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Daniel v. Georgia Department of Human Services

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

November 15, 2019

Anthony Daniel, et al., Plaintiffs,
Georgia Department of Human Services, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER


         This is a heartbreaking case. Laila Daniel died at the age of two after the State of Georgia placed her in the custody of Jennifer and Joseph Rosenbaum. Her parents, Anthony Daniel and Tessa Clendening, sued the Georgia Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and Samantha White and Tamara Warner, former DHS case workers responsible for Laila's placement with the Rosenbaums. Defendants White and Warner moved for summary judgment. (Dkts. 41; 43.) Defendant DHS also moved to dismiss or for summary judgment. (Dkt. 44.) The Court grants Defendants White's and Warner's Motions for Summary Judgment (Dkts. 41; 43). The Court grants in part and denies in part Defendant DHS's Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 44).

         I. Background

         DHS's Division of Family and Child Services (“DFCS”) took Laila Daniel and her sister, MP, into its temporary legal and physical custody in April 2015. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 12.) Laila was about twenty-one months old at the time. (Id.) MP was four. (Id.) DFCS placed the girls with Patricia and Dexter Lambert, experienced foster parents. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 15.)[1]

         Jennifer Rosenbaum was a third-year law student interning in the Juvenile Court in Henry County. (Id. ¶ 17.) She heard about the children's placement in foster care. (Id.) Rosenbaum had been a foster child and had lived in a foster home with the children's mother. (Id.) Jennifer and her husband, Joseph Rosenbaum, wanted to provide foster care for Laila and MP. (Id.)

         Defendant White, the children's case manager, heard about their interest. (Id. ¶ 4; Dkt. 42-1 at 71:11-21.) Because the Rosenbaums were not approved foster parents, White and her supervisor, Defendant Warner, worked to have them approved as “fictive kin.” (Dkt. 37 ¶ 18.) Fictive kin is a term DFCS uses to describe people who are so close to children that DFCS considers them relatives even though they are not actually related. (Dkt. 42-2 at 52:3-54:11.) DFCS treats placement with fictive kin as placement with relatives. (Dkt. 42-2 at 50:1-11.) It is not foster parent placement. (Id.) Fictive kin are supposed to have resided with or had significant contact with the children before becoming permanent caregivers. (Dkt. 44-2 at 8.) That was not the case here. The record provides little detail about the decision to classify the Rosenbaums as fictive kin other than to say that Warner believed they would serve as good caregivers for the children. She explained, “when you work with youth and understand services that are put in place, [Jennifer Rosenbaum] would have been what we called an ideal person that went through the system. She would have been what we considered rehabilitated. She was a pillar of the community.” (Dkt. 41-1 at 73:19- 23.)

         As a part of the approval process, DFCS hired a company to perform a background check on the Rosenbaums. (See Dkt. 41-3 at 36-57.) The company gave them positive reviews and approved Laila and MP going into their home. (Id.) White and Warner did not conduct a check under Jennifer Rosenbaum's maiden name, which would have revealed that she had been in foster care. (Dkt. 42-2 at 74:11-17.) They knew she had been in foster care, but that was all. (Id.) Warner explained that, because she viewed Jennifer Rosenbaum as someone who had pulled herself out of a difficult situation, she did not look further into her past. (Dkt. 42-2 at 75:14-20.)

         The Rosenbaums moved forward in their efforts to take custody of the girls. As part of this, Laila and MP (while still living with the Lamberts) visited the Rosenbaums for overnight stays. (Dkt. 42-1 at 84:8-14.) Ms. Lambert expressed concern to Warner that the Rosenbaums were not watching the children closely enough. (Id. at 84:15-85:9.) Ms. Lambert went to the DFCS office twice to voice her concerns. (Dkt. 42-2 at 18:4-20:8.) During one visit, she showed a different case manager a bruise on Laila's leg and let the case manager take photos of the injury. (Id.) She explained that Jennifer Rosenbaum had said Laila got the bruise during an altercation with another child. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 21.)[2] Warner saw the photos of the bruise and sent White to see the children at the Lamberts' house. (Dkt. 42-2 at 18:4-20:8.) White met with the children, took additional photographs, and reported back that the injury was “pretty much gone.” (Id.; Dkt. 50-5 at 1.) White told Warner she had no concerns and did not feel the children were in any danger. (Dkt. 42-2 at 18:4-20:8.)[3]

         White also met with Jennifer Rosenbaum. She told Rosenbaum that someone had reported concerns about whether she was watching the children closely enough. (Dkt. 42-1 at 87:11-13.) White thought Rosenbaum “didn't take it the wrong way” and Rosenbaum “took [her] advice.” (Id. at 87:14-18.) After investigating Ms. Lambert's complaint about the bruise, White found nothing of concern. (Dkt. 42-2 at 18:4- 20:8.) Warner and White did not file a Serious Injury Report or a Child Protective Services Report about the injury because they did not think it was serious.[4] (Dkt. 37 ¶ 28.) Ms. Lambert also never said that the Rosenbaums should not get the children. (Dkt. 42-1 at 19-22.)

         Both White and Warner approved of the Rosenbaums taking the children as fictive kin. (Dkt. 42-2 at 50:1-16.) Warner instructed White to get approval for this decision from their administrator. (Dkt. 42-2 at 49:19-50:17.) White never did so, and Warner failed to follow up. (Dkt. 42-2 at 50:1-16.) DFCS permanently assigned Laila and MP to the Rosenbaums in late July 2015. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 21.)

         As case manager, White visited the Rosenbaums each month. (Dkt. 43-4 ¶ 10.) She typically (but not always) undressed Laila to examine her for injuries or signs of abuse.[5] (Id.; Dkt. 42-1 at 60:20-61:19.) White did not undress MP because she was older and could speak with White about her treatment. (Dkt. 43-4 ¶ 10.) MP told White that the Rosenbaums never hurt her or her sister. (Dkt. 42-1 at 63:6-64:8.)

         During a visit in early September 2015, White found a bruise on Laila. (Dkt. 42-1 at 109:17-110:5.) Jennifer Rosenbaum said another child at daycare had hit Laila. (Id.) White contacted the school and confirmed that Laila had been at school. (Id. at 110:16-25.) After this visit, White wrote in a DFCS narrative that “the girls are doing well… [MP] does not have any marks or bruises on her body. Laila has a small bruise on her right wrist… There were no other marks or bruising on her body.” (Dkt. 41-2 ¶ 36.)

         The next month, Laila broke her leg. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 30.) Jennifer Rosenbaum took her to an urgent care facility. (Dkt. 42-1 at 46:18-47:5.) Medical records show Rosenbaum claimed Laila had fallen at her “Nana's house” and at a gymnastics class. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 31.) Jennifer Rosenbaum texted White while at the hospital, saying Laila had hurt her leg at gymnastics, that they were at the hospital with the doctor, and that Laila was not in much pain. (Dkt. 42-1 at 46:2-48:17.) White spoke with Laila's doctor, who said Laila would be okay. (Id. at 53:8-24.) The doctor did not mention any concerns of abuse. (Dkt. 43-4 ¶ 8.) White also arranged to get the doctor's notes. (Dkt. 42-1 at 48:6-12.) She had given the Rosenbaums permission to take the girls to gymnastics but she did not go to the gymnasium until after Laila's leg injury and she failed to check out Jennifer Rosenbaum's explanation for the injury. (Dkt. 42-1 at 46:8-17, 47:2-14, 99:16-25.)[6]

         White claims she told Warner about the injury, but Warner denies that. (Dkt. 41-2 ¶ 27.) Given that Laila broke her leg, White should have completed a Serious Injury Report. (Dkt. 73 at 19:16-20:13.) The parties dispute whether she did so. Warner stopped supervising White on November 1, 2015, and had no further involvement with Laila's case. (Dkt. 41-2 ¶ 30.)

         White visited the Rosenbaums on November 2, 2015. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 38.) She saw a bruise on MP's head. (Id.) Jennifer Rosenbaum explained that she had left MP in the bathroom alone while retrieving her phone from another room. (Dkt. 43-4 ¶ 6.) She said that, while she was gone, MP bumped her head against the faucet.[7] (Id.) Laila was asleep during the visit. (Dkt. 42-1 at 65:4-18.) Rosenbaum told White that Laila was teething and having trouble sleeping. (Id.) As a result, White did not wake the child to undress her. (Id.) Instead, she merely pulled back the bed covers and looked over the child's body for signs of abuse. (Id.) She found none. (Id.) White recorded her impressions of this incident:

There are no signs of maltreatment . . . . [MP] hit her head on the facet (sic) in the tub . . . . There is not any serious bruising. [White] asked [MP] if she was ok and she stated that she was and that it didn't hurt . . . . There are no other marks on the girl[']s bodies . . . . There are no safety interventions needed. The girls are closely watched and when medical attention is needed it is given quickly.

(Dkt. 41-2 ¶ 37.)

         Laila passed away on November 17, 2015. (Dkt. 37 ¶ 1.) An autopsy revealed she had an untreated broken arm and multiple bruises over her entire body. (Id. at ¶ 42.) A medical examiner testified at Jennifer Rosenbaum's criminal trial that Laila endured ongoing abuse, including twenty-two injuries to the head and neck, eleven injuries to the torso, and multiple injuries to her legs. (See Dkt. 74 ¶ 2.) DFCS Director Bobby Cagle fired White and Warner after an internal DHS investigation into their conduct. (Dkt. 73 at 23:22-24:15.)

         Plaintiffs filed claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Warner and White for violating Laila's substantive and procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to physical safety while in DFCS custody. They also sued Defendant DHS for the negligence of White and Warner in placing Laila with the Rosenbaums and for the negligence of Jennifer Rosenbaum in killing the girl. Defendants moved for summary judgment or otherwise to dismiss the claims.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it is “a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing a court, by reference to materials in the record, that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). A moving party does this by showing “an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The movant, however, need not negate the other party's claim. Id. at 323. It simply must show a lack of dispute as to a material fact. In determining whether a movant has done this, the court views the evidence and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Johnson v. Clifton, 74 F.3d 1087, 1090 (11th Cir. 1996).

         If the movant meets its burden, the nonmovant must show that summary judgment is improper by identifying specific evidence that raise a genuine dispute as to a material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Ultimately, there is no “genuine [dispute] for trial” when the record as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Id. But “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48. The court, however, resolves all reasonable doubts in the favor of the non-movant. Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993).

         III. Analysis

         A. Defendants White's and Warner's Motions ...

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