Hall v. Sweet, 121616 FED6, 14-2595

Docket Nº:14-2595, 15-2326
Opinion Judge:McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:ANGIE HALL; MATTHEW HALL, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. KATRICE SWEET; KATHLEEN SINNAMON; JIM GALE; MAURA D. CORRIGAN, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants-Appellants.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: KEITH, McKEAGUE, and WHITE, Circuit Judges. HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part.
Case Date:December 16, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

ANGIE HALL; MATTHEW HALL, Plaintiffs-Appellees,


KATRICE SWEET; KATHLEEN SINNAMON; JIM GALE; MAURA D. CORRIGAN, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants-Appellants.

Nos. 14-2595, 15-2326

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

December 16, 2016



BEFORE: KEITH, McKEAGUE, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.


McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.

This case arises out of investigations of a group child care home. On two separate occasions, once in 2010 and once in 2011, employees of Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services, Katrice Sweet and Kathleen Sinnamon, responded to complaints that Angie Hall's group child care home was in violation of her license. On both occasions, one or both employees searched the Halls' home looking for children Ms. Hall may have hidden from inspectors. During the 2010 search, children were found hidden in a private room behind a locked door. Ms. Hall's license was subsequently revoked.

The Halls brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in part claiming that the searches of their home violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied defendants' motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity on the claim, holding that the complaint adequately alleged a colorable claim in avoidance of qualified immunity. However, Ms. Hall consented to searches of this nature in her 2008 license renewal application, and such consent undercuts the Fourth Amendment claim. Moreover, plaintiffs failed to allege conduct that violated their rights under clearly established law at the time of the investigations. Therefore, we reverse the district court's order denying defendants Sweet and Sinnamon qualified immunity.


Beginning in 2006, Angie Hall operated a licensed "group child care home" in Middleville, Michigan in the house she owned with her husband. The Halls' living space was on the upper level and approved child care space was on the lower level. The entrance to the living area on the first floor was also the entrance to the day care space on the lower level. The group child care home was subject to many rules under Michigan's child care licensing regulations, including a maximum capacity of twelve children and a maximum child-to-caregiver ratio of 6 to 1. See Mich. Admin. Code, R. 400.1908, R. 4001.1910.

In 2008, Ms. Hall applied for renewal of her license. As part of the one-page renewal application, Ms. Hall checked a box agreeing to an inspection of her facility. She signed the application and her license was renewed without restrictions or limitations.

In 2010, authorities received an anonymous complaint that Ms. Hall's group child care home was over-capacity and that she was hiding children during inspections.[1] In response, Katrice Sweet, a licensing consultant with the State of Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Bureau of Children and Adult Licensing, conducted an unannounced on-site inspection of the child care home.

On the day of the inspection, Sweet entered the house without knocking and without a warrant. She went directly to the lower level where Ms. Hall was supervising children with an assistant. Sweet demanded that Ms. Hall show her the entire home. Together with Ms. Hall, Sweet looked throughout the home for hidden children, including in bedrooms, closets, and cabinets on the upper level. Eventually, she found four children hiding behind a locked door in the lower level in space used by the Halls as a workout room not approved for child care. With those four children counted, the child care home was supervising fifteen children, and was thus over-capacity and over-ratio. Sweet's subsequent report led to an administrative hearing and contributed to the eventual revocation of Hall's license.

The 2011 inspection took place while the administrative process was playing itself out. Following a complaint that the group child care home was operating without an assistant caregiver, Sweet, along with her supervisor Kathleen Sinnamon, returned to the house to investigate, without a warrant. Sweet again searched the entirety of the home. Unlike the 2010 investigation, however, the 2011 investigation uncovered no violations. Id. In January of 2012, a Michigan appeals court affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's decision to revoke Hall's license.

Following the revocation of Ms. Hall's license, Angie and Matthew Hall filed a complaint, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan, alleging that DHHS employees had committed various constitutional violations during the two investigations and the administrative proceedings against Angie Hall. Plaintiffs' complaint named DHHS Bureau of Children and Adult Licensing directors Maura Corrigan and Ismael Ahmed, 2 bureau director Jim Gale, Sweet, and Sinnamon as defendants.

In place of an answer, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss that raised several grounds for dismissal, including a qualified immunity defense. R. 57, Dist. Ct. Op. PID 1234. Following subsequent briefing, the district court issued its order granting the defendants' motion on all counts against all defendants except one: the claim that Sweet and Sinnamon's warrantless searches of the Halls' residence during the 2010 and 2011 investigations violated the Fourth Amendment.3 Id. at 1238, 1274.

In the district court, defendants argued that the 2010 and 2011 investigations fell within an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Id. at 1259-60. The district court disagreed. Id. at 1262. The court held that a warrantless search of a home is presumptively unreasonable, that the warrant requirement was clearly established law, and that the pleadings did not support defendants' position that a warrant exception applied here. Id. at 1259.

The district court rejected all three theories asserted by defendants that would have made out exceptions to the warrant requirement. Id. Defendants first argued that consent for the searches flowed from the license renewal application signed by Ms. Hall on which she checked a box agreeing to a reasonable onsite inspection of her group child care home. Id. The district court did not consider this application-it considered the document to be outside the pleadings- and so concluded that the consent exception did not apply. Id. at 1259-60. The court also rejected defendants' argument that Michigan statutes and regulations gave them authority for the searches. Id. at 1260. The court held that the regulations defendants cited were inapplicable because "[t]o the extent that on-site inspections are authorized, they are authorized for situations and circumstances other than what occurred here." Id. Finally, the court found defendants' argument that the closely-regulated business exception applies to group child care homes was unpersuasive and unsupported by authority. Id. at 1261.

Defendants, Sweet and Sinnamon, now appeal the district court's denial of their motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.4


The district court had federal question subject-matter jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claims for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, actionable under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Defendants' appeal challenges an interlocutory ruling that would not ordinarily be subject to immediate review. However, a pretrial order denying qualified immunity is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine insofar as it implicates only questions of law. Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2018-19 (2014); McDonald v. Flake, 814 F.3d 804, 812-13 (6th Cir. 2016).

This appeal boils down to three pure issues of law. First, defendants challenge the district court's determination that the 2008 license renewal application is not part of the pleadings for purposes of the motion to dismiss. Second, when considering whether there was a constitutional violation, defendants appeal implicates the scope of consent provided by that renewal application, on which Ms. Hall marked that she agreed to an investigation by DHHS officials. See Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 251 (1991) (scope of consent is a question of objective reasonableness). Third, if necessary, this court considers whether the alleged wrongful conduct by defendants violated clearly established rights at the time of the searches. See Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 313 (1997) (there is appellate jurisdiction for "[t]he purely legal issue of what law was 'clearly established'") (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985)).

Because these three issues raise only pure questions of law, we have appellate jurisdiction under the collateral order...

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