Minor v. State

Decision Date15 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 09–1010.,09–1010.
PartiesVania MINOR, Individually and as Mother, Natural Guardian and Next Best Friend of D.A., Appellant, v. STATE of Iowa, Becky Grabe, Individually and Cleo Hester, Individually, Appellees.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Jeffrey R. Tronvold and Matthew J. Reilly of Eells & Tronvold Law Offices, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General and Jeffrey S. Thompson and

Anne E. Updegraff, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

WIGGINS, Justice.

The State filed a child in need of assistance (CINA) petition. The juvenile court issued a temporary removal order, removing the child from her mother's custody and placing her in foster care. After the CINA proceeding was dismissed, the mother sued the State of Iowa and two employees of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2000) and Iowa Code chapter 669 (2005), the Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA), alleging the DHS social workers wrongfully removed the child from her custody and negligently failed to protect the child from abuse by a foster parent. The State and its employees sought summary judgment, which the district court granted.

On appeal, we conclude a social worker is entitled to absolute immunity when the social worker functions in the role of a prosecutor, such as when the social worker files a petition to initiate a CINA proceeding. Further, a social worker is entitled to absolute immunity when the social worker functions in the role of an ordinary witness, such as when the social worker files an affidavit after the initiation of CINA proceedings. Additionally, a social worker is entitled to qualified immunity when he or she acts in the role of a complaining witness, such as when the social worker files an affidavit in support of a CINA petition. Similarly, a social worker is entitled to qualified immunity for his or her investigatory acts. Moreover, the alleged injured parties cannot maintain an action against a social worker under the ITCA where the alleged injured parties fail to exhaust the available administrative remedy prior to filing the action in court. Finally, the alleged injured parties cannot maintain an action against a state social worker under the ITCA where the basis of the complaint is that the social worker engaged in conduct functionally equivalent to misrepresentation or deceit. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the district court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

A reasonable fact finder viewing the summary judgment record in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs could find the following facts. Vania Minor is the mother of D.A. Between April 2002 and January 2005, DHS conducted several child abuse assessments involving Minor and D.A.

Becky Grabe, a social worker supervisor employed by DHS, completed one such assessment on January 18, 2005, after DHS received a report alleging D.A. had been exposed to an escort service run by Minor out of their home. Grabe could not confirm the report, but found that Minor allowed troubled adolescents to stay in her home and frequently left D.A. with various caretakers. Believing Minor had placed D.A. in an environment that was unpredictable and, at times, unsafe, Grabe required Minor to sign a safety plan.

In February, Minor and D.A. were on a trip to Arizona with Minor's friend, Angel Pena, and her children. Pena testified that, at the time of the Arizona trip, her children were the subjects of an ongoing CINA proceeding and that she was not supposed to leave Iowa with them. While in Arizona, Pena received a call from an unidentified DHS employee. Pena testified the caller informed her that DHS was coming to get her children. Pena also testified the caller promised that if she cooperated she would not be in trouble and would get her kids back when she returned to Iowa.

The caller asked Pena about D.A. Pena informed the caller that D.A. needed to use the restroom while they were driving on the turnpike and that, because they were not near a restroom, D.A. put on a pull-up diaper and wet herself.1 The caller then asked Pena to say that Minor forced Pena to go on the trip from Iowa to Arizona. Because Minor had not forced Pena to go to Arizona, Pena stopped cooperating with the caller and did not tell her that Minor forced her to go on the trip. When Pena returned to Iowa, she received another call from an unidentified DHS employee who she believes to be the same person who called her in Arizona. During this call, the unidentified DHS employee asked Pena if Minor had a prostitution business.

Sometime following the conversations between the unidentified caller and Pena, Grabe had a discussion with her supervisor concerning a report DHS allegedly received on February 24 from an unidentified reporter. The reporter suggested Minor was not providing D.A. with proper supervision or adequate healthcare. In particular, the reporter indicated that Minor had not taken D.A. to the doctor even though she had been sick with a cough for two months, that D.A. was still wearing pull-ups, and that Minor did not permit D.A. to use the restroom, which contributed to D.A.'s inability to be fully toilet trained at the age of seven.

DHS did not perform a new assessment because of the cumulative nature of the report. Instead, Grabe's supervisor instructed her to refer the case to the county attorney for possible CINA action. The county attorney recommended that Grabe prepare an affidavit to file with the CINA petition because of a concern that Minor had fled the State with D.A. On April 5, the county attorney filed a CINA petition and attached Grabe's affidavit. Grabe's affidavit included all of the allegations provided by the February 24 reporter. It also included allegations based on previous reports and DHS assessments, including allegations that Minor exposed D.A. to a prostitution business, that D.A. displayed inappropriate sexualized behavior, and that Minor had left D.A. with inappropriate caregivers.

The county sheriff could not serve Minor with a summons and notice because she was no longer living at her listed address and did not leave a forwarding address. At the time, Minor and D.A. were living in Las Vegas. On May 5, the day set for the pretrial hearing, Grabe provided the juvenile court with another affidavit asking the court to place D.A. in temporary DHS custody. This affidavit indicated that Minor exposed D.A. to her prostitution business, that Minor denied D.A. contact with extended family members, that D.A. displayed sexualized behavior, that D.A. was left with unsuitable caretakers, that Minor exhibits behavior suggestive of mental illness and drug abuse, and that Grabe believed Minor intentionally took D.A. out of the state in order to flee the juvenile court and DHS systems. The court issued a temporary removal order on the basis that Minor had left the state with D.A. after the filing of the CINA petition and that Minor had allegedly exposed D.A. to prostitution. After learning about the CINA petition, Minor voluntarily returned D.A. to Iowa on May 7.

Grabe assigned D.A.'s case to Cleo Hester, another DHS social worker. Upon her removal, DHS first placed D.A. with her paternal grandmother, but the placementwas discontinued because the grandmother's retirement community prohibited long-term guests. Minor proposed that DHS place D.A. with Rebecca Stutzman, a family friend. However, DHS next placed D.A. with Cathy Techau, a licensed foster parent, on May 31. That same day, the court ordered DHS “to complete a Home Study of any proposed alternate placement for the child.” Hester, who was responsible for conducting any home study pertaining to D.A.'s placement, admitted in his affidavit that he did not consider the home study a priority because Minor had informed him she was comfortable with Techau caring for D.A. Minor, who visited with D.A. at least twice after DHS placed D.A. at Techau's, admitted she did not have any concerns about the placement prior to June 6.

While in Techau's care, D.A. spent the weekdays in a daytime program at a nonprofit agency that, among other things, helps children with behavioral issues. Techau communicated concerns to the agency about D.A.'s behavior. The agency's employees indicated D.A. struggled with social interactions with other children her age. When D.A. misbehaved at the agency, she would receive discipline in the form of short time outs, during which she would be prohibited from participating in activities with the other children or be prohibited from earning certain privileges. D.A. testified she received this type of discipline for more than twenty consecutive days. According to D.A., Techau would send her to her room after dinner on each day she was disciplined at the agency. D.A. believed the door was locked. D.A. further testified she was not permitted to leave her room and sometimes wet herself. She testified that, although she did not know how to bathe properly, she took a bath every other day while at Techau's, but that Techau did not assist her.

While in Techau's care, D.A. contracted an E. coli urinary tract infection. Techau took D.A. to see a physician on June 22. The physician diagnosed D.A. with the infection and prescribed antibiotics. The physician opined an E. coli urinary tract infection is often caused by poor personal bathroom hygiene. A follow-up visit revealed the infection had cleared.

After learning about D.A.'s E. coli infection, Minor expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of foster care provided by Techau to DHS. This prompted an unannounced visit by another DHS social worker to Techau's home on June 28. A post-visit report indicated Techau's home was clean and not a health or safety hazard. Although D.A. was not present during the visit, the report indicated the children, day care center, and foster home “appeared to be well taken care of.”

Minor brought her concerns about the quality of Techau's care to the attention...

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