individual defendants' actions don't "shock the conscience." App. vol. 22, 1767. Second, it ruled that Gutteridge's state-law claim against OKDHS is indeed barred because it arises from D.C.'s "placement" with Funk and LeBarre. Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 51, § 155(29). Accordingly, the district court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants and to OKDHS. Gutteridge appeals.

         II

         A

         Gutteridge first argues that the district court erred in ruling that the individual defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on his § 1983 claim. We review de novo the district court's order granting summary judgment to the individual defendants on qualified-immunity grounds. Felders ex rel. Smedley v. Malcom, 755 F.3d 870, 877 (10th Cir. 2014).

          "The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officials from civil liability so long as their conduct 'does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)). "When a defendant asserts qualified immunity at summary judgment, the burden shifts to the plaintiff, who must clear two hurdles in order to defeat the defendant's motion." Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101, 1107 (10th Cir. 2009). First, "[t]he plaintiff must demonstrate on the facts alleged . . . that the defendant violated his [or her] constitutional or statutory rights." Id. Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate "that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful activity." Id. "If, and only if, the plaintiff meets this two-part test does a defendant then bear the traditional burden of the movant for summary judgment-showing 'that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Nelson v. McMullen, 207 F.3d 1202, 1206 (10th Cir. 2000) (quoting Albright v. Rodriguez, 51 F.3d 1531, 1535 (10th Cir. 1995)).

         Here, the district court concluded that Gutteridge's § 1983 claim faltered at the first of these two hurdles: it ruled that Gutteridge failed to demonstrate the individual defendants violated D.C.'s substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. For the reasons discussed below, we agree.

         "[S]tate actors are generally only liable under the Due Process Clause for their own acts and not for private violence . . . ." Uhlrig v. Harder, 64 F.3d 567, 572 (10th Cir. 1995). Thus, the individual defendants typically wouldn't be liable for any acts of "private violence" that Funk or LeBarre may have perpetrated against D.C. while she was in their care. Id. But "there are two recognized . . . exceptions" to this general rule: "(1) the special relationship doctrine; and (2) the ...


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