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J.C. v. District of Columbia

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

December 27, 2018

J.C., et al., Appellants,
v.
District of Columbia, et al., Appellees. and WP Company, LLC, Intervenor,

          Argued June 21, 2016

          Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (2010-CAB-6550), Hon. John M. Mott, Trial Judge

          Gregory S. Smith for appellants.

          A. Joshua Podoll, with whom Kevin T. Baine was on the brief, for intervenor.

          Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General at the time of argument, with whom Karl A. Racine, Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General at the time of argument, and James C. McKay, Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief, for appellees.

          Before Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, [*] and Glickman and McLeese, Associate Judges.

          PER CURIAM:

         In 2007, the District of Columbia[1] filed a child abuse and neglect complaint against the parents of twin eight-month-old infant girls. The District of Columbia ("District"), removed the twins, N.C. and Jo.C.[2], from their parents' home, based on a Children's National Medical Center physician's report that one of the twins, N.C., may have suffered from shaken baby syndrome. The children were returned to their parents after approximately fourteen days. The abuse and neglect case against the parents was ultimately withdrawn.

         The parents, J.C. (mother) and G.C. (father) ("the C.s"), filed a civil suit against the District contending that the District's removal of their children violated their constitutional rights. In their civil suit, the C.s allege 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006) claims and common law tort claims against the District and against individual District employees within the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General and the Child and Family Services Agency ("CFSA"). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the District on all of the parents' claims, concluding that the District was not subject to liability because it was entitled to qualified immunity on the § 1983 claims and sovereign immunity on the common law tort claims. The trial court also granted the District's motion to dismiss the individual defendants.[3] See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6). The C.s appeal those decisions.

         Consolidated with the C.s' appeal are intervenor WP Company LLC's ("Washington Post") appeals of the trial court's decisions denying its motions seeking access to (1) the summary judgment pleadings, which were sealed and not made available to the public; and (2) an unredacted copy of the trial court's summary judgment order. The trial court ordered most of the record sealed because the case was closely intertwined with the earlier child abuse and neglect action, a confidential matter by statute. See D.C. Code §§ 16-2331, -2332, and 4-1303.06 (2012 Repl.); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 5-III (standard for sealing court documents).

         We have found this case to be of exceptional difficulty both factually and legally, and we recognize the challenges that the trial court faced in answering the questions present in this case. Nevertheless, on the record before us, we are unable to determine whether summary judgment in favor of the District was appropriate. Specifically, the trial court did not directly address whether any of the District's actions actually violated the C.s' constitutional rights in rejecting the C.s' § 1983 claims.[4] Likewise, the trial court did not adequately explain why the District and the individual defendants were entitled to immunity from the C.s' common law tort claims. Therefore, we remand for the trial court to consider these issues in determining whether to grant the District's motion for summary judgment and in dismissing the individual defendants.

         However, under this court's de novo standard of review, and the record as it currently stands, we are able to make the following legal conclusions. First, we hold that the District had probable cause to believe that both N.C. and Jo.C. were in imminent danger of child abuse based on Dr. Allison Jackson's assessment that N.C. suffered from unexplained symptoms consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Second, we hold that the District did not violate the C.s' due process rights by including them on the Child Protection Register. Third, we also affirm infra some of the ancillary constitutional claims that the C.s raise and conclude that: (1) the District did not violate the C.s' substantive due process rights; (2) the two-week separation of N.C. and Jo.C. from their parents was not greater than necessary; and (3) the C.s' equal protection rights were not violated.

         We remand for the trial court to address in the first instance the following questions that we believe are crucial to resolving the remainder of the C.s' appeal: (1) whether there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless seizure of Jo.C. from the parental home;[5] (2) whether probable cause to retain custody of N.C. and Jo.C. continued to exist after Dr. Jackson issued her second medical report; and (3) whether the undisputed facts demonstrate that both the District and the individual defendants were entitled to immunity on the common law tort claims.

         With regard to the Washington Post's appeals, we remand for the the trial court to explain its decision to seal the summary judgment pleadings in their entirety and its reasoning for making its redactions to the summary judgment order.[6]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         To summarize, on August 31, 2007, Children's National Medical Center ("Children's National") contacted CFSA for suspected child abuse after the C.s brought in then-eight-month-old N.C. for vomiting, retching, and acting uncharacteristically irritable. N.C. was diagnosed with old and new bleeding in the front left region of her head (subdural hematoma), along with "retinal hemorrhages" in both eyes. Dr. Allison Jackson, consulting physician of Children's National's Child and Adolescent Protection Center, found the retinal hemorrhages suspicious and wrote that they were "most consistent with inflicted head trauma with the most likely mechanism being that of shaking with or without impact," i.e., injuries consistent with "shaken baby syndrome." Dr. Jackson further noted that the mother's explanation for N.C. 's injuries, that N.C. fell while playing on the hardwood floor, "could not explain the retinal hemorrhages."

         CFSA Investigator Roberta Geheren placed a "medical hold" on N.C. at Children's National pending further testing and also ordered the emergency removal of the second twin, Jo.C., from the C.s' home. At about 1:00 a.m. on September 1st, Jo.C. was removed from the C.s' custody by CFSA without a warrant, with help from the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD"). The record is unclear as to how many hours passed between when CFSA placed N.C. in a medical hold and when CFSA went to secure Jo.C. from the C.s' home. On September 3rd, Judge Zoe Bush held an initial emergency hearing and determined that CFSA had probable cause to remove and hold both children based on Dr. Jackson's report of her medical examination of N.C. suggesting that the trauma was "most likely" the result of "shaking."

         On September 4th, and following an MRI of N.C., Dr. Jackson opined in a second medical-legal report that, while N.C. 's subdural hematoma injuries "may be consistent with the explanation given by" J.C., J.C.'s explanation did not explain N.C. 's retinal hemorrhages, so "inflicted head trauma remains a possibility" and that "[l]ab tests completed to date demonstrate no other medical explanations for the retinal hemorrhage." The District thereafter served the C.s with petitions alleging abuse and neglect of N.C. and Jo.C., respectively, signed by Investigator Geheren and Assistant Attorney General Jason Lederstein, the prosecutor assigned to the case.

         Magistrate Judge Mary Grace Rook conducted a supplemental probable cause hearing on September 10th, 11th, and 13th, and ruled on the 14th. Dr. Jackson testified on behalf of the District and adhered to her opinion that the retinal hemorrhages were injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome and could not be explained by what J.C. told the hospital. Dr. Ronald Uscinski, the parents' expert witness, testified that vomiting could, indeed, have caused the retinal hemorrhages and opined further that it "would not be possible to shake [ N.C. ] causing retinal hemorrhages without other trauma." Magistrate Judge Rook concluded that both Dr. Jackson and Dr. Uscinski were credible witnesses, but found more credible Dr. Uscinski's explanation that the "prolonged vomiting (four hours) could have . . . caused the retinal hemorrhages." Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Rook concluded that there was no probable cause to believe that N.C. was abused. The children were returned to the C.s' custody fourteen days after they were initially removed. About one month later, on December 14, 2007, the C.s were notified that their names had been automatically placed onto the District of Columbia's Child Protection Register because of the District's "inconclusive" report regarding N.C. 's abuse allegations. The C.s filed an administrative appeal of that decision and their case was heard before a hearing examiner, who ordered the C.s' names removed from the Register on July 22, 2008.

         On August 30, 2010, the C.s filed suit against the District and the individual government employees involved in their child abuse and neglect prosecution, asserting injuries resulting from the alleged unlawful government seizure of their children. They asserted violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments[7] pursuant to § 1983 by the District, and common law tort claims against both the District and individual defendants: negligence and gross negligence, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention. Judge John M. Mott dismissed the case against the individual defendants pursuant to a Rule 12 (b)(6) motion. Judge Mott later granted the District's motion for summary judgment. The C.s filed an appeal from the trial court's decision to dismiss the individual defendants under Rule 12 (b)(6) and to grant summary judgment to the District on all counts.

         The trial court issued a protective order in this case. The Washington Post filed a motion to intervene and for access to the summary judgment pleadings, including the motion, opposition, and exhibits. The trial court did not explicitly rule on this motion before it issued its sealed summary judgment order in favor of the District, whereupon the Washington Post filed a second motion to intervene and for access to the court's order. In a subsequent written order, the trial court granted the Washington Post's motion for access to a redacted version of the summary judgment order. The trial court did not explain its rationale for its redactions. The Washington Post has filed appeals seeking disclosure of both the summary judgment pleadings by the parties and an unredacted copy of the trial court's summary judgment order.

         II. Discussion of the C.s' Appeal

         A. ...


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