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Will Violations of Internal Policies Dissolve State Agencies’ Qualified Immunity Defense?

In the recent case of Bill J. Crouch v. Eric Gillispie, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Crouch, who serves as the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).

Gillispie is the administrator of his daughter’s estate. He filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the DHHR, claiming the agency’s investigation of his allegations about the care his daughter received was not thorough enough. In response, DHHR contended that the circuit court should have initially granted the agency’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, as the conduct in question only involved discretionary functions and there was no evidence of any violations of constitutional or statutory laws.

The state Supreme Court agreed with the DHHR and instructed the Circuit Court of Kanawha County to enter summary judgment in DHHR’s favor.

Case background

In April 2010, Child Protective Services received an anonymous tip alleging that Ms. Leslie Boggs, the mother of Raynna Boggs and someone who was involved in a legal dispute with Gillispie, could not properly care for the child due to her struggles with substance abuse. Gillispie was later revealed to be the anonymous reporter, and he also alleged that Ms. Boggs’ boyfriend, was a convicted felon with a history of domestic violence.

Child Protective Services accepted the referral of Gillispie’s report that same day and assigned Erica Garcia to be the case worker. Garcia was instructed to make face-to-face contact with Ms. Boggs within 72 hours of the report and to report back to her supervisor within 24 hours of that visit. Pamela Ingram served as supervisor for the case. After some initial challenges arranging a meeting, Garcia completed an investigation, after which she determined no present danger existed to the child.

Tragically, on May 10, 2010, Raynna Boggs passed away after Ms. Boggs apparently rolled onto her while sleeping. The mother had reportedly consumed alcohol before falling asleep. Plaintiff filed the wrongful death suit alleging, inter alia, Raynna Boggs’ death could have been prevented had Child Protective Services adhered to its internal investigation policies and conducted a more thorough investigation.

Ultimately, the Court agreed the DHHR was immune from a wrongful death lawsuit under the well-established principles of qualified immunity. In short, the Court found Child Protective Services’ alleged failure to adhere to internal policies does not rise to the level of a clearly established right.

For more information on how the court reached this decision, speak with an attorney at Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC, at 304-344-0100 or contact us online.

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