By Jonathan Stempel and Terry Baynes
Jan 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused
to hear an appeal by New York City to stop a father who had been
adjudged abusive from suing a child welfare worker who had
removed six children from his custody.
Without comment, the court left undisturbed a June 2011
decision by a federal appeals court in New York allowing Sonny
Southerland to sue the city over the actions of Timothy Woo, a
caseworker for its Administration for Children's Services.
The case dated from 1997, when Woo investigated a report
that Southerland's 16-year-old daughter, Ciara, had swallowed
paint at school and might be suicidal.
Woo obtained a court order to search Southerland's Brooklyn
apartment, though his application had mistakes suggesting
confusion over which of Southerland's seven children lived
Upon entering the apartment, Woo found the other six
children living in squalor. Later he and his supervisor decided
to put them into the city's custody.
A family court found that Southerland had abused his
children, but Southerland sued Woo and the city for money
damages, saying they had violated his and his children's rights
to due process and against illegal seizures.
Woo said he deserved immunity as a government worker, but a
panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals let much of the
case go forward. It said evidence suggested that Woo should have
realized Ciara was not living with her father and may have been
at least reckless in his application to enter the apartment.
The full 2nd Circuit declined the city's request to rehear
the case, but five judges dissented, saying that discouraging
activity such as Woo's would threaten the public safety.
In its Supreme Court appeal, the city had said caseworkers
need discretion to make tough choices in suspected child abuse
cases, including weighing the risk of injury to children against
possibly infringing the rights of them and their parents.
Carolyn Kubitschek, a lawyer for Southerland, in a phone
interview said Southerland's children apart from Ciara are
living with and "happy to be back with their father" in Brooklyn
and that he is doing freelance work.
"He has always wanted the chance to go forward and try his
case, and that's what's next," Kubitschek said.
A lawyer for the city said he was disappointed with the
Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal.
"We think it is inappropriate for an appeals court to
second-guess ACS caseworkers, who must make critical decisions
that affect the safety and health of children," Julian
Kalkstein, senior counsel at the New York City Law Department,
said in a statement.
The case is City of New York et al v. Southerland et al,
U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-215.
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