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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a California foster child who was sexually-assaulted by his foster brother could proceed with his civil rights lawsuit against Tulare County Child Welfare Services.
The foster child, AE, alleged that Tulare County and its employee social workers failed to intervene prior to the assault, despite their knowledge of escalating threats against him.
AE was taken away from his mother and placed in foster care in September 2008. Between September and December 2008, Tulare County social services employees received multiple notices that the foster brother was threatening or hurting AE, and requests to place AE in another home.
In mid-December 2008, one of the social workers informed AE's mother that AE had been sexually assaulted by the foster brother.
In his first amended complaint, asserting a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for deliberate indifference and claims for negligence under California tort law, AE claimed that the defendants should have known that the foster brother was dangerous and that he posed a threat to minors. (The foster brother was on probation, a dependant of the court, and on a County social worker's caseload.)
Citing Monell v. Department of Social Services, AE claimed that Tulare County "maintained or permitted an official policy, custom, or practice of knowingly permitting the occurrence of the type of wrongs" that happened to AE, but the complaint did not include details regarding the alleged "policy, custom, or practice."
Tulare County filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the case. The district court granted the County's motion to dismiss with prejudice, but allowed AE to amend his complaint as to the social workers he sued personally. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court.
A §1983 civil rights lawsuit against a local government cannot be based solely on respondeat superior liability, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals won't kill the claim in the pleading stage, even if the claim "is based on nothing more than a bare allegation" that individual government employees failed to conform to official policy.
Ninth Circuit precedent, which goes back to the 1986 decision Shah v. County of Los Angeles, permits a plaintiff to set forth bare allegations against local governments that the plaintiff can subsequently amend with additional facts.