AULT v. SPEICHER (March 3, 2011)

In late 2004, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services received a tip that Dana Ault's boyfriend had physically abused one of her four children. Ault sent her children to live with her mother to prevent them from being placed in foster care. The Department assigned Leslie Speicher as Ault’s caseworker. Speicher developed a plan to which Ault agreed. Under the plan, the children would continue to reside with Ault's mother. In mid-2005, Speicher suggested to Ault's mother that she should attempt to gain legal custody of the children. In fact, Speicher told Ault that she would file for custody in court if Ault did not agree to transfer custody to her mother. Both Ault and her mother believed that Ault could retain custody only as long as they agreed to leave the children with the mother. When Ault refused to sign a subsequent plan, the Department sought an adjudication of wardship. The court denied the petition and Ault's children were allowed to return to her care. Ault filed suit against Speicher pursuant to § 1983, alleging violations of the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Judge Herndon (S.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to Speicher, concluding that there was no constitutional violation and, alternatively, that Speicher was entitled to qualified immunity. Ault appeals.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Bauer and Williams and District Judge McCuskey affirmed. The Court addressed only the qualified immunity issue and only the second prong of the familiar test, whether the constitutional right allegedly violated was clearly established at the time. In order to carry its burden, a plaintiff must either present case law well articulating the right and applying it in a similar factual circumstance or show that the conduct’s unconstitutionality was obvious. With respect to the case law, the Court stated that the plaintiff’s cases simply stood for the proposition that parents have certain constitutional rights in family choice issues. They are not at all similar to the factual circumstances here. Even the alleged violations of state law do not establish a violation of a clearly established constitutional right. The Court also concluded that Speicher’s acts were not obviously unconstitutional, given that Ault was still in a relationship with a man accused of child abuse and that she had earlier agreed to the children’s placement with her mother.