TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - Several caseworkers sued by a woman who lost her 19-month-old daughter after failing a drug test are not fair targets for legal action, the Third Circuit ruled.
The ruling, not wholly unexpected given statements made last fall by the lead judge overseeing the case, found that Michelle Mammaro likely has no recourse to sue three caseworkers and two of their supervisors who she says acted unconstitutionally when they seized her child after Mammaro failed drug tests.
Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the Feb. 19 opinion that the caseworkers have "qualified immunity" from insubstantial claims lawsuits because Mammaro did not show that the caseworkers abused their power in a way that "shocks the conscience," the accepted standard in such cases. He also ruled that temporarily removing a child from her parent does not substantially violate due process rights.
"There is no consensus that removing [the child] was an unconstitutional interference with the parent-child relationship," Ambro wrote for a three-judge panel. Judges Theodore McKee and Thomas Hardiman joined in the opinion.
In 2011, Mammaro was hospitalized after she was hurt by her husband, who was charged with second-degree aggravated assault, according to the 13-page ruling.
The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services sent the child, who was a year and a half old at the time, to live with Mammaro's brother-in-law while she was treated for her injuries.
However, at a child custody hearing shortly thereafter, a caseworker reported allegations of Mammaro's drug abuse and threatened to separate mother and child unless Mammaro took a drug test. The test showed trace amounts of marijuana and cocaine traces in amounts roughly one-fifth of the state's threshold to prove abuse, court records show.
The state moved Mammaro into a safe house with her daughter, where she was monitored by state workers, but she moved into a private home after she didn't get an extension to live in the safe house. Police immediately seized Mammaro's daughter.
Mammaro challenged the removal of her daughter from her custody, claiming she had told the court she had been refused an extension in the safe house and had not been helped.
She filed a lawsuit against the caseworkers in 2013, claiming they were tipped off to her drug use by her abusive husband and that the seizure violated her First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The lawsuit sought damages and changes to state agency practices.
New Jersey argued in response that caseworkers acted with good intentions when taking the child, but admitted that the apprehension was a mistake.
In last week's ruling, Ambro showed some sympathy for Mammaro, writing that "caseworkers failed to assist her in making new arrangements for approved housing," but the judge said that failure was not an arbitrary abuse of government power.
Last January, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that Mammaro could pursue claims against the individual caseworkers, but not the Division of Youth and Family Services, if she could prove they acted with bad faith and senselessness.
At a hearing in October, Ambro warned Mammaro's lawyer about the potential negative outcome of her lawsuit.
"The consequences of this case, if we were to rule on your facts, means that the next time a caseworker goes in, or the next times, plural, they're going to say, wait a minute, we better not go in, we better hold off, we better hold off, and then something happens where the child ends up in a hospital brain dead," he said.
Ambro reiterated those concerns in the Feb. 19 ruling, sending the case back to New Jersey Federal Court for a decision in the caseworkers' favor.
"We are not the first to note that the failure to act quickly and decisively in these situations may have devastating consequences for vulnerable children," the judge wrote. "That is why caseworkers are protected by qualified immunity unless clearly established law puts them on notice that their conduct is a violation of the Constitution."
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