(CN) - A social worker who allegedly fabricated evidence to revoke the foster-care license of a woman in Washington did not violate the woman's due process rights and is protected by immunity, the 9th Circuit ruled.
However, the three-judge panel cautioned that the same immunity will not be available in future cases where there is evidence of misconduct.
"Going forward, officials who deliberately fabricate evidence in civil child abuse proceedings which result in the deprivation of a protected liberty or property interest are not entitled to qualified immunity," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the Seattle-based panel.
The ruling upheld a federal judge's ruling that Department of Social and Health Services employee Sandy Duron was entitled to qualified immunity for her role in revoking Kathie Costanich's foster-care license, which she had held for nearly 20 years.
Constanich and her husband, who had fostered children since 1983, became the target of Duron's investigation in 2001 on the referral of a therapist for the children.
Duron claimed that some of Costanich's six foster children had reported that Costanich used profanity, violence and emotional abuse to keep them in line. Costanich reportedly told one child to move his "black ass" and called another child a "cunt," according to the ruling.
Washington revoked Costanich's foster-care license and began proceedings to place the children elsewhere based on Duron's findings, but the revocation was reversed on appeal because of flaws in the investigation.
Costanich then sued Duran and several other Social Services officials for violating her due process rights by falsifying evidence against her.
The district court ruled for the officials, finding that Costanich's right not to be "subjected to criminal charges on the basis of false evidence" did not apply since she had faced civil license revocation and guardianship termination proceedings, but no criminal charges.
The appellate judges cautiously affirmed the federal court's ruling, which reasoned that Costanich's case was a civil matter while previous cases had established such a right in the criminal context.
"We affirm the judgment in favor of Duron on qualified immunity grounds for her investigation and the declaration in support of the guardian termination proceedings because, although genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether Duron deliberately fabricated evidence, Duron did not deprive Costanich of a clearly established constitutional right," Wardlaw wrote.
The circuit court also affirmed the grant of absolute immunity to the other social workers involved in the investigation.
Though the law had not been previously established in this case to protect Costanich from fabricated evidence in a civil context, future social services officials will not enjoy the same immunity, the ruling states.
"Going forward, reasonable government officials are on notice that deliberately falsifying evidence in a child abuse investigation and including false evidentiary statements in a supporting declaration violates constitutional rights where it results in the deprivation of liberty or property interests, be it in a criminal or civil proceeding," Wardlaw wrote.
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