Baker v. Racansky

Decision Date26 September 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-15056,88-15056
Citation887 F.2d 183
PartiesHeidi BAKER; Evan BAKER, a minor by and through his guardian ad litem, Heidi Baker, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. I.G. RACANSKY; Mavis Knox, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Christine E. Motley, Deputy, County Counsel's Office, County of San Mateo, Redwood City, Cal., for defendants-appellants.

Dennis John Woodruff, Oakland, Cal., and David R. Lipson, Berkeley, Cal., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Louise H. Renne, City Atty., Loretta M. Giorgi and Julia Ten Eyck, Deputy City Attys., for City and County of San Francisco, amicus curiae for appellants.

Donald L. Clark, County Counsel, County of Santa Clara by Jeffrey L. Bryson, Deputy, San Jose, Cal., Richard L. Moore, County Counsel, County of Alameda by Lorenzo E. Chambliss, Sr., Deputy County Counsel, Oakland, Cal., Henry G. Murdock, Dist. Atty., County of Alpine, Markleeville, Cal., Susan Roff, County Counsel, County of Butte by Robert Glusman, Chief, Oroville, Cal., Max E. Robinson, County Counsel, County of Fresno by Howard K. Watkins, Sr. Deputy, Fresno, Cal., B.C. Barmann, County Counsel, County of Kern, Philip E. Dunn, Jr., Chief Deputy, Bakersfield, Cal., Cameron L. Reeves, County Counsel, County of Lake, Lakeport, Cal., Douglas J. Maloney, County Counsel, County of Marin, Thomas G. Hendricks, Asst. County Counsel, San Rafael, Cal., H. Peter Klein, County Counsel, County of Mendocino by Sandra L. Applegate, Deputy, Ukiah, Cal., James A. Curtis, County Counsel, County of Nevada, Nevada City, Cal., Dwight L. Herr, County Counsel, County of Santa Cruz by Jane M. Scott, Asst. County Counsel, Santa Cruz, Cal., David R. Frank, County Counsel, County of Shasta by Karen Keating Jahr, Asst. County Counsel, Redding, Cal., James Botz, County Counsel, County of Sonoma by Kathleen Larocque, Deputy, Santa Rosa, Cal., Lita O'Neil Blatner, County Counsel, County of Tulare, Visalia, Cal., for amici curiae.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Before BROWNING, PREGERSON and THOMPSON, Circuit Judges.

DAVID R. THOMPSON, Circuit Judge:

This appeal involves a lawsuit filed by Evan Baker and his mother Heidi Baker ("the Bakers") under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against two socialworkers who took temporary custody of Evan, then five years old, during the course of a child abuse investigation. The socialworkers, I.G. Racansky and Mavis Knox, appeal the district court's denial of their motion for summary judgment in which they asserted a claim of qualified immunity. We reverse.


On September 9, 1986, Diane Brodeur reported to the San Mateo Police Department that she believed her 4-year-old son Aaron and her 2-year-old daughter Melissa had been sexually abused by Paul Baker, the Brodeurs' next-door neighbor. Paul is Ms. Brodeur's report was referred to Kassandra Dills, a San Mateo County socialworker. Ms. Dills investigated the case. She interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Brodeur and the two Brodeur children, and took extensive notes of these interviews. Ms. Dills' notes detailed the Brodeurs' allegations of child molestation and mentioned that Melissa had a vaginal rash which might be evidence of abuse. 1

the husband of Heidi Baker and the father of Evan Baker.

Within the next two days, the case was transferred from Ms. Dills to Racansky. Ms. Dills gave Racansky her notes and told him that she "had no doubt that [the Brodeur] children were clearly molested by their next-door neighbor. And they had implied or indicated that the five-year-old son, Evan, was likely to have been molested as well."

On September 11, 1986, Racansky and Police Sergeant Gregory Love interviewed Evan at school. Evan denied that he had been molested, but Racansky testified in his deposition that Evan's physical reactions suggested otherwise. That same day, Sergeant Love took Evan into custody and Racansky arranged for Evan's temporary protective detention. The police also arrested Paul Baker.

Racansky refused Heidi's repeated requests to release Evan to her. Racansky also refused to release Evan to his uncle's care. The County kept Evan until the dependency hearing was held on September 16. He was then released to Heidi.

The Bakers contend that the defendants violated their civil rights by seizing Evan and holding him until the court hearing. The defendants contend they are entitled to qualified immunity. 2


Normally, the denial of summary judgment is not an appealable order. However, "a district court's denial of a claim of qualified immunity, to the extent that it turns on an issue of law, is an appealable 'final decision' within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1291 notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment." Kraus v. County of Pierce, 793 F.2d 1105, 1108 (9th Cir.1986) (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2817, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985)), cert. denied, 480 U.S. 932, 107 S.Ct. 1571, 94 L.Ed.2d 763 (1987); accord Chalkboard, Inc. v. Brandt, 879 F.2d 668, 670 (9th Cir.1989). We have jurisdiction over this appeal because the qualified immunity issue can be resolved as a matter of law giving the Bakers the benefit of all reasonable inferences in their favor. See White v. Pierce County, 797 F.2d 812, 815-16 (9th Cir.1986).


We review "de novo the denial of a qualified immunity defense." Tribble v. Gardner, 860 F.2d 321, 323 (9th Cir.1988), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 109 S.Ct. 2087, 104 L.Ed.2d 650 (1988). "Government officials performing discretionary functions enjoy The parties agree that the plaintiffs have the burden to prove that the right which the defendants allegedly violated was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. See also Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 197, 104 S.Ct. 3012, 3021, 82 L.Ed.2d 139 (1984). The parties disagree about the level of "generality at which the relevant 'legal rule' is to be identified." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 639, 107 S.Ct. at 3039. This disagreement highlights a difficult aspect of the qualified immunity doctrine.

                qualified immunity from civil damages so long as their conduct does not violate 'clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.' "    F.E. Trotter, Inc. v. Watkins, 869 F.2d 1312, 1314 (9th Cir.1989) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982));  see also Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638-39, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3038-39, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)

In Anderson, the Court explained that:

The operation of this ["clearly established"] standard ... depends substantially on the level of generality at which the relevant "legal rule" is to be identified.... [O]ur cases establish that the right the official is alleged to have violated must have been "clearly established" in a more particularized, and hence more relevant sense: The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful, but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.

Anderson, 483 U.S. at 639-40, 107 S.Ct. at 3039-40 (citations omitted). We have said that "the Court [in Anderson ] held that the right [allegedly infringed by the defendant] referenced by the Harlow test is not a general constitutional guarantee (e.g., the fourth amendment freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures), but its application in a particular context (e.g., whether the particular facts gave rise to probable cause or exigent circumstances)." Todd v. United States, 849 F.2d 365, 370 (9th Cir.1988); cf. Backlund v. Barnhart, 778 F.2d 1386, 1389 (9th Cir.1985) ("the plaintiff must show that the particular facts of his case support a claim of clearly established right").

The Bakers contend that Racansky and Knox violated their fourteenth amendment right to procedural due process and their fourth amendment right to protection from unreasonable seizure. According to the Bakers, they satisfy their burden under Harlow and Anderson with respect to their fourteenth amendment claim by proving that "on September 11, 1986 it was clearly established that their interest in family unity and integrity was a protected 'liberty' of which they could not be deprived without a prior court hearing, even temporarily, unless an emergency existed." In the context of the fourth amendment, the Bakers argue that as of September 11, 1986 socialworkers clearly could not, without a warrant, deprive parents of physical custody of their children even temporarily, absent probable cause and exigent circumstances. The Bakers also assert that, for purposes of qualified immunity, "Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment phrasings of the right are functionally indistinguishable."

The Bakers' formulation of their clearly established rights is deficient. Anderson specifically rejected the Eighth Circuit's conclusion that the existence of a clearly established "right to be free from warrantless searches of one's home unless the searching officers have probable cause and there are exigent circumstances" vitiated the defendant's qualified immunity claim. 483 U.S. at 640-41, 107 S.Ct. at 3039-40. The Eighth Circuit erred by refusing "to consider the argument that it was not clearly established that the circumstances with which Anderson was confronted did not constitute probable cause and exigent circumstances." Id. The Bakers' description of their "clearly established" rights under the fourteenth and especially under the fourth amendment closely resembles the discredited Eighth Circuit formula.

Under Anderson, the relevant question in the present case is whether a reasonable social worker could have believed that...

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