HERNANDEZ v. FOSTER (August 26, 2011)

Fifteen-month-old Jaymz Hernandez’ parents brought him to the hospital where x-rays established that he had a broken arm. The Hernandezes reported that they thought he had fallen out of his crib. Although the fracture was common in children, a hospital nurse was suspicious. The parents had slightly inconsistent stories about the circumstances of the injury and about whether Jaymz could walk. Jaymz also had unexplained, old bruises. The nurse reported her suspicions to the Department of Children and Family Services. Although the DCFS instructed the hospital to release Jaymz to his parents, it also began an investigation, which it assigned to Pamela Foster-Stith. Foster-Stith interviewed the nurse and doctor and prepared an action plan for a home visit and risk assessment. After receiving the approval of her supervisor, she sent investigator Lakesha Foster to the home. Foster found nothing particular suspicious in her visit. Nevertheless, given the injury and the inconsistent stories, Foster and Foster-Stith wanted a home safety plan. The family resisted. Foster-Stith, in consultation with her supervisor, decided that the Department had to take Jaymz into protective custody. She communicated that decision to Foster, who was still at the family's home. Foster explained the decision to the family, including the fact that they could not have contact with Jaymz during the custody period, and took Jaymz in the custody. Jaymz was placed with his great-grandparents. The next day, two different doctors examined Jaymz. Both concluded that the injury was not suggestive of abuse. Foster also spoke with an assistant state's attorney, who advised her that there was not enough evidence to seek protective custody. Although the Department decided to terminate its protective custody, Foster would still not let the family visit Jaymz. The next day, Foster presented a safety plan to the Hernandezes which would require Jaymz to remain with his great-grandparents with supervised visitation by his parents. After being told that they could not see Jaymz without agreeing to the safety plan, the Hernandezes agreed. The Hernandezes signed another safety plan the following week, which the Department later agreed to terminate. The Hernandezes brought suit pursuant to § 1983 for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, naming Foster, Foster-Stith, and the supervisor. Judge Conlon (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the defendants on qualified immunity grounds. The Hernandezes appeal.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Sykes, Tinder, and Hamilton affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. The question for a qualified immunity defense is whether the defendants violated a clearly established constitutional right. The Court considered each plaintiff’s claims separately. First, all three plaintiffs asserted substantive due process claims with respect to the initial seizure. The Court noted that since Jaymz had a Fourth Amendment claim, he could not assert a substantive due process claim. With respect to Jaymz’ Fourth Amendment claim, the Court concluded that the removal was supported by probable cause. It relied on the unexplained injury, the older injury, and the inconsistent and contradictory statements of the parents. Therefore, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on that claim. The parents’ substantive due process claims fail for the same reason. Second, the Court addressed the plaintiffs' substantive due process claims relating to the continued withholding. This claim arises from a right to familial relations. The defendants needed reasonable suspicion of abuse to override that right. Again, however, the court concluded that Jaymz’ claim was properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment while his parents' claims should be analyzed under substantive due process. Here, the Court found genuine issues of material fact with respect to defendants' knowledge that the continued withholding violated constitutional rights. The Court relied heavily on the normal physical exams and the assistant state's attorney's response. Summary judgment was improper. Third, the Court addressed the substantive due process claims regarding the allegedly coerced safety plan. The Court concluded that the defendants had no reasonable suspicion that Jaymz was in danger of abuse when they presented the safety plan. The alleged threats were extremely coercive. The Court concluded that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on those claims. Next, the Court considered the plaintiffs' procedural due process claims. The basis of these claims was that the defendants took Jaymz into custody without any pre-deprivation hearing. Here, the Court concluded that the case law at the time of the removal would not have put a reasonable Department investigator on notice that a pre-deprivation hearing was required. The defendants were therefore entitled to qualified immunity on the due process claim relating to the removal. Again, however, the Court found genuine issues of fact on the due process claim with respect to the safety plan. With the allegations of misrepresentations and coercion, qualified immunity would be appropriate.