Suzanne Germany v. Vance

868 F.2d 9 (1989) | Cited 19 times | First Circuit | February 24, 1989

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

In her petition for rehearing, Germany argues that we were wrong to apply the Supreme Court's holding in Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 106 S. Ct. 662, 88 L. Ed. 2d 662 (1986), to the present case. But the Court's explicit and unqualified language in Daniels leaves little room for debate:

We conclude that the Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty, or property.

474 U.S. at 328 (emphasis in original). Germany does not dispute the holding of the district court, which we adopted, that the right of access to the courts is based in the Due Process Clause. Therefore, Daniels must prevail. To the extent that the many pre- Daniels cases cited by Germany suggest anything different, they must be viewed as having been overruled by Daniels.

Germany also notes that two First Circuit cases that we cited, allowing for recovery of damages caused by "reckless or callous indifference" to constitutional rights, involved prison officials. Maldonado Santiago v. Velazquez Garcia, 821 F.2d 822, 831 (1st Cir. 1987); Clark v. Taylor, 710 F.2d 4, 9 (1st Cir. 1983). She argues that we inappropriately extended this standard to all government officials, such as the caseworkers in the present case. But Germany fails to come to terms with the fact that the Supreme Court's holding in Daniels -- that mere negligence does not implicate the Due Process Clause -- is not restricted to prison officials.*fn* The "reckless or callous indifference" standard is one that is not inconsistent with Daniels, see 474 U.S. at 334 n.3, and that stays in harmony with our circuit's precedents.

Our opinion is also consistent with DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 57 U.S.L.W. 4218, 109 S. Ct. 998, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249 (1989), announced by the Supreme Court after our opinion in the present case was issued. In DeShaney, the Court held that the failure of state social workers to remove a child from the custody of an abusive father, who proceeded to cause tragic injury to the child, did not violate the child's rights under the Due Process Clause. The Court held that "as a general matter, . . . a State's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause." 57 U.S.L.W. at 4220. In the present case, in contrast, we held that the defendant caseworkers had an affirmative obligation to plaintiff Germany because of the "special relationship" (custodial in nature) between these state officials and a juvenile in their custody. At 15. This holding is in accord with the Supreme Court's observation in DeShaney that "when the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being." 57 U.S.L.W. at 4220 (citing Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 317, 102 S. Ct. 2452, 73 L. Ed. 2d 28 (1982)).

When there is such an affirmative duty, nothing in DeShaney suggests that a merely negligent breach of that obligation could constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause. The very same factors that created an affirmative duty here (a custodial relationship) created the duty in Daniels, where the Court rejected a mere negligence standard. DeShaney forcefully restates the Court's view that "the Due Process Clause . . . does not transform every tort committed by a state actor into a constitutional violation." 57 U.S.L.W. at 4221 (citing, inter alia, Daniels, 474 U.S. at 335-336). Indeed, Justice Brennan's dissent in DeShaney acknowledges the following:

That the Due Process Clause is not violated by merely negligent conduct, see Daniels, supra, and Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 106 S. Ct. 668, 88 L. Ed. 2d 677 (1986), means that a social worker who simply makes a mistake of judgment under what are admittedly complex and difficult conditions will not find herself liable in damages under § 1983.

57 U.S.L.W. at 4224 (Brennan, J., dissenting). Justice Brennan's observation is strikingly apt in the present case.

The petition for rehearing is denied.

* Of course, even if the Daniels standard is viewed as specially applicable to prison-type situations, this does not make it irrelevant here: the "special relationship" which, as we held, imposed a duty upon the defendant caseworkers grew out of the custodial nature of the relationship. Thus an analogy to prisoner cases, far from being remote, is direct and obvious.

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