Social Workers Had No Absolute Or Qualified Immunity

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers
DATE: Apr 05, 2024

A 20-day-old infant fell off the bed where his mother, Ms. Rieman, had placed him shortly before she went to wash her hands.  Ms. Rieman rushed the child to the nearest hospital.  Out of an abundance of caution as a mandated reporter, a nurse at the hospital reported the incident to San Bernardino County’s Child and Family Services (CFS) hotline.  According to CFS, two social workers made multiple efforts to serve Ms. Rieman with a temporary detention warrant.  The social workers prepared a juvenile dependency petition and held a hearing without giving Ms. Rieman any notice of the hearing.  Meanwhile, Ms. Rieman and her family attempted to contact CFS on several occasions.  Despite their acknowledged attempts to contact CFS, the two social workers never called or attempted to notify Ms. Rieman about the hearing.

Ms. Rieman and her child sued, alleging that the two social workers violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by: 1) failing to provide them with notice of a hearing in which CFS sought custody of the child; and 2) by providing false information about why Ms. Rieman was not noticed for the hearing.  The social workers claimed absolute and qualified immunity, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ultimately denied.

The social workers argued that they were entitled to absolute immunity because they were sued for actions taken in their quasi-prosecutorial role as social workers.  The Court determined that even though social workers may have absolute immunity for discretionary, quasi-prosecutorial decisions to institute custody proceedings, the social workers were not being sued for any discretionary decisions about whether to prosecute.  Absolute immunity also did not apply to the Rieman’s claim that the social workers failed to give notice of the detention hearing because notice was mandatory and unlike the discretionary decision to initiate prosecution.

The Court determined that the social workers were also not entitled to qualified immunity for failing to provide notice of the hearing or for their misrepresentation to the Court about why Ms. Rieman was not given notice of the hearing.  Qualified immunity shields government actors from civil liability if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Ms. Rieman’s due process right to notice was clearly established because parents cannot be summarily deprived of their children without notice and a hearing, except if the children are in imminent danger.  The social workers were not entitled to qualified immunity for their misrepresentation.  The Ninth Circuit Court explained that a reasonable social worker would have understood that providing incomplete and false information to the Court about Ms. Rieman’s whereabouts constituted judicial deception.

Rieman v. Vaszquez, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 5252th Cir.).

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