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Fourth Amendment: Unclear When Social Workers Violate

A U.S. appellate court held that three state social workers were entitled to qualified immunity from Fourth Amendment violations while a sheriff’s deputy was not.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, reviewed the decision of a U.S. District Court in Tennessee on appeal. The decision held that Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (TDCS) employees Kelly Davis, Cynthia Primm, and Monica Wright, and Hickman County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Wade were not entitled to qualified immunity from a Fourth Amendment violation of the U.S. Constitution. On December 3, 2012, the appeals court reversed concerning the TDCS employees but affirmed concerning Wade.

TDCS employees Davis, Primm, and Wright were dispatched to the residence of Dale and Patricia Andrews on August 27, 2008, on allegations of child abuse and living conditions. Because it was night and guns were reportedly kept at the Andrews’ home, HCSD Deputies Wade and Kyle Chessor accompanied them.

When they arrived at the home, at 8:30 p.m., Mr. Andrews was outside working, while Mrs. Andrews and their four daughters were inside. Once the deputies introduced themselves and advised Mr. Andrews that the TDCS employees wanted to interview the children, Mr. Andrews wanted to have his wife call the sheriff’s office to verify their story. He also wanted them to wait outside because he didn’t know if his daughters were bathing.

Mr. Andrews entered the home through the back door. However, without permission or a warrant, the TDCS employees and deputies followed directly behind him. It is disputed who followed first, the TDCS employees or deputies.

The deputies didn’t stay long and the TDCS employees, with the Andrews’ permission, interviewed the children and inspected the home. The TDCS employees then left the home, filing no charges against the Andrews.

The Andrews filed a lawsuit in the district court on August 26, 2009, in response to Wade’s and the TDCS employees’ actions, alleging Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations. They also brought state-law claims for damages, but the court dismissed all except the Fourth Amendment claims against Wade and the TDCS employees.

Wade and the three TDCS employees unsuccessfully sought dismissal based on qualified immunity, which protects officials from damages “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” (See: Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)).

The court of appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision concerning Wade, holding that he had no reasonable excuse for entering without a warrant and a reasonable officer would have known his actions violated the Fourth Amendment’s clearly established restrictions on unreasonable searches and seizures.

However, the court of appeals reversed concerning the TDCS employees. The court held that while Fourth Amendment restrictions extend to social workers making a warrantless entry, they were not clearly established regarding the welfare of children. Also, if a deputy entered first, it wasn’t unreasonable that a social worker, deferring to law enforcement expertise, would enter as well. See: Andrews v. Hickman County, Tennessee, 700 F.3d 845 (6th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Andrews v. Hickman County, Tennessee