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Webb v. Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 28, 2019

Katelyn Webb, as guardian and next friend of K.S. and D.S. and on behalf of Herself and all Others Similarly Situated; Jerimey Lay, as guardian and next friend f R.L. and C.L.; Tabitha Lay, as guardian and next friend of R.L. and C.L. Plaintiffs - Appellants
Chelsea Smith, Individually and in her Official Capacity; Stacy Houck, Individually and in her Official Capacity; Mischa Martin, Individually and in her Official Capacity; Cindy Gillespie, Individually and in her Official Capacity Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: June 11, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before GRUENDER, ARNOLD, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          ARNOLD, Circuit Judge.

         Few liberty interests are more important than the one parents have in the care, custody, and management of their children, or the one that parents and children have in the care and companionship of each other. See Whisman ex. rel. Whisman v. Rinehart, 119 F.3d 1303, 1309 (8th Cir. 1997). And few governmental interests are more compelling than protecting minor children from abuse or deadly harm. See id. Unfortunately these interests sometimes clash, as happened here, when the Arkansas Department of Human Services took two minor children of Katelyn Webb and three minor children of Jerimey and Tabitha Lay into protective custody.

         Under Arkansas law, DHS social workers may take a child into emergency protective custody, without a court order, if continued custody of the parent or guardian "presents an immediate danger to the health or physical well-being of the child." Ark. Code Ann. § 12-18-1001(a). That custody may not exceed seventy-two hours, but if the seventy-two hour limit expires on a weekend or holiday, then custody may be extended until the next business day. Id. at § 12-18-1001(b). When a social worker takes a child into emergency protective custody, she must notify DHS "and make every effort possible to notify" the parent or guardian of, as relevant, the child's location, the location and phone number of the court, and the procedure for obtaining a hearing. See id. § 9-27-313(c)(1). If DHS wishes to extend its custody beyond seventy-two hours, it must demonstrate "probable cause to believe that immediate emergency custody is necessary to protect the health or physical well-being of the juvenile from immediate danger." See id. § 9-27-314(a)(1). If DHS does so, "the circuit court shall issue an ex parte order for emergency custody to remove the juvenile from the custody of the parent," id., and that order must include notice to the parents or guardians of their right to a hearing within five business days after the ex parte order is issued. See id. § 9-27-314(b)(1). The circuit court must then hold a probable-cause hearing within five business days after issuing the ex parte order. See id. § 9-27-315(a)(1)(A). The hearing is limited to "determining whether probable cause existed to protect the juvenile" and whether it still exists. See id. § 9-27-315(a)(1)(B)(i). So it can take ten to fourteen days (depending on when weekends and holidays fall) after a child has been removed before state law gives a parent the right to be heard at a hearing.

         In Webb's case, a state juvenile court jailed her for five days for contempt of court in a matter not relevant here and ordered Chelsea Smith, a DHS social worker, to take Webb's minor children into custody. Webb alleges that, two days after completing her five days in jail (and thus contrary to the seventy-two hour rule in § 12-18-1001(b)), DHS petitioned the juvenile court for an ex parte order allowing it to maintain temporary protective custody over Webb's children. The juvenile court granted the petition and set a probable-cause hearing for seven days (five business days) later. The day before the scheduled hearing, the juvenile court postponed the hearing for an unknown reason. Because the juvenile court did not hold the hearing within five business days of issuing the ex parte order, it appears state law was again violated. See id. at § 9-27-315(a)(1)(A). The juvenile court rescheduled the hearing for eight days after the initial probable-cause hearing was scheduled. That hearing occurred as scheduled, but when the juvenile court was about to appoint counsel for Webb, she informed the court she preferred different counsel. The juvenile court continued the hearing and reset it for six days later so Webb could secure counsel. At that hearing, the juvenile court held that probable cause had existed at the time the children were removed but that there was no need for DHS to continue its custody. The juvenile court restored custody of the children to Webb, but it also ordered that a protective-services case be opened. In total, DHS had protective custody of the Webb children for about twenty-eight days.

         As for the Lays, DHS social worker Stacy Houck took the Lay children into emergency protective custody after, as the district court said, "a serious charge of abuse was asserted against Jerimey." Two days later DHS petitioned for an ex parte order extending its custody, and two days after that a juvenile court entered an ex parte order doing so. The court held a probable-cause hearing three days later, but the hearing did not conclude that day. The juvenile court therefore ordered that the children be returned to the Lays unless the attorney ad litem objected within two days. The attorney ad litem objected, so the hearing resumed four days after it had originally begun. At the resumption of the hearing, the juvenile court ordered that the children be returned to Tabitha Lay under certain conditions, including that Jerimey Lay could not contact the children or live in the family home. In all, the Lay children spent about eleven days in emergency protective custody.

         Webb and the Lays filed this lawsuit on behalf of themselves and their children against the social workers involved in their cases and two of their DHS supervisors, all in their individual and official capacities. Asserting violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the plaintiffs raised, as the district court interpreted their complaint, "four categories of federal claims." They complained, first, that the social workers unconstitutionally seized their children because they lacked a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect and filed petitions to remove the children that contained knowingly false allegations; second, that the social workers deprived them of an opportunity to be heard in a timely manner after the seizures; third, that the DHS supervisors failed to train and supervise the social workers and established policies that led to the constitutional violations; and fourth, on behalf of themselves and a proposed class of similarly situated people, that the Arkansas statutes governing post-deprivation proceedings for the parents of children taken into emergency protective custody are facially unconstitutional.

         The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that, as relevant here, the plaintiffs lacked standing and failed to state a claim. The district court rejected the defendants' argument that, since the alleged injuries were not fairly traceable to the defendants, the plaintiffs lacked standing. The court pointed out, however, that a decision striking down the statutes governing post-deprivation proceedings might not redress the harms the plaintiffs sustained because those harms had already occurred and would not necessarily occur again. In other words, according to the district court, that claim was moot because the plaintiffs had not demonstrated any continuing, present adverse effects entitling them to declaratory or injunctive relief. The district court also held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred the plaintiffs' claims against the individual social workers for unconstitutionally seizing their children by filing petitions containing false allegations. Finally, the district court dismissed the due-process claim against Houck because she had promptly initiated judicial proceedings after seizing the Lay children; the court declined to dismiss the related claim against Smith and her DHS supervisors because Smith did not promptly initiate proceedings to remove the Webb children.

         Both parties asked the court to reconsider its decision, and the plaintiffs moved for leave to file an amended complaint to cure some of the deficiencies the court had identified relating to mootness. After considering some of the transcripts of the state court proceedings, the district court dismissed the action in full. (The plaintiffs do not take issue with the court's decision to consider those transcripts.) The district court also denied plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint, on the ground that amendment would be futile; but it nonetheless considered the new information alleged in the proposed amended complaint to hold that the plaintiffs indeed had standing and that their claims were not moot. The court considered new allegations that the adult plaintiffs were Arkansas residents of childbearing age, that many of the child plaintiffs were still minors, and that the families' prior dealings with DHS increased the odds "that another situation with DHS will occur." The district court reasoned that these new facts had "established a reasonable likelihood that they may be subject to having their children taken into protective custody by DHS in the future," so their claims were not moot.

         Despite that finding, the district court declined to rule whether the Arkansas statutes at issue are facially unconstitutional, explaining that "[t]here is no binding authority on point and this Court will not, under the guise of interpreting the constitution, create a rule that would render the Arkansas statutes facially invalid" given the difficulty of raising a successful facial challenge. The court stood by its other rulings, except that the transcripts and other record materials from the state court proceedings showed that Smith had initiated judicial proceedings promptly, so the claims against her and her DHS supervisors were dismissed. The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court erred in dismissing their claims.

         The defendants noted in their brief on appeal that, though they "do not concede that [the plaintiffs] have standing, they do not address this issue in this appeal." We nonetheless begin with a consideration of whether the plaintiffs have presented an Article III case or controversy because we have an independent obligation to assure ourselves of subject-matter jurisdiction, even when no party raises the issue. See Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Fleming, 904 F.3d 603, 609 (8th Cir. 2018). Plaintiffs must demonstrate they have standing for each claim they bring and for each form of relief they seek. Town of Chester v. Laroe Estates, Inc., 137 S.Ct. 1645, 1650 (2017).

         We have no difficulty concluding that the plaintiffs have standing to seek damages, to the extent they do so, against the individual defendants. Though the defendants below challenged whether the plaintiffs' injuries were "fairly traceable" to the defendants' conduct, a requirement for standing, see id., we agree with the district court that, since "the seizure of the children did lead to the court proceedings," and the complaint alleges those seizures were unlawful, the plaintiffs have done enough at this stage to demonstrate standing. As explained later in this opinion, we do not think ultimate responsibility for the plaintiffs' alleged due-process injuries rests with the defendants. But the fairly-traceable inquiry is much more forgiving than the merits-based, tort-causation inquiry. If the two inquiries were coterminous, they would collapse into one another, and a court could never reject a plaintiff's claim on the merits for lack of ...

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