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Christina C. v. County of Orange

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

October 1, 2013

Christina C. et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
COUNTY OF ORANGE et al., Defendants and Respondents.

Pub. and mod.order 10/29/13 (see end of opn.).

Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, No. 30-2011-00437624 John C. Gastelum, Judge.

Gary Paul Levinson for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Koeller, Nebeker, Carlson & Haluck, William L. Haluck, Matthew B. Golper and Zachary M. Schwartz, for Defendants and Respondents.

OPINION

ARONSON, J.

C.C. and his mother, Christina C. (mother), appeal from the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the County of Orange, its Social Services Agency (SSA), and several of SSA’s social workers.[1] Plaintiffs complain the trial court erred in concluding public employee immunity (Gov. Code, § 820.2) barred their claims arising from SSA’s decision to remove 10-year-old C.C. from mother’s care and place him with father, only to return C.C. to his mother when he fared poorly in father’s care. As we explain, plaintiffs’ claims for reversal have no merit, and we therefore affirm the judgment.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Mother and father married in 1998, the year C.C. was born, but rarely resided together and divorced in 2000 when C.C. was almost two years old. According to mother, she received primary physical custody of C.C. After a four-year period of contentious battles with father, marked by multiple interventions by SSA social workers amidst mother’s declining mental health, the family court ordered an Evidence Code section 730 study in which the evaluator concluded mother suffered from cognitive impairments and poor boundaries that affected her ability to safely parent C.C. The family court agreed and vested father with exclusive legal and physical custody in June 2004.

Four years later in October 2008, when C.C. was almost 10 years old, father was arrested on charges of attempted rape by furnishing his live-in maid with ice cream containing benzodiazepine, a powerful sleeping medication. The charges included illegal firearm possession by a felon. According to mother, she and C.C. had both tested positive for benzodiazepine at the time of his birth though she was not taking any sleeping medication. She also pegged her mental and emotional decline to one or more encounters with father in 2001 and earlier in which she now believed he had drugged and raped her. She had unsuccessfully sought a restraining order against him in 2001. The prosecutor in the current criminal action involving the maid added charges against father for rape using drugs and rape of an unconscious person based on mother’s allegations dating to a March 2001 incident.

Meanwhile, SSA had detained C.C. at Orangewood Children’s Home when father was arrested. The police interviewed mother at or near the time of father’s arrest, but did not release C.C. to her care because she was not entitled to custody under the family court’s order and, moreover, the officer and a police-affiliated victim advocate observed “current indicators that the mother might not be considered fit to parent at this time.” For example, mother “appeared delusional, with delusions of persecution and religious affiliation, ” she “reported to have seen ghosts, ” and the officer “also questioned the mother’s ability to make appropriate choices” given she stayed with father more than three years despite claiming she was “repeatedly raped.”

SSA also interviewed mother. She explained to a social worker she was conscious during and tolerated father’s sex acts against her because “‘no one believed me, ’” “‘he convinced me, ’” and because she previously had been abused and neglected, including by her father. Mother diagnosed herself “as suffering from PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder], with an ‘ongoing affect’....” The ghosts she had seen on her property had “been recorded and verified as authentic.” She now supported herself “through playing cards, ” stated she kept a “very stable and clean home, ” and according to the social worker’s report, “mother repeatedly argue[d] these points over and over again, insisting she is a capable parent and that her son should immediately be placed with her.” When the worker “suggested that a more recent psychological evaluation might be necessary to assess this very issue, the mother appeared very resistant to the process.” SSA did not immediately place C.C. with mother.

Instead, the dependency court at C.C.’s detention hearing in October 2008 ordered monitored visitation for mother and father at SSA’s offices. The court vested SSA with discretion to “lift/reinstate monitor... for mother and father” and to liberalize parental visitation. Mother subsequently provided SSA with a mental health evaluation prepared by a nurse practitioner associated with a psychiatrist. The nurse practitioner disagreed with a previous bipolar disorder diagnosis for mother, explaining she “did not note any delusional thinking, paranoia, psychotic processes, tangential thinking, or memory impairment, ” nor any need for medication. The nurse concluded mother “does not appear to have any symptomology that would interfere with her role as a mother or for the care of her son.” Mother’s court-appointed therapist and her personal counselor similarly agreed the court should return C.C. to her care on grounds that mother had never abused him.

Visits SSA arranged for C.C. with his maternal grandfather in Laguna Beach had gone well, but the grandfather could not care for C.C. alone because of his age and ill health. Mother, however, agreed to move in with her father, and SSA concluded that a “combined household like this, ” which included the grandfather’s live-in housekeeper, would “be safe[] for the child and would provide more supervision in the home.” SSA recommended the home placement under a Conditional Release to Intensive Services Program (CRISP) agreement that mother signed, which included 15 specific conditions mother assented to in the release. The conditions included the following: “I will continue to attend therapy twice a week, ” “I will facilitate visits between the child and his father and will not speak negatively of the father in the child’s presence, ” “I understand [the] frequency of visits will be determined by the CRISP worker, ” and “I shall obey any reasonable directions of my CRISP [w]orker regarding the care of the child in my custody.”

The dependency court endorsed the CRISP agreement at a January 2009 hearing, and further ordered the “child may be redetained if it appears [the] terms and conditions of the CRISP release agreement are violated or [the] child is at risk” (italics added) and that “[a]ll prior orders... remain[ed] in full force and effect.” SSA placed C.C. with mother in grandfather’s home on January 8, 2009. According to SSA, mother had difficulty from the outset abiding by the terms of the agreement, including the requirement to attend counseling therapy twice a week and to refrain from speaking negatively of father in front of the child, who complained to his therapist that mother pressured him to join in her criticism.

Meanwhile, according to SSA, father’s visits were so positive that the agency considered dispensing with a monitor. The court at a hearing on February 10, 2009, considered the matter and confirmed SSA retained authority to lift the monitor. Mother opposed allowing father unmonitored visitation, but had not attended the hearing. According to SSA social worker Jennifer Marks, when she telephoned mother to advise her what occurred and that SSA planned to allow unmonitored visitation with father, mother refused to cooperate. Marks explained her refusal put her in violation of the CRISP agreement and C.C. would be redetained, but mother remained steadfast. According to mother, she did not expressly refuse to transport C.C. to any future visits with father, and instead simply voiced her concern about unmonitored visitation and asked Marks to contact mother’s lawyer.

C.C. happened to be on a monitored visit with father and, after hanging up with mother, Marks arranged for C.C. to be redetained and placed in father’s care without a monitor. She then telephoned mother to notify her she need not pick up C.C. from the monitored visit at father’s home that day. After several continuances into May 2009, the dependency court ratified SSA’s decision to redetain C.C. and place him with father.

C.C. remained in father’s care for approximately 13 months until, in March 2010, SSA redetained him and filed a supplemental dependency petition on grounds of general neglect, educational neglect, and concerns father exposed C.C. to pornographic magazines, videos, and violent computer games. Father had not complied with his case plan requirement to ensure C.C.’s attendance at school; C.C. also often fell asleep in class, did not turn in his homework, and mother and C.C.’s previous therapist reported he appeared preoccupied with sexual and violent themes that manifested itself in verbal abuse against mother and play therapy that included making dolls attack and rape each other. SSA immediately placed C.C. in mother’s care.

Father pleaded guilty in November 2010 to one count of poisoning his maid with benzodiazepine and a felon-in-possession firearm charge, and the juvenile court closed the dependency proceedings with exit orders awarding mother sole physical and legal custody of C.C., with monitored visitation for father.

Mother filed this civil action in January 2011 on her behalf and on behalf of C.C. as her minor child, alleging SSA and its social workers violated their civil rights. Specifically, the complaint alleged three “Counts” against the defendants: (1) “Monell Related Claims”; (2) “Violation of State Civil Rights” under Civil Code sections 43, 49 51, and 52.1; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress.[2]

Defendants moved in June 2012 for summary judgment or, in the alternative, summary adjudication. The trial court granted summary judgment. The court explained that, based on the dependency court’s orders vesting discretion with SSA over C.C.’s placement and visitation, with express authorization to redetain him under the CRISP release, “[t]he acts or omissions complained of appear to be within defendants’ granted authority.” The court held that under the immunity afforded social workers per Government Code ...


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