Tenth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity To Social Worker Who Fabricated A Mother's Confession Of Child Abuse
from the stop-doing-this-kind-of-shit-and-you-can-stop-being-sued-for-it dept
For the second time in about as many weeks, an appeals court has handed down a decision denying qualified immunity to a government employee. That’s good! We don’t see a lot of these. Getting more than one in a month almost feels excessive, as if we’re being set up by the courts for a few months of anger and disappointment to offset this judicial largesse.
Offsetting this unexpected goodwill towards the appellate courts in general is this fact: both cases also involve what should unquestionably be obvious violations of rights. Both cases involve fabricated evidence.
The one recently handled by the Third Circuit alleged officers hid evidence that would have cleared a man falsely accused of murder… and they, along with the prosecutor, kept this information from the imprisoned man for 25 years. Truly obscene and truly a blindingly obvious violation of rights, as the court noted:
We conclude that the constitutional rule that framing criminal defendants through use of fabricated evidence, including false or perjured testimony, violates their constitutional rights applies with such obvious clarity that it is unreasonable for us to conclude anything other than that the detectives were on sufficient notice that their fabrication of evidence violated clearly established law.
When you’re that awful, courts don’t need a case directly on point to deny you immunity.
The same goes for Marcia Tuggle, a caseworker for the Alamosa (CO) Department of Human Services. While investigating suspected child abuse after a doctor diagnosed a two year old child with serious brain injuries, she accompanied police officers to interviews with suspects. The child was in the care of Patrick Ramirez at the time the injury was discovered, left there by his mother. The child died two months later and police opened an investigation.
They first interviewed Ramirez who told police he was carrying the child when he fell. The officer and the social worker also interviewed the boy’s biological mother, Krystal O’Connell. Here’s how that went down, according to the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)
Sergeant Alejo first interviewed Ms. O’Connell without anyone else in the room. Later the same day, Sergeant Alejo and Ms. Tuggle conducted a joint interview of Ms. O’Connell. According to Ms. O’Connell, Sergeant Alejo hurled accusations while Ms. Tuggle watched. Ms. Tuggle noted the responses, stating that Ms. O’Connell had admitted shaking Kyran and slamming him on the bed. Ms. O’Connell denied saying this and presented evidence that Ms. Tuggle had fabricated the confession
O’Connell was convicted of child abuse. Her conviction was overturned in 2017. This lawsuit followed.
Unbelievably, the social worker argued she should be granted qualified immunity because there was no prior case law that would have made her aware that fabricating a confession and handing it over to be used during the investigation and prosecution of O’Connell was a violation of her rights.
Alternately, she argued she wasn’t actually at fault at all because her notes were for her own social services investigation, not the criminal investigation that ended in O’Connell’s conviction. Wrong on both counts, says the Tenth Circuit.
From Ms. Tuggle’s own testimony, the existence of an ongoing criminal investigation would have been obvious. And Ms. Tuggle’s own notes reflect Ms. O’Connell’s confession to the crime of child abuse. From the existence of the criminal investigation and the confession of child abuse, Ms. Tuggle recognized that her office would need to share her notes with the sheriff’s office.
So under Ms. O’Connell’s version of events, Ms. Tuggle obviously knew—when she fabricated the confession—that her fabricated report would go to the sheriff’s office to advance the criminal investigation. Given that knowledge, any reasonable social worker in Ms. Tuggle’s position would have known that lying about a confession would contribute to the prosecution of Ms. O’Connell for child abuse.
The rights violation is so obvious there’s no need to find exact precedent.
Given that knowledge, Ms. O’Connell’s version of events would create an obvious denial of due process. We thus affirm the denial of summary judgment to Ms. Tuggle.
Equally unbelievably, there’s a dissent — written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe — that argues the social worker should be granted immunity because she had no way of knowing fabricating a confession would violate someone’s rights.
When considered in the factual context of this case, I find no clearly applicable Tenth Circuit or Supreme Court case law that would have alerted Defendant that her actions would violate the constitutional rights Plaintiff now asserts.
As to the cases cited by the plaintiffs, the dissenting judge says this:
None of those cases would have provided a reasonable social worker in Defendant’s position with fair notice that fabricating a social services report violates constitutional rights related to a criminal investigation. Franks and Pierce do not describe similarly situated officials. Those cases described law enforcement officers or those working for law enforcement for the purpose of investigating crimes. Here, Defendant was a social worker responsible for drafting a social services report. To be sure, Sergeant Alejo was present during Defendant’s interview with Plaintiff, and Defendant was likely aware of a potential criminal prosecution. The mere presence of a law enforcement officer, however, is clearly dissimilar from a forensic scientist investigating crime scene evidence while employed by the police department and knowing full well the evidentiary purpose and importance of her report. Thus, Defendant lacked fair notice that the holdings of Franks or Pierce would apply to a social worker in her position.
But why should someone need “fair notice” they can’t — as government employees with the power to deprive people of their liberties — falsify confessions? Who knows, but Judge Briscoe believes this social worker shouldn’t be held accountable for her inexcusable actions simply because no other social worker in a similar situation had done anything equivalently awful prior to the Tenth Circuit taking up this appeal.
Do you need another reason to hate the doctrine of qualified immunity? Judge Briscoe supplies one. [Emphasis in the original.]
As the district court observed, “common sense” should have informed Defendant that “a social worker, like any other public official, cannot knowingly create false information in furtherance of an investigation.” Yet, neither common sense nor our prior case law would have informed Defendant that she could not do so for constitutional reasons, as opposed to some general, moral reason. And in determining whether Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, we must look to the constitutionality of Defendant’s actions.
Thanks to qualified immunity, government employees can engage in actions that are morally or even criminally wrong and expect to get away with it simply because no court previously declared similar immoral or criminal acts constitutional violations. So, it’s basically the honor system but for people who don’t have any.
People who aren’t government employees can’t escape lawsuits when they fuck up someone’s life enough that they get sued for it by telling the court there’s no precedent directly correlating to their fuckery. But government employees can do this, which means those we expect to see held to a higher standard frequently aren’t — not by their supervisors, not by the agencies they work for, and in far too many cases, not by this nation’s courts.