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In an icy rebuke to Orange County social workers, a federal appeals court said they are not entitled to immunity for lying in a child custody case.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the social workers allegedly presented false evidence to wrest custody away from the mother of Preslie Hardwick, the plaintiff in the case. The court said that no law permits false testimony, and sharply upbraided the social workers for ignoring the obvious.
"No official with an IQ greater than room temperature in Alaska could claim that he or she did not know that the conduct at the center of this case violated both state and federal law," Judge Stephen S. Trott wrote for the unanimous panel.
Hardwick sued social workers Marcia Vreeken and Helen Dwojak and the county for civil rights violations in the course of a custody battle. She alleged they abused their power by maliciously using perjured testimony and fabricated evidence to take her away from her mother.
Among other allegations, Hardwick said the social workers falsely told the trial court that her mother was "using" her children in the custody proceeding. In reality, she said, the social workers threatened to put them "in a home" if they did not cooperate.
Based on the social workers' testimony, the trial judge ordered the children be removed from their mother's custody and placed them in a county shelter. When the court later authorized the children be released to their mother, the social workers instead placed them in foster care.
In reviewing a trial judge's decision against the social workers, the Ninth Circuit noted that Hardwick's mother had successfully sued the county in a separate case. In that case, a jury concluded that Vreeken and Dwojak maliciously lied, falsified evidence and suppressed exculpatory evidence to deprive her of custody.
The social workers argued that they had immunity for their conduct, but the appeals court disagreed. The judges said perjury is a crime in any legal proceeding.
"Try as we might, we cannot conceive of circumstances in which social workers would not know and understand that they could not use criminal behavior in any court setting to interfere with a person's fundamental constitutional liberty interest," they said.