Sixth Circuit Finds Qualified immunity exists under certain circumstances for non-profit child care agencies and their employees.

On June 7, 2000, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found in the case of Bartell v. Lohiser, et al, that a qualified immunity exists under certain circumstances for non-profit child care agencies and their employees.

The plaintiff brought suit against the Michigan Family Independence Agency (“FIA”), Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (“LSS”) and others, asserting that they violated various federal and state laws in terminating her parental rights to raise her son. The Federal District Court granted Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment, holding that FIA, LSS and their respective employees were shielded from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s Judgment. The complaint filed by Bartell was a seven-count complaint against FIA, LSS, various FIA and LSS employees and others. The complaint alleged violations of federal claims under 42 U.S.C. §§1983, 1985 and 1986; the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. There were also claims for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of the Michigan Handicapper’s Civil Rights Act.

The Court rejected Bartell’s argument that qualified immunity is unavailable to LSS and its employees because they are “non-governmental actors.” The Court concluded that LSS is a non-profit corporation and is closely supervised by FIA. The Court found that FIA only purchases private foster care services when it cannot meet the needs of a particular child. Further, FIA appoints a caseworker to monitor LSS’ foster care plans and, in this particular case, the FIA caseworker specifically approved LSS’ plans for Bartell’s son. In support of its decision that qualified immunity was applicable in this case, the Sixth Circuit stated that “…the purposes of qualified immunity apply with particular force to the foster care services provided by LSS. Decisions pertaining to the welfare of a child, which may, as in this case, result in the termination of the natural bond between parent and child, require the deliberate and careful exercise of official discretion in ways that few public positions can match. The necessity that this delicate process not be over-burdened with encumbering litigation comports entirely with the Harlow Court’s formulation of the purposes of qualified immunity protection.”

Bartell also argued that the defendants terminated her custody of her son on the basis of her mental disabilities. She argued that this action violated her clearly established constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, in addition to her statutory rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Court agreed that there is a constitutional right to raise one’s child. The Court agreed that substantive due process requires that government may not deprive individuals of fundamental rights unless the action is necessary and supported by a compelling purpose. The Court found that Bartell does have a fundamental right to raise her son. However, the State also has a concomitant interest in the welfare and health of children in its jurisdiction. The Court found that in certain narrowly defined circumstances the State’s interest in a child’s well being may supercede that of a parent.

The Court of Appeals examined the findings of the District Court, which included evidence of Bartell’s suicide attempts, emotional instability, depression, inability to control her son’s behavior, involvement in abusive relationship, pathological behavior, and allegations of child abuse. They also reviewed the findings of the doctor who examined Bartell. The Court took pains to note that the conclusions of the doctor, many of which were based upon the verbal IQ test he administered, do not provide specific and empirical evidence of a correlation between the IQ test results and the ability of Bartell to care for her child. Consequently, the Court emphasized that its decision did not rest on the State’s characterizations of Bartell’s intellectual disabilities, but rather on the other findings, including abuse, depression, suicide attempts, and the like. Therefore, Bartell’s parental rights were not terminated in contravention of the Due Process Clause. For similar reasons, supported by the fact that defendants did provide Bartell with parental aides, parental classes and psychological therapy, the Court concluded that her parental rights were not taken as a result of her disability or failure to provide her accommodation because of her disability. Consequently, the Court concluded that the defendants’ decision to terminate Bartell’s parental rights was also not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act.

This decision is good news for non-profit child care agencies, but it is not an absolute protection. Because it is a qualified immunity, care must be taken. In this case, the Court found that the requisite standards had been met because FIA, LSS and its respective employees were thorough, deliberate and acted with care. There were many facts to support the decision to terminate Bartell’s parental rights, beyond her alleged intellectual disabilities. Had LSS not acted in close association with and with direction from FIA, or had the decision to terminate parental rights been made on the basis of an IQ test without substantive facts demonstrating that the defendants’ decision was in the best interests of the child; the qualified immunity defense could well have failed.

If you would like further information on the Bartell decision or have questions regarding its impact on your agency, please feel free to contact the writer at Berry Moorman’s Detroit office.