BOYD v. OWEN, USCA-7 No. 05-3587, 2007 U.S.App. LEXIS 6603, on appeal from USDC-ILSD, before USCJs Cudahy, Manion, Rovner, opinion by Rovner, filed 22 Mar 2007.
LONG STORY SHORT: Child welfare investigators falsely and recklessly accused a police officer of child abuse, which cost him a career in law enforcement and violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, but since that right was not clearly established at the time, the investigators were not legally liable. Binding in IL, IN, WI.
FACTS: Danny Knight, a friend of Mother, claimed that Plaintiff, an officer with Washington Park, IL PD, had beaten and bruised the buttocks of Mother's five-year-old Girl, whom Knight babysitted sometimes. Knight also claimed that Plaintiff had held a knife to Mother's throat and she was very afraid of him. Knight told this to crisis center worker Mary Free, who called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services hotline. Three days later, DCFS supervisor Mickey Owen and investigator Leslie Foott visited Mother and observed Girl's bruises. Girl claimed Plaintiff had done it but Mother denied that, naming other possible offenders. Owen and Foott took Girl into protective custody and drove away with her.
In the car, when Foott asked Girl who did it, Girl again claimed Plaintiff had. Without any further investigation, Owen and Foott decided then and there to "indicate" Plaintiff (determine credible evidence existed to proceed against him). This was contrary to DCFS policy, which required further investigation. Foott called Free again, who insisted that Plaintiff was potentially dangerous, violent, and psychotic, based on nothing more than what Knight had told her. Later that day, Foott talked with another babysitter of Girl, who confirmed bruising but did not say who did it. No DCFS person got around to talking with Plaintiff himself for at least another month. Owen and Foott also disregarded Girl's psychiatric history.
Seven months later, Plaintiff got a part-time job with Maryville PD, which possibly could have led to full-time employment. However, a background check discovered DCFS's report of indicated child abuse, and Plaintiff resigned in lieu of being fired. Plaintiff was subsequently unable to find any other law enforcement job.
PROCEDURE: Plaintiff sued Owen and Foott in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois per 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, resulting in the indicated child abuse report and deprivation of his protected liberty interest in a law enforcement career. Owen and Foott moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, arguing that they had not deprived Plaintiff of any protected liberty interest, that they had allowed him due process, and that any right violated was not clearly established at the time. The trial court ruled that DCFS policies requiring investigation of alternative explanations and mitigating evidence amounted to a clearly established due process standard, and Owen and Foott decided not to follow them. QUALIFIED IMMUNITY DENIED. Owen and Foott appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
DECISION: In their appellate briefs, Owen and Foott did not preserve their argument that their indicated child abuse report did not infringe on Plaintiff's protected liberty interest in a law enforcement career, so the Seventh Circuit assumed that Plaintiff did have such a protected interest. At any rate, state action can violate a liberty interest when it wrongfully ruins a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity to the point that the person cannot find work in his chosen field.
The trial court erroneously held DCFS policies to set the standard of Fourteenth Amendment due process in this case. Owen and Foott's actions had to be judged not by how closely they conformed to state policy, but by their obedience, or lack of it, to the Constitution. Here, since Owen and Foott decided to consider only inculpatory evidence, and to disregard or not even look for any exculpatory evidence, when they should have considered both equally, violated Plaintiff's due process rights.
However, since Plaintiff could find no reported court case that held similar behavior upon similar facts to be a constitutional violation, a reasonable child welfare investigator would not have been on notice that Plaintiff's rights had been clearly established. Plaintiff's cited cases either concerned Fourth Amendment issues, or were not clearly similar, or had been decided after the events of which Plaintiff complained. Plaintiff therefore did not meet his burden of clearly establishing his rights, and could not recover. DENIAL OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY REVERSED; cause REMANDED to the trial court for entry of summary judgment in Owen and Foott's favor.
EDITORIAL: What the [he]ck, over!? Eternal shame on Mickey Owen and Leslie Foott. I know the type--they think they're so much better than you because they are here For The Children. They consider themselves always right, above the law, and untouchable. The only thing that saved their sorry behinds is the Seventh Circuit's utterly absurd requirement that you have to show some exact court case already decided, otherwise the poor darlings aren't on notice that their arrogance violates the Constitution that SOME of us are under oath to preserve, protect, and defend to the death.
No clearly established right? Horsefeathers. Everybody with any LE background knows you're supposed to, on every case, make like O.J. and find the REAL killer. You do not add double hearsay to the word of a mentally disturbed child that you just took away from her mother, and then permanently brand someone a child abuser. EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT. Ever hear of Brady, Giglio, etc., that law enforcement and prosecutors have to follow? Why don't child abuse investigators have to do that too? The only consolation prize is that the next time this happens in Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin, the miscreants will get mashed. As it is, this Seventh Circuit panel just gave Mickey Owen and Leslie Foott each a coupon good for one free ruined life. That's a hundred kinds of wrong. Will the Seventh Circuit en banc, or better yet the Supremes, puh-leeeeze find it in their hearts to serve up Mickey Owen and Leslie Foott's heads on a large platter.