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V.S. v. Muhammad

February 17, 2010

V.S., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HER INFANT CHILD, T.S., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
NADIRA MUHAMMAD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CASEWORKER, NATALIE ARTHUR, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SUPERVISOR, BRENDA WILSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MANAGER, JOHN B. MATTINGLY, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER, CITY OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND DEBRA ESERNIO-JENSSEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PHYSICIAN; LONG ISLAND JEWISH MEDICAL CENTER, NORTH SHORE - LONG ISLAND JEWISH HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., DEFENDANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Interlocutory appeal by public employees from a ruling of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Dora L. Irizarry, Judge), denying dismissal of these defendants on grounds of immunity from claims against them involving wrongful child removal and malicious prosecution.

Reversed and remanded.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rakoff, District Judge

Argued: October 7, 2009

Before: MINER and CABRANES, Circuit Judges, and RAKOFF, District Judge.*fn1

This case is one of several recent cases concerned with what degree of protection is afforded municipal employees involved in the often thorny process of determining whether to remove an injured child from the custody of the child's parents and bring child abuse charges against the parents.*fn2 We state the pertinent facts most favorably to plaintiff. Skehan v. Vill. of Mamaroneck, 465 F.3d 96, 104-05 (2d Cir. 2006), overruled on other grounds by Appel v. Spiridon, 531 F.3d 138, 140 (2d Cir. 2008).

On August 19, 2004, plaintiff V.S. and her mother took V.S.'s infant son T.S. to the Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York, with a swollen leg, where he was diagnosed with a fractured femur.*fn3 On August 20, the hospital reported the injury to the New York State Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, and subsequently submitted a second report stating that T.S. also had a frontal skull fracture and old and new retinal hemorrhages. After reviewing the reports, defendant-appellant Natalie Arthur, a supervisor in the New York City Administration of Child Services ("ACS"), directed one of her caseworkers, defendant-appellant Nadira Muhammad, to conduct an investigation.

Muhammad interviewed V.S., her mother, and T.S.'s biological father, as well as defendant Debra Esernio-Jenssen, M.D. (the head of the hospital's Child Abuse Protection team), and several other doctors. Initially, neither V.S. nor her mother was able to provide an explanation for T.S.'s injuries, although V.S., who had been bedridden for six weeks after a complicated pregnancy, asserted that she was physically incapable of inflicting injury upon T.S. Subsequently, however, V.S.'s mother, who had been T.S.'s primary caretaker during this period, admitted that she (the grandmother) had slipped while holding the baby and that his leg had hit the kitchen counter; but she still could not account for the other injuries.

While the hospital staff thereafter concluded that T.S. had likely sustained the fracture during the fall described by the grandmother, on August 23, 2004, ACS received a report from Dr. Esernio-Jenssen that concluded that T.S.'s retinal hemorrhages were indicative of "shaken baby syndrome." Muhammad and Arthur then conferred by telephone with Esernio-Jenssen, following which, on August 24, 2004, ACS commenced child protective proceedings in Queens County Family Court against V.S. and her mother, alleging they had abused T.S. and seeking temporary removal of T.S. from the custody of V.S. and her mother pursuant to Article 10 of the New York Family Court Act. See N.Y. Fam. Ct. Act § 1012 et seq.

An initial hearing was held that same day in Family Court, at which V.S. and her mother appeared, represented by counsel. Muhammad testified for ACS that T.S. had suffered unexplained injuries and that the hospital believed that the child was suffering from shaken baby syndrome. Muhammad did not disclose, however, that V.S. had been bedridden for six weeks, or that the hospital had concluded that T.S. had likely suffered the femur fracture while in the care of his grandmother. In reliance on Muhammad's testimony, the Family Court judge granted a temporary order of removal, as a consequence of which T.S., after being released from the hospital on August 25, 2004, was placed in the custody of his biological father, who did not reside with V.S.

V.S. subsequently moved to vacate the order of removal, and the Family Court held a hearing on September 27 and 29, 2004, at which V.S. was once again present and represented by counsel. At the hearing, defendant Arthur testified that Dr. Eric Shakin, a pediatric retinal specialist who had examined T.S. when he was first brought to the hospital, had indicated that the retinal injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Arthur did not disclose, however, that Dr. Esernio-Jenssen had informed defendants (on September 14, 2004) that she now believed V.S. had not injured the infant. The Family Court denied the motion, and V.S. did not appeal.

ACS then proceeded with the child abuse charges filed against V.S. and her mother. At the trial of these charges, held on various days between January 24, 2005 and June 30, 2005, both Dr. Esernio-Jenssen and Dr. Shakin testified for ACS that T.S. suffered from shaken baby syndrome. For V.S., Dr. Ram Kairam, chairman of pediatrics at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, testified that although the infant had signs of retinal and vitreous hemorrhaging, they did not resemble the hemorrhages associated with shaken baby syndrome but were more consistent with childbirth injuries. This diagnosis was corroborated by medical records of injuries suffered at T.S.'s birth.

The Family Court reserved judgment, but on October 17, 2005, before any decision had been rendered, ACS moved, without explanation, to withdraw all allegations against V.S. (but not against her mother). The Family Court granted the motion and released T.S. to V.S.'s care. On November 3, 2005, the petition against V.S.'s mother was reduced to charges based solely on T.S.'s fractured femur, and on November 29, 2006, the Family Court entered a finding of neglect against V.S.'s mother.

Shortly thereafter, on January 16, 2007, V.S. commenced the instant action against caseworker Muhammad, Muhammad's supervisor Arthur, Arthur's manager Brenda Wilson, Wilson's superior John B. Mattingly, and derivatively, the City of New York (collectively, the "City Defendants"), as well as Dr. Esernio-Jenssen and her employer, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, North Shore - Long Island Jewish Health System, Inc. The action alleged violations of V.S.'s and T.S.'s rights under the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure and malicious prosecution) and the Fourteenth Amendment (due process). The action also alleged claims under New York state law for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. In support of these claims, V.S. alleged, in essence, that Dr. Esernio-Jenssen had a long history of giving unreliable and ...


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