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SIMMONS v. CHEMUNG CTY. DEPT.

April 1, 1991

FLOYD SIMMONS, YVONNE SIMMONS, PAMELA SIMMONS, CHERYL SIMMONS, JUDY EVANS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE CHEMUNG COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, LISA COCCO-ROBBINS, LINDA LINCOLN, KAREN CARLYLE, DONNA GUINANE, ALL INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EMPLOYEES OF THE CHEMUNG COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, WILLIAM MEADE, KATHY BUTLER-DINOVA, BOTH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EMPLOYEES OF THE N.Y.S. DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES, AND CRAIG BANFIELD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN OFFICER OF THE VILLAGE OF HORSEHEADS POLICE DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Telesca, Chief Judge.

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Judy Evans and Floyd, Yvonne, Pamela, and Cheryl Simmons commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Chemung County Department of Social Services and five of its employees violated their constitutional rights to due process during the course of their investigation into allegations of possible sexual abuse at the Victory Life Day Care Center ("Victory Life"). The defendants now move for an order of summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs' complaint on the grounds of qualified immunity, failure to state a cause of action, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and collateral estoppel. For the reasons discussed below, the defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted.

BACKGROUND

During the period from September of 1984 until August of 1987, plaintiffs Reverend Floyd and Yvonne Simmons owned and operated Victory Life, a not for profit day care center located in the Victory Life Church in Horseheads, New York. Prior to August of 1987, Victory Life was licensed as a day care center by the New York State Department of Social Services (New York State DSS) and had as its employees, plaintiffs Pamela Simmons, Cheryl Simmons and Judy Evans.

Sometime in May of 1987, plaintiff were notified by the State Department of Social Services that their license would expire on August 31, 1987. Defendant William Meade, who was then responsible for licensing day care centers in Chemung County, thereafter began conducting a review of Victory Life for the purpose of establishing their right to a renewal permit. Pursuant to that investigation, Meade received a Memorandum report from Chemung County Department of Social Services ("Chemung DSS") on June 8, 1987 which expressed concern over recent allegations of child abuse and neglect at Victory Life. Defendants' Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute, at ¶ 10.

Shortly thereafter, on August 4, 1987, the Chemung DSS received a hotline report from defendant R. Craig Banfield of the Horseheads Police Department concerning allegations of possible sexual abuse of children currently attending Victory Life. (I intentionally avoid indicating the identity of the parents and the children involved although they are well known to the parties.)

On August 5, 1987, members of the Chemung DSS Child Protective Services Investigative Unit ("Chemung DSS CPSU"), the Horseheads Police Department and members of the New York State DSS commenced an investigation into the merits of these allegations. At an initial meeting of Chemung County DSS personnel assigned to the case, defendant Linda Lincoln informed defendants Nancy Smith and Lisa Cocco-Robbins that she had investigated a previously reported incident of child abuse at Victory Life in 1986. Although that investigation proved to be unfounded, Lincoln advised the defendants that she still had reservations regarding the appropriateness of child care at Victory Life. Complaint, at ¶¶ 40-41.

The defendants thereafter conducted a series of interviews of parents and young children who were either attending or had previously attended Victory Life. Defendant Nancy Smith, then acting Director of the Chemung County DSS, assigned primary responsibility for this phase of the investigation to defendant Cocco-Robbins, then a Senior Caseworker for the Chemung County DSS CPSU. Her immediate supervisor was defendant Donna Guinane. Aiding Cocco-Robbins in the interviewing process were defendants Lincoln, Karen Carlyle, a Senior caseworker, and Horseheads police officer Banfield.

In their complaint, plaintiffs allege that these defendants unreasonably conducted their investigation by using inappropriate means to obtain evidence and by intentionally distorting or falsifying the evidence obtained to ensure that plaintiffs' operating license would be revoked. In support of these claims, plaintiffs set forth a battery of allegations, most of which state, in substance, that the defendants permitted parents rather than caseworkers to interview their children,*fn1 subsequently failed to verify the information obtained from these parents,*fn2 and, in many instances, manipulated the evidence where it was inconclusive so that it would conform to their predetermined views regarding plaintiffs' culpability.*fn3

As a result of the allegedly inaccurate information obtained from these interviews,*fn4 Floyd Simmons was served with a closure letter from the State Department of Social Services on August 10, 1987. That letter, which was drafted by defendant Meade, informed him that the State Department had determined that the children in the Victory Life day care center "may be in imminent danger," and that pursuant to § 390, subd. 11 of the Social Services Law,*fn5 the center's permit was temporarily suspended until further notice as of August 11, 1987. Subsequent interviews with other children at Victory Life were conducted which allegedly provided little corroborative evidence of sexually abusive behavior by the defendants. Complaint at ¶¶ 75-81.

On August 14, 1987, the plaintiffs requested a hearing to review the State Department's decision, and, by letter dated September 17, 1987, were advised that such a hearing would be held on September 24, 1987. That letter also advised plaintiffs that the suspension was based upon information indicating that Cheryl and Yvonne Simmons had sexually abused children who attended Victory Life.

At the administrative hearing, both parties appeared with counsel and were allowed to present evidence on their behalf. At the hearing's conclusion, the ALJ found that the State Department of Social Services correctly suspended the plaintiffs' license "on the basis of substantial evidence of sexual abuse committed by the staff at the center." He further found that there was "ample evidence that many young people entrusted to the appellant [Simmons] had been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse while at the appellants' center." In the Matter of the Appeal of Reverend Floyd Simmons and Yvonne Simmons (see Affidavit of Yvonne Simmons dated Dec. 12, 1990, Exhibit C). The ALJ's decision and determination were not appealed.

The investigation by the CPSU and Banfield continued until March 10, 1988. As a result of the investigation, "indicated" reports of child abuse concerning eighteen children were filed implicating each of the plaintiffs. An indicated report is one made after an investigation which has found "some credible evidence of the alleges abuse or maltreatment." 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 432.1(g). At the plaintiffs request, an expungement hearing was held on May 27, 1988 with respect to these reports. See N YSoc.Serv.Law § 422. The review panel, of which defendant Kathy Butler-DiNova was a part, denied plaintiffs' request and additionally decided that "indicated" reports should be filed for several other children at Victory Life. The plaintiffs later sought and received a hearing to determine whether the reports were supported by credible evidence. In a decision dated February 28, 1991, an ALJ determined that there was "no credible evidence that any of the 24 children were abused or maltreated by any of the . . . plaintiffs" and that each of the indicated reports should accordingly be expunged. In the Matter of the Appeal of Reverend Floyd Simmons, et al., at 6.

Plaintiffs now allege five causes of action in their complaint. In Count I, plaintiffs allege that defendant Meade violated their due process rights under New York state law (1) by failing to provide adequate and timely notice of the charges against them, (2) by failing to conduct his own investigation into the allegations of child abuse, (3) by unjustifiably concluding that the children at Victory Life might be in "imminent danger," and (4) by testifying falsely at the September 24, 1987 license revocation hearing.

In Count II, plaintiffs allege that defendant Kathy Butler-Dinova failed to carry out her responsibilities in conducting the expungement review ...


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