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Hardwick v. County of Orange

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

January 3, 2017

Preslie Hardwick, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
County of Orange, Defendant, and Marcia Vreeken; Elaine Wilkins; The Estate of Helen Dwojak, Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted October 7, 2016 Pasadena, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California No. 8:13-cv-01390-JLS-AN, Josephine L. Staton, District Judge, Presiding

          Pancy Lin (argued) and Norman J. Watkins, Lynberg & Watkins, Orange, California, for Defendants-Appellants.

          Dennis Ingols (argued) and Robert R. Powell, Law Offices of Robert R. Powell, San Jose, California, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: Stephen S. Trott, John B. Owens, and Michelle T. Friedland, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [*]

         Civil Rights

         The panel affirmed the district court's denial, on summary judgment, of absolute and qualified immunity to social workers who plaintiff alleged maliciously used perjured testimony and fabricated evidence to secure plaintiff's removal from her mother, and that this abuse of state power violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights to her familial relationship with her mother.

         The panel held that the social workers were not entitled to absolute immunity from claims that they maliciously used perjured testimony and fabricated evidence to secure plaintiff's removal. The panel held that plaintiff's complaint targeted conduct well outside of the social workers' legitimate role as quasi-prosecutorial advocates in presenting the case.

         The panel held that defendants' case for qualified immunity was not supported by the law or the record. The panel determined that plaintiff produced more than sufficient admissible evidence to create a genuine dispute as to whether her removal from her mother's custody violated her constitutional rights. The panel further stated that it could not conceive of circumstances in which social workers would not know and understand that they could not use criminal behavior in any court setting to interfere with a person's fundamental constitutional liberty interest.

          OPINION

          TROTT, Senior Circuit Judge:

         I

         Exposition

         Pursuant to an order of the Superior Court of Orange County California, arising from acrimonious juvenile dependency proceedings, Deanna Fogerty-Hardwick lost custody of her minor children, Preslie and Kendall. In this subsequent civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Preslie Hardwick sued the County and employees of its Social Services Agency ("SSA"). She contends that the social worker employees acting under color of state law maliciously used perjured testimony and fabricated evidence to secure her removal from her mother, and that this abuse of state power violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights to her familial relationship with her mother.

         In a motion for summary judgment, the individual defendants unsuccessfully raised absolute and qualified immunity as shields against this action. They appeal, claiming, among other things, that the law Preslie accuses them of violating was not "clearly established" at the time their allegedly wrongful conduct occurred. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).

         We have jurisdiction over this timely interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731, 742-43 (1982) (absolute immunity), and Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985) (qualified immunity). We affirm.

         II

         Background

         This lawsuit is not the first stemming from the implosion of Preslie's family. Her mother, Deanna, successfully sued some of the social workers in state court for the same conduct and pursuant to the same legal theory, and she recovered a sizable sum in damages plus attorneys' fees. See Fogarty-Harwick v. County of Orange, No. G039045, 2010 WL 2354383, at *1 (Cal.Ct.App. June 14, 2010) (remanding to trial court with directions to strike injunctive relief from the judgment and affirming judgment in all other respects). To quote the California Court of Appeal,

In this case, the jury specifically concluded that Vreeken and Dwojak lied, falsified evidence and suppressed exculpatory evidence-all of which was material to the dependency court's decision to deprive Fogarty-Hardwick of custody-and that they did so with malice. These findings are clearly sufficient to satisfy the Supreme Court's definition of circumstances in which 'qualified immunity would not be available.'

Id. at *14.

         The Court of Appeal also acknowledged the defendants' collective admission on appeal that the evidence was sufficient "to demonstrate the social workers committed egregious acts of misconduct in the dependency case." Id. at *10. The court said, "As the County concedes, '[Fogarty-Hardwick] demonstrated (if the testimony is to be believed) that in this one instance, social workers lied and fabricated evidence in connection with the dependency proceedings relating to [her] children.'" Id. at *10, n.4 (alteration in original).

         III

         Scope and Standard of Review

         This matter comes to us as an interlocutory appeal involving only legal issues regarding the employees' claims of an entitlement to immunity from this lawsuit. We do not comment on or express any opinions about the merits of the case. Those are ultimately for the district court to resolve. In this context, however, and because they are supported by the record as a whole, we construe the facts Preslie offers in support of her allegations in the light most favorable to her. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 n.8 (2007). Accordingly, we proceed to review de novo ...


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