Sampson v. Cnty. of L. A.

Decision Date09 September 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-55450,18-55450
Citation974 F.3d 1012
Parties Natia SAMPSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, BY AND THROUGH the LOS ANGELES COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES; Nicole Davis; Ahmed Obakhume; Dawna Yokoyama; Geraldo Ibarra, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

MURGUIA, Circuit Judge:

Natia Sampson volunteered to become the legal guardian of her niece, H.S., after her parents were incarcerated. Sampson alleges that throughout the process of applying for and obtaining legal guardianship of H.S., she was sexually harassed by a social worker assigned to her case; when Sampson complained about the harassment, the social worker and his supervisors allegedly retaliated against her.

Sampson sued the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS") and four individual employees thereof (collectively, "Defendants") under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging sexual harassment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, retaliation under the First Amendment, and other related constitutional claims. The district court granted qualified immunity to Defendants on the Fourteenth Amendment sexual harassment and First Amendment retaliation claims and dismissed all other claims.

We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm in part and vacate in part. We vacate the district court's grant of qualified immunity to Defendants on Sampson's First Amendment retaliation claim because it was clearly established at the time of Defendants’ conduct that the First Amendment prohibits public officials from threatening to remove a child from an individual's custody to chill protected speech out of retaliatory animus for such speech. In other words, Defendants should have known that it was unconstitutional to retaliate against Sampson for speaking out about the sexual harassment she allegedly suffered.

We reluctantly affirm, however, the district court's grant of qualified immunity to Defendants on Sampson's equal protection claim because the right of private individuals to be free from sexual harassment at the hands of social workers was not clearly established at the time of Defendants’ conduct in this case. Nevertheless, moving forward, we explicitly hold that public officials, including social workers, violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when they sexually harass private individuals while providing them social services. The Equal Protection Clause protects all of us from sexual harassment at the hands of public officials who are supposed to serve us. This is especially true for vulnerable individuals like Sampson, who availed herself of the State's social services to become H.S.’s permanent legal guardian to protect her niece from being placed in the State's foster care system. To hold otherwise would be contrary to the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

I. Factual Background

Sampson alleged the following facts, which we take as true in this appeal from the district court's order dismissing the operative complaint. See Mier v. Owens , 57 F.3d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1995). Sampson is a paternal aunt of minor H.S. During the summer of 2014, Sampson learned H.S.’s parents had been incarcerated, resulting in the placement of H.S. in foster care. After contacting DCFS about H.S., Sampson moved from Nevada to San Bernardino County, California, to be H.S.’s caregiver. In November 2014, the Los Angeles County juvenile dependency court ordered H.S. to be placed in Sampson's care pending Sampson's guardianship application.

DCFS assigned Ahmed Obakhume, a social worker at its "Vermont Corridor" office, to H.S.’s case. Obakhume commented on Sampson's appearance and marital status, urging her to end her marriage, inappropriately touching her, and attempting to coerce her into riding in his vehicle. Sampson did not initially report Obakhume's conduct, fearing it would negatively impact her case. In February 2015, however, after several months of unwanted advances, Sampson complained about Obakhume's conduct to his supervisor, Nicole Davis, who replied that Obakhume was "one of her best" social workers and the only one willing to work with H.S.’s biological parents. Obakhume's conduct continued.

Throughout 2015, Sampson experienced two other issues in dealing with DCFS officials. First, DCFS required Sampson to supervise visits between H.S. and the biological parents. Sampson expressed her unwillingness to do so to Kilene Short—another Vermont Corridor social worker briefly assigned to H.S.’s case—but Short refused to remedy the situation. Second, Sampson had difficulties obtaining the additional "F-Rate" funding1 for caregivers of children with special needs, for which Sampson claimed she was eligible. DCFS officials failed to provide the proper F-Rate paperwork, clothing allowances, and other reimbursements to Sampson. Obakhume also failed to advise Sampson that completing a class was required to qualify for F-Rate funding, and even after Sampson completed the class, Obakhume continued to incorrectly tell her there were other unsatisfied requirements.

In August 2015, the juvenile court granted Sampson legal guardianship of H.S. at the request of both biological parents. A month later, Geraldo Ibarra, Deputy Director of DCFS, assured Sampson he would remedy the F-Rate funding issue, assign H.S. another social worker, and address Obakhume's conduct.

In October 2015, Sampson allowed Ronald Sampson, her brother and H.S.’s father, to visit H.S. unsupervised, based on Obakhume's representation that Ronald had unmonitored visitation rights. Ronald then absconded with H.S., who was found the following day unclothed and hungry. Obakhume visited Sampson's residence to discuss the incident and stated, "I don't know where you get off sending all these complaint emails and making all these calls, but you are going to find out that we at the Vermont Corridor stick together, and cover for each other. No one is going to lose their job behind you and your mess." Sampson immediately contacted Ibarra, who said he would intervene, but never did.

The next month, with Davis’ permission, Obakhume filed unsupported allegations that Sampson was neglecting and abusing H.S., prompting a county child protective services investigator to visit Sampson's home on November 10 and 12. That week, Sampson emailed Dawna Yokoyama, Assistant Regional Administrator of DCFS, to complain about Obakhume's sexual harassment and DCFS's false accusations of abuse and neglect. Sampson then took H.S. to Nevada for Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, DCFS petitioned for, and received, a warrant authorizing the removal of H.S. from Sampson's care; however, the warrant was never executed and soon expired.

After the expired warrant, DCFS sought an order from the juvenile court to remove H.S. from Sampson's care, again alleging, without justification, that Sampson was abusing and neglecting H.S. The court held a hearing on December 9, 2015, at which Sampson successfully opposed DCFS's request to remove H.S. because DCFS could not show that Sampson was abusing or neglecting H.S. Nonetheless, DCFS was so determined to remove H.S. from Sampson's care that it filed a petition for an extraordinary writ with the California Court of Appeal requesting a stay of the juvenile court's order. The court of appeal granted the petition and authorized DCFS to remove H.S. pending briefing; DCFS removed H.S. two days later. On January 7, 2016, after reviewing the merits of DCFS's petition, the California Court of Appeal vacated its stay order and returned H.S. to Sampson's care, realizing that DCFS's allegations of abuse and neglect leveled against Sampson were unfounded.

H.S.’s juvenile dependency case was transferred to San Bernardino County in June 2016, and closed in February 2017. Sampson remains H.S.’s legal guardian.

II. Procedural History

Sampson brought this action in July 2017; her first amended complaint alleged five claims against the County, Obakhume, Davis, Yokoyama, and Ibarra under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 :2 (1) retaliation in violation of the First Amendment for falsely accusing Sampson of abuse and neglect and seeking to remove H.S. from her custody; (2) sexual harassment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for Obakhume's conduct; (3) violation of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment for judicial deception; (4) denial of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment; and (5) liability against the County under Monell v. Department of Social Services , 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978).

The district court dismissed the first four claims without leave to amend on qualified immunity grounds and the Monell claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court applied qualified immunity because it found that Sampson had no protected interest to support her substantive and procedural due process claims, and the rights asserted in her First Amendment retaliation and Equal Protection sexual harassment claims were not "clearly established." After granting Sampson two opportunities to amend her Monell claim, the district court dismissed that claim with prejudice and entered a final judgment.

On appeal, Sampson challenges only the district court's dismissal based on qualified immunity of her Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and First Amendment retaliation claims.

III. Standard of Review

"We review de novo a district court's dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), accepting as true all allegations of fact in a well-pleaded complaint and construing those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Karam v. City of Burbank , 352 F.3d 1188, 1192 (9th Cir. 2003). "We review de novo a district court's decision on qualified immunity." Vazquez v. County of Kern , 949 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2020).

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