Matthews v. Bergdorf

In 2014, nine of Jerry and Deidre Matthews’ adopted children were placed in the emergency custody of the State. In June 2016, Jerry Matthews pleaded no contest to reduced charges of child neglect. He received a suspended life sentence in exchange for his promise to testify truthfully against his now former wife, Deidre Matthews. In October 2017, Deidre Matthews pleaded no contest in the same state court to twelve counts of child abuse, child neglect, and child endangerment. The state court sentenced Deidre Matthews to life in prison with all but four years suspended. The children claimed among other things, that eighteen Oklahoma Department of Human Services (ODHS) caseworkers violated their Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights in connection with the horrific events recounted in the complaint. They generally alleged that between January 2004 and March 2014, various individuals, all with good cause, reported to ODHS that the children living in the Matthews’ home were being mentally and physically abused. At least seventeen reports of abuse and neglect were made to ODHS during this time period. “To say the ODHS caseworkers left the children with the Matthews to suffer continued abuse and neglect under deplorable conditions in a dangerous home environment is perhaps an understatement.” The caseworkers appealed the district court’s denial of their motion to dismiss the constitutional claims against them on the basis of qualified immunity. At issue before the Tenth Circuit was: (1) whether the facts alleged in the complaint gave rise to constitutional claims against each of the ODHS caseworkers; and if so, (2) whether those claims were clearly established at the time of the alleged constitutional violations. Because the caseworkers asserted the defense of qualified immunity, the burden was on Plaintiffs to establish their right to proceed. The Tenth Circuit found plaintiffs did not meet that burden as to some, but not all, of the caseworkers, and affirmed in part and reversed in part. “The people of the State of Oklahoma ‘may well prefer a system of liability which would place upon the State and its officials the responsibility for failure to act in situations such as the present one.’ The people may create such a system if they have not already done so. But ‘when the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief [under the Constitution], this basic deficiency should be exposed at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.’” View "Matthews v. Bergdorf" on Justia Law