Qualified Immunity Does Not Apply To First Amendment Retaliation Claim Against County

Category: Briefing Room
Date: Oct 6, 2020 05:54 PM

Natia Sampson is the paternal aunt of a minor named H.S.  In 2014, after learning that H.S.’s parents had been incarcerated, Sampson volunteered to become H.S.’s legal guardian.  The Los Angeles County juvenile dependency court-ordered H.S. to be placed in Sampson’s care pending Sampson’s guardianship application.  The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) assigned social worker Ahmed Obakhume to H.S.’s case.

While Obakhume was assigned to H.S.’s case, he commented on Sampson’s appearance and marital status, urged her to end her marriage, touched her inappropriately, and attempted to coerce her into riding in his vehicle.  After several months of unwanted advances, Sampson complained about Obakhume’s conduct to his supervisor, Nicole Davis.  In responding to Sampson’s complaint, Davis said that Obakhume was “one of her best” social workers and the only one willing to work with H.S.’s biological parents.  Obakhume’s conduct continued.

Sampson also experienced two other issues dealing with DCFS officials.  One issue was that DCFS required Sampson to supervise visits between H.S. and the biological parents, even though Sampson expressed her unwillingness to do so.  The other issue was that when Sampson had difficulties obtaining a special type of funding for caregivers, DCFS officials continued to incorrectly tell her there were unsatisfied requirements.  Despite Sampson’s numerous complaints and DCFS’s assurances they would remedy these issues, they never did.

In August 2015, the juvenile court granted legal guardianship of H.S. to Sampson.  Thereafter, H.S.’s biological father absconded with H.S. in October 2015 during a visit that Obakhume had said could be unsupervised.  Obakhume visited Sampson’s house to discuss the incident and told her that the social workers “stick together” and “cover for each other.” 

A month later, with Davis’ permission, Obakhume filed unsupported allegations that Sampson was neglecting and abusing H.S.  DCFS then sought an order from the juvenile court to remove H.S. from Sampson’s care.  After significant litigation and a brief period in which H.S. was removed from Sampson’s custody, the California Court of Appeal returned H.S. to Sampson’s care realizing that DCFS’s allegations of abuse and neglect were unfounded.

Sampson subsequently sued DCFS and four individual DCFS employees, including Obakhume and Davis, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Sampson alleged sexual harassment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, and other constitutional claims.  The district court granted qualified immunity to DCFS on Sampson’s First and Fourteenth Amendment claims and dismissed all other causes of action. Sampson appealed the district court’s dismissal based on qualified immunity for her Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and First Amendment retaliation claims.

In order to state a claim under Section 1983, Sampson had to plausibly allege that she was deprived “of a federally protected right” and that the “alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.”  In Section 1983 actions, qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.  To determine whether qualified immunity exists, a court will consider whether: 1) the person suing has plausibly alleged a violation of a constitutional right, and 2) the constitutional right was clearly established at the time.

The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to DCFS on Sampson’s First Amendment retaliation claim.  The court reasoned that at the time of DCFS’s misconduct, it was clearly established that the First Amendment prohibits public officials from threatening to remove a child from an individual’s custody to chill protected speech.  In other words, DCFS should have known that it was unconstitutional to retaliate against Sampson for speaking out about the sexual harassment she allegedly suffered.  The court then remanded the claim to the district court to determine whether Sampson could meet the first prong of the test, namely whether she plausibly alleged a retaliation claim under the First Amendment.

Regarding Sampson’s Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of qualified immunity.  The court noted that unlike Sampson’s retaliation claim, the right of private individuals to be free from sexual harassment at the hands of social workers was not clearly established at the time.  However, the court nonetheless determined that moving forward, public officials, including social workers, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when they sexually harass individuals while providing them social services. 

Sampson v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 2020 WL 5405672 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2020)

Note:

While this case dealt with the Equal Protection Clause as it relates to social workers, prior case law clearly establishes the right under the Equal Protection Clause to be free from sexual harassment by public officials in the workplace.

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