RACHEL MATTHEWS; CHRISTY WRIGHT, as next friend and appointed guardian of JM a/k/a KM, CM, EM, SP, AP, NP, GM, and MS, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
KILA BERGDORF; RONALD MOON; VINNIE HARMON; KAREN QUINN; KAREN FEATHER; MATTHEW BUDDER; BETH PANNELL; MARY NOFIRE; KRISTIN TANNER; JUANITA GIWA; NIECIE LEWIS; KATHLEEN KEANEY; LADONNA SIMS; BECKY DEWEY; CAROL SCHRAAD-DAHN; ANN MARIE SHRUM; JOAN HUGHES, Defendants - Appellants, and STATE OF OKLAHOMA, ex rel. OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, an agency of the State of Oklahoma; WILKIE SANDERS; JERRY MATTHEWS; DIEDRE MATTHEWS; JOHN DOE; JANE DOE, Defendants.
FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN
DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA (D.C. No. 15-CV-676-TCK-FHM)
B. Fagan (John K. F. Langford with her on the brief),
Assistant General Counsel, Department of Human Services,
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendants-Appellants.
L. Helms (Gary R. Underwood, Erin M. Moore, and Tiffany K.
Peterson with him on the brief), Helms & Underwood,
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.
TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, BALDOCK, and LUCERO, Circuit Judges.
BALDOCK, CIRCUIT JUDGE
2006, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (ODHS)
recognized Jerry and Deidre Matthews as "adoptive
parents" of the year for Northeast Oklahoma. But how
quickly things changed. After years of reported abuse and
neglect, the Delaware County District Court in April 2014
placed all nine children living in the Matthews' two
bedroom, two bathroom trailer house in the emergency custody
of the State. In June 2016, Jerry Matthews pleaded no contest
in Delaware County District Court to reduced charges of child
neglect. He received a suspended life sentence in exchange
for his promise to testify truthfully against his now former
wife, Deidre Matthews. Oklahoma v. Matthews, No.
CF-2014-117B (Delaware Cty., Okla., July 6, 2016). In October
2017, Deidre Matthews, her fate sealed, pleaded no contest in
the same state court to twelve counts of child abuse, child
neglect, and child endangerment. Oklahoma v.
Matthews, No. CF-2014-117A (Delaware Cty., Okla., Oct.
4, 2017). The state court sentenced Deidre Matthews to life
in prison with all but four years suspended.
present case is the civil side of this tragedy. The children,
Plaintiffs here, claim among other things that eighteen ODHS
caseworkers violated their Fourteenth Amendment substantive
due process rights in connection with the horrific events
recounted in the complaint. Plaintiffs generally allege that
between January 2004 and March 2014, various individuals, all
with good cause, reported to ODHS that the children living in
the Matthews' home were being mentally and physically
abused. At least seventeen reports of abuse and neglect were
made to ODHS during this time period. To say the ODHS
caseworkers left the children with the Matthews to suffer
continued abuse and neglect under deplorable conditions in a
dangerous home environment is perhaps an understatement.
case comes to us from the district court's denial of the
caseworkers' motion to dismiss the constitutional claims
against them on the basis of qualified immunity. (Seventeen
caseworkers have appealed.) See Matthews v.
Oklahoma, 2016 WL 6078341 (N.D. Okla. 2016)
(unpublished). Our review is de novo. See Dahn v.
Amedei, 867 F.3d 1178, 1185 (10th Cir. 2017). The purely
legal questions before us are (1) whether the facts alleged
in the complaint give rise to constitutional claims against
each of the ODHS caseworkers, and if so, (2) whether those
claims were clearly established at the time of the alleged
constitutional violations. See Davis v. Clifford,
825 F.3d 1131, 1135 (10th Cir. 2016). Because the caseworkers
have asserted the defense of qualified immunity, the burden
is on Plaintiffs to establish their right to proceed. See
Dahn, 867 F.3d at 1185. Exercising jurisdiction under 28
U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm in part and reverse in part.
See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 671-72 (2009)
(where a district court's order denying qualified
immunity turns on a question of law, such order constitutes a
final appealable decision within the meaning of § 1291).
* * *
actor generally may not be held liable under the Fourteenth
Amendment for harm a private individual intentionally or
recklessly inflicts upon a victim. See DeShaney v.
Winnebago Cty. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 197
(1989). The explanation is simple: Where private violence is
responsible for the harm, the state actor has not deprived
the victim of any constitutional right; rather the private
individual has deprived the victim of life, liberty, or
property. See id. at 195-97; see also Robbins v.
Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1251 (10th Cir. 2008)
(McConnell, J.) ("DeShaney holds that the state
has no affirmative obligation under the Due Process Clause to
protect the interests of life, liberty, and property of its
citizens against invasion by private actors." (internal
quotation marks omitted)).
Tenth Circuit, only two exceptions exist to this rule: Where
a private party inflicts harm upon a victim, a state actor
incurs an antecedent constitutional duty to protect the
victim if the complainant demonstrates either (1) the
existence of a special custodial relationship between the
State and victim, or (2) the state actor intentionally or
recklessly created the danger that precipitated the
deprivation. Schwartz v. Booker, 702 F.3d 573,
579-80 (10th Cir. 2012). Plaintiffs' complaint asserts
the caseworkers deprived them of liberty under both
exceptions to the general rule. In Part I, we address the
first exception's applicability to the complaint's
factual allegations. In Part II, we address the second
exception's applicability to these same allegations.
asking whether the complaint alleges facts sufficient to
state a cause of action against any of the caseworkers under
the special relationship exception, let us recount what those
factual allegations must establish to state such a claim. The
complaint first must plead the existence of a special
relationship between the plaintiff and the State.
Dahn, 867 F.3d at 1185. We will say more about what
this relationship encompasses shortly. For now suffice to say
that if the plaintiff fails adequately to allege a special
relationship with the State, he or she has no claim against a
state actor under the special relationship exception. Second,
the complaint must allege facts showing the responsible state
actor knew the plaintiff was in danger or failed to exercise
professional judgment regarding such danger. Id.
Third, the plaintiff must plead facts establishing the state
actor's conduct caused plaintiff's injuries.
Id. at 1185-86. Fourth, plaintiff must plead facts
tending to shock the conscience. Id. at 1186.
order denying the caseworkers' motion to dismiss, the
district court opined that the caseworkers, rather than
making any individualized arguments, "collectively"
asserted the defense of qualified immunity.
Matthews, 2016 WL 6078341, at *8. The caseworkers,
according to the court, argued only that the complaint's
factual allegations were not "conscience shocking."
Id. at *9. Therefore, instead of asking whether the
complaint stated a claim under the special relationship
exception as to each caseworker, the district court
only asked whether the complaint alleged "any possible
claims" that shocked the conscience.
As to the first prong of the qualified immunity analysis,
Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible
substantive due process violation by at least one
[caseworker] against at least one Plaintiff arising under the
special relationship doctrine. . . .[T]he court rejects [the
caseworkers'] argument that dismissal is proper based on
the absence of any alleged conscience-shocking actions in the
Id. The district court's approach constituted
error because it shifted the burden to the caseworkers to
establish their entitlement to qualified immunity. Perhaps
the advocacy of the caseworkers' trial counsel in the
district court was less than stellar. But where multiple
state actors raise a qualified immunity defense in a motion
to dismiss, "good as to one, good as to all" is
never the proper approach to adjudicating the
sufficiency of the complaint. See Pahls v. Thomas,
718 F.3d 1210, 1227-28 (10th Cir. 2013).
conducting [a] qualified immunity analysis, . . . courts must
consider . . . whether each defendant's alleged
conduct violated the plaintiff's clearly established
rights." Id. at 1227 (emphasis added) (quoting
Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 751 n.9 (2002)
(Thomas, J., dissenting)). Before a court may undertake the
proper analysis, the complaint must "isolate the
allegedly unconstitutional acts of each defendant";
otherwise the complaint does not "provide adequate
notice as to the nature of the claims against each" and
fails for this reason. Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1250.
Here, the caseworkers' assertion of qualified immunity in
their motion, an assertion they made multiple times therein,
gave rise to a presumption that they were immune from suit.
See Perea v. Baca, 817 F.3d 1198, 1202 (10th Cir.
2016). This presumption operated such that when the
caseworkers raised the defense of qualified immunity, the
burden shifted to Plaintiffs to demonstrate the
complaints' factual allegations established their right
to recover against each caseworker.See A.M. ex
rel. F.M. v. Holmes, 830 F.3d 1123, 1134-35 (10th Cir.
2016); see also Quinn v. Young, 780 F.3d 998, 1004
(10th Cir. 2015). If Plaintiffs then failed to establish
either prong of the qualified immunity analysis as to any
caseworker, that caseworker was entitled to prevail on his or
her defense. See A.M., ...