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The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit took on this challenging question in Dahn v. Amedei, No. 16-1059 (10th Cir. 2017).

Here, a foster child, James Dahn (“Dahn”), sued two Colorado social workers responsible for investigating reports that he was being abused, along with others involved with his adoption. Dahn had been in Oklahoma’s custody until, with Oklahoma’s approval, a Colorado-based private adoption agency placed him for adoption with a foster father in Colorado. The foster father physically abused Dahn before and after adopting him. The private adoption agency was responsible for monitoring Dahn’s placement. Audrey Amedei and Amanda Cramer (“Amedei”), employees of the Moffat County Department of Social Services (“the Department”) responded to reports from Dahn’s school of suspected abuse. They reported that there was nothing wrong. The parties supposed to be looking out for Dahn recommended approval of his adoption by the abusive foster father. Dahn eventually escaped his abusive foster father by fleeing his home.

In September 2013, Dahn sued Adoption Alliance and the Colorado social workers for his injuries. Dahn alleged three claims: that all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process rights, under a special-relationship theory, that all defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process rights, under a state-created-danger theory, and that defendants Adoption Alliance failed to properly train and supervise their employees in evaluating, monitoring, and investigating the prospective adoptive placement for abuse, resulting in violations of Dahn’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive-due-process rights. Dahn also brought state-law claims for negligence and outrageous conduct against all defendants.

Two defendants filed a renewed Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint, asserting qualified immunity and denying a special relationship with Dahn. The other defendants also renewed their motions to dismiss. The magistrate judge recommended, for a second time, that the district court dismiss all federal claims.

This case is about the geographical reach of the special-relationship doctrine. Specifically, does the special relationship—and its accompanying duty to protect—cross state lines.

When a state fails to protect a foster child from harm, the foster child can sue the state under the special-relationship doctrine. The special-relationship doctrine provides an exception to the general rule that states aren’t liable for harm caused by private actors.  Under this doctrine, a state or its agents can be liable under federal law for failing to protect people from harm if they have made them completely dependent on the state for their basic needs.

The Court applies a special standard of review when defendants assert a qualified-immunity defense. The burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant violated a constitutional or statutory right that was clearly established at the time of the conduct in question. Though state actors generally aren’t liable for private acts of violence, an exception exists when the state has a special relationship with the injured person. Due-process claims built on the special-relationship doctrine have four elements. First, the plaintiff must demonstrate the existence of a special relationship, meaning that the plaintiff completely depended on the state to satisfy basic human needs. Second, the plaintiff must show that the defendant knew that the plaintiff was in danger or failed to exercise professional judgment regarding that danger. Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s injuries. And finally, fourth, the defendant’s actions must shock the conscience.

The district court concluded that Dahn had alleged sufficient facts to show that he had a special relationship with Amedei and Cramer, the Colorado social workers in charge of him. Amedei and Cramer disagree. Had Dahn suffered the same abuse at the hands of his natural parents, Amedei and Cramer would not be liable. Dahn asked the Court to affirm the district court’s use of controlling law to his claim and hold that even though Oklahoma placed him in foster care and Adoption Alliance monitored his placement, Colorado exercised custody over him because he lived there and because Colorado employees investigated his school’s suspected-abuse reports.

Here, Oklahoma and Colorado are two separate sovereigns. So, Amedei and Cramer argue, it is not enough that Dahn was a ward of a state. To overcome qualified immunity and survive their motion to dismiss, Dahn had to allege sufficient facts to show that he had a special relationship with the state whose employees he alleged knew of the danger to him or failed to exercise professional judgment. The Court says it cannot deem it clearly established that a state employee’s investigating reports of abuse of a child is enough to create a special custodial relationship with that child.

The special-relationship doctrine extends beyond just those actors who placed Dahn in the abuser’s custody; it includes all state officials in the state with whom he had a special relationship. But, for now, the law doesn’t clearly extend constitutional liability under the special-relationship doctrine to employees of a state that didn’t deprive Dahn of his liberty or supply his basic needs, even though they were social workers in the county where he resided. The Court said that Amedei and Cramer owed a duty to Dahn, and this duty might very well expose them to tort liability. Not only did the Department owe a legal duty to Dahn as a child living in Moffat County, but Amedei and Cramer responded to Dahn’s school’s reports of suspected abuse.

For the reasons stated above, the Court reversed the district court’s order denying Amedei and Cramer’s motion to dismiss Dahn’s special-relationship claim against them, and remands for further proceedings consistent with this case. The Court also denied  Amedei and Cramer’s Stipulated Motion to Dismiss Appeal, and dismissed their Motion to Withdraw Stipulated Motion to Dismiss Appeal as moot.

The Metier Law Firm is committed to assisting people with personal injury claims throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and we frequently serve as co-counsel to law firms nationwide. Tom Metier recently secured the largest personal injury verdict in Colorado.

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