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Sixth Circuit: Social Workers entitled to qualified immunity because law not sufficiently clear

September 16, 2013

As I learn more and more about the social work field as my (new) wife continues on her path to becoming a social worker, I realize that social workers often see life at its lowest points. Never was that more true than in this case that the Sixth Circuit recently published. The factual background of the case is akin to a horror novel. The plaintiff, a mother, sued Michigan Child Protective Services and the Michigan Department of Human Services arising from an incident where her son, Nicholas, was killed by the father of their child. The mother said that CPS received numerous complaints over the course of nine years that the father abused and neglected Nicholas and his siblings. The mother’s complaint paints a grim picture of Nicholas’ childhood, describing unprovoked physical abuse, lousy living conditions, and even sexual abuse. The mother’s complaint essentially contends that CPS did not do enough to get Nicholas out of his father’s house. In hindsight, the mother is obviously right in that respect; the father eventually drugged and then killed Nicholas, himself, and his wife through carbon monoxide asphyxiation. 

The key to understanding this case is understanding “qualified immunity.” In theory at least, qualified immunity is supposed to allow government workers to make decisions without the fear of being sued. The district court held that the social workers were not entitled to qualified immunity. 

The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed the Western District of Michigan, finding that all of the claims should be dismissed. First, the Sixth Circuit held that the law surrounding the mother’s first claim—the “substantive due process right to be free from government action increasing the risk of harm”—was not sufficiently clear that a reasonable government worker would have known they were violating it. Second, the Court held that a reasonable CPS official would not have known that a failure to file the appropriate petition with a family court, pursuant to MCL § 722.638, would constitute a denial of due process. Last, the Sixth Circuit held that the CPS workers were not grossly negligent because, under Michigan’s heightened proximate cause standard, the CPS employees were not the “most immediate, efficient, and direct cause” of the injury; it was obviously the father who was the proximate cause of the injury.

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