In order for liability for a due process violation to attach, a social worker need not have acted with the purpose to cause harm, but the standard of culpability for substantive due process purposes must exceed both negligence and deliberate indifference, and reach a level of gross negligence or arbitrariness that indeed shocks the conscience.
Appellants, Sandra Miller, her three children (Corey Miller, Thomas Miller and Dakota Bradley), and their attorney, David Deratzian, Esq., sued the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS"), DHS social worker Owen Scheer (collectively, the "City defendants"), the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia ("CHOP") and two CHOP security guards (collectively, the "CHOP defendants"), alleging violations of their procedural and substantive due process rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and asserting various claims under state law. The claims arise from an emergency ex parte child custody hearing after which the City defendants removed two of Miller's children from her custody. The District Court dismissed the procedural due process claim and granted summary judgment on the remaining claims. Appellants raise issues related to their procedural and substantive due process claims and assert that the District Court engaged in improper credibility determinations.
Was the action of the social worker enough to support a substantive due process claim?
The court held that a social worker acting to separate parent and child does not usually act in the hyper-pressurized environment of a prison riot or a high-speed chase. However, he or she rarely will have the luxury of proceeding in a deliberate fashion, as prison medical officials can. As a result, in order for liability to attach, a social worker need not have acted with the "purpose to cause harm," but the standard of culpability for substantive due process purposes must exceed both negligence and deliberate indifference, and reach a level of gross negligence or arbitrariness that indeed "shocks the conscience."
The court affirmed because the Appellants' procedural due process rights were not violated and because Appellants have not pointed to sufficient evidence of the predicate conscience-shocking behavior to support a substantive due process claim. Finally, there was no error in the District Court's construction of Scheer's behavior in this case.