Individually v. Stephens

Citation727 F.3d 1109
Decision Date21 August 2013
Docket NumberNo. 12–15237.,12–15237.
PartiesNicole MADDOX, Individually and as Next of Friend of J.O., Minor Child, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Babette STEPHENS, Defendant–Appellant.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)

727 F.3d 1109

Nicole MADDOX, Individually and as Next of Friend of J.O., Minor Child, Plaintiff–Appellee,
Babette STEPHENS, Defendant–Appellant.

No. 12–15237.

United States Court of Appeals,
Eleventh Circuit.

Aug. 21, 2013.

[727 F.3d 1112]

Larry E. Stewart, Larry E. Stewart & Associates, Lawrenceville, GA, R. Andres Marierose, Law Offices of R. Andres Marierose, Hampton, GA, for Plaintiff–Appellee.

Susan Elizabeth Teaster, Samuel Scott Olens, Devon Orland, Kathleen M. Pacious, Attorney General's Office, Atlanta, GA, for Defendant–Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Before PRYOR and ANDERSON, Circuit Judges, and WALTER,* District Judge.

[727 F.3d 1113]

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff Nicole Maddox (“Maddox” or “mother”), individually, and as Next of Friend of J.O., a minor child, brought suit for violations of due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and for various state law torts. The suit was brought against the Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Family & Children Services (“DFCS”), Gwinnett County DFCS, and Appellant Babette Stephens, a social worker with Gwinnett County DFCS (“Stephens”) (collectively “Defendants”).1 The only claim directly relevant to this appeal is whether Appellant Stephens is entitled to qualified immunity on Maddox's substantive due process claim that Stephens violated her liberty interests in the care, custody, and management of her minor child (“child” or “J.O.”) with respect to Stephens' actions in preparing and implementing a safety plan that allegedly prohibited Maddox from removing the child from the paternal grandmother's care. The district court denied Stephens summary judgment on this claim, holding that Stephens was not entitled to qualified immunity. Stephens now brings this interlocutory appeal.

After thorough review of the record, and with the benefit of oral argument, we reverse the district court's denial of qualified immunity to Stephens on Maddox's substantive due process claim and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


J.O. was born in early September 2008 to Maddox and Michael Olayiwola (“Mr. Olayiwola” or “father”). Maddox and Mr. Olayiwola were not married but were living together at the time in Gwinnett County, Georgia. They also lived with Mr. Olayiwola's mother, Veronica Olayiwola (“Ms. Olayiwola” or “grandmother”). As the unwed mother of J.O., Maddox was the only person who had legal custody of J.O. prior to court proceedings on February 12, 2009, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 19–7–25 (“Only the mother of a child born out of wedlock is entitled to custody of the child, unless the father legitimates the child.... Otherwise, the mother may exercise all parental power over the child.”).

On November 9, 2008, when J.O. was two months old, Maddox, Mr. Olayiwola, and Ms. Olayiwola took her to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Inc. (“Hospital”). J.O. was diagnosed with a rare, potentially life-threatening disease known as Kasabach–Merritt Syndrome. This is a chronic illness, and J.O. required 24–hour daily care. J.O. remained in the Hospital during many of the relevant events and was discharged on December 10, 2008, to the father and the grandmother.

Because both Mr. Olayiwola and Maddox worked, Ms. Olayiwola stayed with J.O. at the Hospital on a daily basis and received training on how to care for J.O.'s medical needs. Maddox did not own a car and did not have a driver's license, so she relied on Mr. Olayiwola and other family

[727 F.3d 1114]

members for transportation to the Hospital.3 Because of her work schedule and lack of transportation, Maddox was not able to visit J.O. daily while J.O. was in the Hospital. Ms. Olayiwola was the only family member qualified to care for the special needs of the child while the child was in the Hospital.

On November 12, 2008, Mr. Olayiwola and Maddox had a heated verbal argument. The argument continued as they arrived at the Hospital, and security officers were called to the scene. Both parties were advised that any future similar conduct would result in both being asked to leave the Hospital. Social workers at the Hospital then spoke with Mr. Olayiwola and Maddox regarding the dispute. During these meetings with the social workers, both parties made allegations of abuse and neglect against each other. Mr. Olayiwola alleged that Maddox was using drugs and would leave J.O. in the apartment unsupervised, and Maddox alleged that Mr. Olayiwola was physically abusive. Because of these allegations, the matter was referred to Gwinnett County DFCS. Stephens was the Social Services Caseworker responsible for after-hours referrals at this time. Stephens went to the Hospital the next day and spoke directly with Mr. and Ms. Olayiwola. She informed Mr. Olayiwola that just being J.O.'s father did not give him any legal rights and explained the legitimization process. She later spoke with Maddox by telephone, and Maddox informed her that she was now temporarily staying with her sister in Fulton County, Georgia, after the argument.4 The matter was also referred to the Hospital's daytime social worker, Tonya Brailey (“Brailey”).

On November 14, 2008, Stephens talked with Brailey about involving ChildKind, a placement service for medically fragile children, in the case. On November 19, 2008, Brailey again talked to Stephens regarding the placement with ChildKind, but Stephens had not completed the referral and stated she would look into it. Brailey also talked to Maddox and told her that J.O.'s medical care was going to be intensive and that Maddox needed to be available to get training when J.O. was discharged from the Hospital. Maddox indicated that she would be getting a car in the next few weeks, but in the meantime she could use Medicaid transportation to make herself available for the training. The record does not reveal that Maddox began training to take care of J.O. at this time nor at any time prior to J.O.'s release from the Hospital.

On November 25, 2008, Brailey and Stephens discussed the possibility of preparing a safety plan to avoid sending the child to a facility when J.O. was discharged, and they planned to meet with the parents and the grandmother on December 1. A safety plan is prepared by DFCS employees when there is an identified risk of safety to the child. It is an agreement between DFCS and the child's caregiver and addresses areas of concern regarding the health of the child.

Two days later, on November 27, 2008, there was a physical altercation involving the grandmother and Maddox at the Hospital. Maddox was expelled from the Hospital and told not to come back or she would be charged with criminal trespassing. Stephens spoke with Maddox regarding this incident on the following Monday (December 1). After speaking with Maddox,

[727 F.3d 1115]

Stephens called Brailey and asked that Maddox at least be granted supervised visitation at the Hospital. Although Brailey said that the Hospital would consider this possibility, she believed that the ban was “final.” Although the December 1 meeting with the parents and the grandmother did not occur, Brailey informed Stephens during their telephone calls on December 1 that J.O.'s medications had again been changed and that there was still no expectation of a discharge date.

That same day, Stephens called Mr. Olayiwola to follow up on his efforts to seek custody of J.O. Although she testified that it was contrary to DFCS standard practices, Stephens called the Gwinnett County Superior Court at Mr. Olayiwola's request to ask about the status of his petition for legitimation and custody. The court informed her that the hearing likely would not be before January 2009 and thus that Mr. Olayiwola could not be legitimated before that time. Stephens again explained to the father that, as a non-married father, he had to go through court proceedings to establish his paternity.

On December 8 and December 9, Stephens informed Brailey that DFCS could not authorize custody or discharge to the father because the father had not been legitimated. Stephens also informed Brailey that, because she had recently learned that Maddox now resided in Fulton County, she did not believe that Gwinnett County DFCS could deprive the child and that she was transferring the case to Fulton County DFCS.

On December 9, Brailey notified Stephens that J.O. was to be released to the father during the upcoming week. After speaking with Hospital administration, Brailey was informed that the child could be released to the father despite the fact that DFCS could not authorize such release. On December 10, 2008, Hospital officials discharged J.O. to Mr. Olayiwola—knowing that Ms. Olayiwola, the only family member qualified to care for the child, would be living with him and providing care—because he was originally presented as the father of the child and because the child had not been deprived by DFCS. Neither the Hospital nor Stephens notified Maddox that J.O. was released. Stephens assumed, after notifying Fulton County DFCS that the child had been released, that Fulton County DFCS would notify Maddox.

After Stephens contacted Fulton County DFCS to advise them of J.O.'s release, she spoke with Anne Rae (“Rae”), her supervisor, who advised her to prepare a safety plan (“Safety Plan”). The night J.O. was released from the Hospital, Stephens met with the grandmother at her residence and prepared the Safety Plan.5 While preparing

[727 F.3d 1116]

the Safety Plan, Stephens was aware that Maddox was the only person with legal custody of the child. Maddox, however, was not present for the signing of the Safety Plan.

The Safety Plan provides, in relevant part, that:

“[Grandmother] will contact Babette Stephens in the event Natural Mother, Nicole Maddox or anyone else attempt to remove [J.O.] from [grandmother's] care.”

“[Grandmother] will also contact Gwinnett...

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