Lennette v. State

Decision Date10 June 2022
Docket Number20-1148
Parties Andrew LENNETTE, Individually and on behalf of C.L., O.L., and S.L., Minor Children, Appellant, v. STATE of Iowa, Melody Siver, Amy Howell, and Valerie Lovaglia, Appellees.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Martin A. Diaz (argued) of Martin Diaz Law Firm, Swisher, and Natalie H. Cronk of Kennedy, Gelner, Cronk & Waterman, P.C., Iowa City, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson (argued), Solicitor General, and Noah Goerlitz and Job Mukkada, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellees.

Mansfield, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Appel, Waterman, McDonald, and McDermott, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed a concurrence. McDonald, J., filed a concurrence. Oxley, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


I. Introduction.

Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justice resides ....

William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida act I, sc. 3.

Our legal system is sometimes messy. Mistakes get made. But in the end, our legal system usually stumbles to the right result.

A father going through a contentious divorce was accused by his young daughter of sexual abuse. An experienced Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) social worker observed the forensic interview firsthand. She believed it was credible, obtained additional information primarily from the mother, and sought and obtained an ex parte court order requiring the father to leave the family home. Months later, the ensuing adversary proceeding determined that the allegation was unfounded and that the mother had "wanted [the father] out of the house." The DHS finding of abuse was set aside and, eventually, the father obtained physical care of the children.

The father then sued the State of Iowa, the DHS worker, and her two supervisors, alleging that they committed common law torts and constitutional violations by initially accepting the child's account of sexual abuse and not discerning the mother's scheme. These kinds of claims historically require a high threshold of proof because we do not want to discourage social workers from acting affirmatively and boldly to protect children. After discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, reasoning both that immunities applied and that, in any event, the claims failed on the merits.

On appeal, we agree that summary judgment was properly granted on the merits. Specifically, the father's claim of intentional interference with the parent–child relationship fails because that claim applies to extralegal actions—such as a parent absconding with a child—not to judicially-approved acts. The father's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress fails because the conduct here did not reach the level of an "outrage" necessary to sustain such a claim. The father's unreasonable search and seizure claim cannot succeed because there was no showing that the DHS social worker falsified the affidavit she submitted to the court or that the removal order would not have been granted without her questioned statements. The father's substantive due process claim cannot go forward because DHS's conduct does not "shock the conscience." And finally, the father's procedural due process claim cannot prevail because the father was in fact provided with adequate process—the same process that ultimately cleared his name. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

II. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Because we are reviewing a motion for summary judgment, we set forth the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Minor v. State , 819 N.W.2d 383, 389 (Iowa 2012).

This case has its origins in a hostile divorce proceeding and custody battle between Andrew Lennette and his former wife, Holly. During their marriage, they had three children together: C.L., a son born in 2004; O.L., a son born in 2006; and S.L., a daughter born in 2009.

By August 2014, Lennette's marriage had deteriorated drastically. In September, Holly took the three children and went to Arkansas to stay with her parents. In response, Lennette filed for dissolution of marriage and asked the court to order Holly to immediately return the children back to Cedar Rapids. That request was granted, and Holly returned. On September 23, the court decided that, for the time being, there would be joint legal custody of the children without a primary physical caretaker. Both Lennette and Holly continued to reside in the family home.

Throughout that fall, Lennette found himself accused by Holly of infidelity and physically abusive behavior. Holly also made multiple appointments with different doctors and therapists for herself and the children. Lennette alleges that Holly was searching for a healthcare provider who would support her escalating accusations against him. But no sexual abuse allegations surfaced during this time period.

On January 5, 2015, Holly sent an email to a therapist at Grace C. Mae Advocate Center (GCM), where Holly and all three children had received therapy services. The email included a document written by Holly and titled, "Things I've Thought Are Strange, Bad or Inappropriate." The document raised allegations of troubling behavior against Lennette, including allegations that strongly implied sexual abuse. The next day, S.L. had a therapy appointment at GCM in which S.L. said that her brothers sometimes hit her in private areas. But when asked if anyone else touched her private areas, S.L. confidently said, "No."

On January 12, Holly went back to GCM. She stated that S.L. had made detailed allegations of sexual abuse to her two days earlier. A GCM therapist told Holly to report the abuse. DHS received a report of sexual abuse from GCM that day. Later in the evening, Holly took S.L. to an emergency room to be evaluated. S.L. was not questioned during that visit, but Holly was interviewed and recounted what she had told GCM. The physician's assistant who heard Holly's story called the allegations "questionable" in his report and later testified that he "had some doubts," primarily because Holly's demeanor seemed "inappropriate" for the situation.

The next day, on January 13, Holly took S.L. to be examined and interviewed at the St. Luke's Child Protection Center (CPC). S.L.’s physical exam at the CPC showed no evidence of abuse. But during her forensic interview, S.L. made serious allegations of sexual abuse. The report authored by the interviewer did not include an assessment of S.L.’s credibility. S.L.’s brothers were also interviewed at the CPC two days later and denied having been sexually abused.

Melody Siver, a DHS caseworker, was assigned to be the primary investigator of the report concerning Lennette. Amy Howell supervised Siver, and Valerie Lovaglia supervised both Siver and Howell. All three DHS employees were subsequently named as defendants in this case.

Siver observed the CPC forensic interviews of the children, including the interview where S.L. made accusations of sexual abuse against Lennette. She also separately interviewed Holly. Siver found S.L.’s CPC interview to be credible. Thus, on January 16, she submitted an affidavit to the Linn County District Court as follows:

There is a current assessment ... alleging sexual abuse of [S.L.] by her father, Andrew Lennette. [S.L.] was interviewed at the Child Protection Center and reported sexual abuse by her father on more than one occasion. She had knowledge that a child of her age could not know otherwise. I found her interview to be credible. [S.L.] has exhibited some sexualized behaviors recently.

Siver later admitted that the information about "sexualized behaviors" came exclusively from Holly.

Siver's affidavit concluded, "[I]t is believed that the children is(are) at risk of their health and safety as well as to prevent further risk of abuse, this worker respectfully requests that Andrew Lennette be Court Ordered to leave the residence in order for the children to remain in their home."

That day, the juvenile court issued an ex parte order that Lennette be removed from the family home and have no contact with the minor children. The court set a review hearing for one week later on January 23.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department (CRPD) and DHS contacted Lennette to request interviews from him concerning the allegations. Through his attorney, Lennette declined these requests. Lennette appeared at the January 23 hearing with his attorney but informed the court that he was not ready to proceed. He waived his right to a speedy hearing. He also agreed to continue the no-contact order on the condition that he could have visitation with his sons. Lennette asked for and received a copy of the DVD of S.L.’s CPC interview.

In the following weeks, Lennette's attorneys provided DHS with lists of potential witnesses, affidavits from potential witnesses, records from the divorce proceeding, and other exculpatory records and information. DHS did not follow up on this information. Around the beginning of February, Lennette replaced his attorney. Also during this timeframe, the CRPD decided not to pursue criminal charges against Lennette, although Siver contends she was not aware of this decision at the time.

On February 17, Lennette and his new attorney met with Siver and her supervisor Amy Howell. In the interview, Lennette vigorously denied the allegations and maintained that S.L.’s interview seemed theatrical and that she was repeating things she didn't understand or believe.

DHS still had not determined whether the allegations of sexual abuse were founded or not. It therefore kept the matter on "addendum" status. Meanwhile, S.L. was receiving ongoing therapy at GCM. In therapy, S.L. continued to state that Lennette had molested her, although she made these statements in the presence of her mother. On March 12, Siver spoke to S.L.’s therapist at GCM, who stated that she did not...

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