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Stanley v. Finnegan

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 10, 2018

Hal W. Stanley and Michelle Stanley, Individually and as Parents and Legal Guardians Plaintiffs - Appellees
Katherine Finnegan Defendant-Appellant Garland County, et al. Defendants

          Submitted: April 10, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Hot Springs

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and LOKEN, Circuit Judges.

          LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

         On January 12, 2015, child abuse investigators removed seven minor children from the private home of their parents, Hal and Michelle Stanley, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After extensive state administrative and judicial child abuse proceedings, the Stanleys filed this § 1983 action, individually and on behalf of six of their children, against the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS); Garland County; and numerous employees of the State and Garland County in their individual and official capacities. The forty-seven page Complaint asserted a variety of claims against numerous defendants, including multiple claims against Katherine Finnegan, a civilian investigator for the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police, in her individual and official capacities. Three individual defendants, including Finnegan, moved to dismiss plaintiffs' individual capacity claims based on qualified immunity. The district court[1] granted these defendants qualified immunity on all claims except one, the claim that Finnegan removed the Stanleys' minor children from their home without an adequate basis. Finnegan appeals. An interlocutory order denying a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 673 (2009). Reviewing the denial of qualified immunity de novo, we affirm. Bradford v. Huckabee, 394 F.3d 1012, 1015 (8th Cir. 2005) (standard of review).

         I. Background.

         Our review of the denial of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity is limited to the facts alleged in the Stanleys' lengthy Complaint, which we accept as true and view most favorably to the plaintiffs. Hager v. Ark. Dep't of Health, 735 F.3d 1009, 1013 (8th Cir. 2013).

         The Complaint alleges that Hal and Michelle are parents who chose to raise and home-educate their children according to Christian beliefs and with limited access outside of the home. In 2014, son Jonathan, then sixteen, developed a desire to attend public school and "not contribute and be a part of his family such as it was." His parents disapproved. Jonathan rebelled, convincing an adult friend to report to the DHS Division of Children and Family Services that the Stanley children were not adequately clothed and one was being abused. In December 2014, a DHS investigator visited the Stanley home and "unsubstantiated" the report.

         Undeterred, Jonathan then accused his parents of "poisoning, burning, striking, and bruising the children," neglecting the children's education, and providing inadequate food and healthcare. He alleged to adult friends that Hal caused the children to become ill by forcing them to drink a solution called "Miracle Mineral Solution" (MMS), a product Hal used in his greenhouse, and threatened to pipe MMS through the house vents. Jonathan provided what he said was a sample of MMS to an adult friend who turned it over to the Garland County Sheriff's Department. Sergeant Mike Wright interviewed Christopher Stanley, an adult child, on January 9, 2015, who said his only knowledge that Hal had pumped MMS vapors through the home's school room came from Jonathan. Sergeant Wright consulted Dr. Teresa Esquivel of the Arkansas Children's Hospital who conducted an internet search and reported that MMS was dangerous. Based on this information, Sergeant Wright obtained a warrant to search the Stanley home for MMS and other dangerous chemical substances. Wright's warrant affidavit stated that "the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division . . . intends to remove the children from the home to have them examined by a medical doctor."

         At approximately 4:30 p.m. on January 12, some thirty government agents including Finnegan conducted a five-hour warrant search of the Stanley home. Seven minor children including Jonathan were present. Their parents were ordered to remain on the front porch during the search and were not allowed to speak with the children. Each child was interviewed by Finnegan. Jonathan repeated his accusations of abuse and neglect and made numerous additional accusations. Fourteen-year-old V.S. stated that Jonathan and his adult friends "convinced her how bad things were."

          During the investigation, each child was examined in an ambulance by a doctor who found each child healthy and showing no symptom of exposure to a toxic substance. At the conclusion of the investigation, the DHS Division of Children and Family Services representatives concluded the children were happy, healthy, and in no danger and declined to take them into DHS custody. However, the Sheriff's Department and its Crimes Against Children Division investigator, Finnegan, credited Jonathan's accusations. Sergeant Wright removed the children "at the insistence of Inv. Finnegan," leaving DHS no choice but to accept custody. The children were sent to two different cities, two hours away from home, and enrolled in public school. Contested proceedings ensued and continued for twenty-one months. Finnegan made findings of abuse and neglect that were overturned on appeal.

         The Complaint's First Claim for Relief includes a § 1983 claim seeking to hold Finnegan liable for compensatory and punitive damages for "removing, detaining, and continuing to detain [six minor children] from the care, custody, and control of their parents . . . without proper or just cause and/or authority" in violation of plaintiffs' First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment Rights. In briefing the broader motion to dismiss to the district court, the parties did not separately address whether Finnegan is entitled to qualified immunity on this claim. The district court denied Finnegan's motion to dismiss the claim on the basis of qualified immunity:

[I]t was clearly established at the time of the seizure that at least a reasonable suspicion of child abuse was required before removing children from the home. . . . Because the allegations indicate that Finnegan ordered the Stanley children removed despite evidence and DHS recommendations to the contrary, Finnegan has not established that she had a reasonable suspicion of child abuse.[2]

         II. ...

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