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Matthews v. Bergdorf

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

May 8, 2018

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,
v.
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.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA (D.C. No. 15-CV-676-TCK-FHM)

          Emily B. Fagan (John K. F. Langford with her on the brief), Assistant General Counsel, Department of Human Services, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendants-Appellants.

          Connor 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.

          Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, BALDOCK, and LUCERO, Circuit Judges.

          BALDOCK, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         In 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.

         The 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.[1] 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.

         The 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).

         * * *

         A state 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)).

         In the 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.

         I.

         Before 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.

         A.

         In its 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 complaint.

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).

         "In 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.[2]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., ...


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