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Federal Court Denies Absolute Immunity to Parole Officers

Federal Court Denies Absolute Immunity to Parole Officers

by J. Christopher McWhorter

The district court for the Southern District of New York denied claims that parole officers were acting in a quasi-judicial role when they forbade a registered sex-offender from living with his infant son.

Since the early 1980s the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the officers making a decision to grant, deny, or revoke parole are acting in a quasi-judicial function, and are therefore entitled to absolute immunity. Absolute immunity bars all claims against officers acting in that capacity, so that they are free to make their decisions without fear of being hauled into court. This has traditionally been applied to judges acting in their judicial capacities, but was later extended to individuals performing judicial functions.

In Doe v. Annucci, the plaintiff – only referred to as ‘John Doe’ – had been convicted of one count of second-degree rape, one count of second-degree criminal sexual acts, and one count of endangering the welfare of a child (the conviction is still on appeal), stemming from allegations that he had sex with his underage niece. Doe had completed his incarceration time and was on parole in the State of New York. One of the conditions of his parole was that he “have no contact with any person under the age of eighteen, without the written permission of the supervising parole officer.” The Bronx Family Court granted a petition he filed to have unauthorized supervision with his minor daughter, which he regularly exercised.

Shortly after his release Doe married and had a child with ‘Jane Doe.’ Soon after the birth of his child, Doe successfully completed substance-abuse and sex-offender treatment programs at the New York Center for Addiction Treatment Services. The Court noted that “[h]is attendance rate in that program was 100%; the Assistant Director found that he presented a low risk of recidivism; and, upon completion, he was invited to be a peer mentor.”

Despite this, his parole officer told Doe that he was not allowed to reside with his minor child, had to move out of the family home, and cease all contact with his month-old son. Doe immediately filed a petition with the Bronx Family Court to be able to reside with his child. The Bronx Court had Doe evaluated and the social worker recommended that “Doe be permitted to reside with his wife,” and explained that “[c]ohabitation with a partner of the opposite sex” is “conducive to the principles of relapse prevention” because it is “a protective factor for those who commit sexual offenses” and ensures that Doe has “someone who can offer support if needed.”

Based upon the evaluation Doe was permitted to return to his family residence.

Six-months later, with no warning and despite the Court’s ruling, the New York Parole Office decided that they did not like the arrangement. Defendant Lima – one of eight people sued – informed Doe’s parole officer of the situation, wanting to ensure that Doe left his family’s apartment. Doe was told that he had to leave the residence immediately. He complied and left the family apartment to live in a homeless shelter.

Doe then filed an appeal and requested the directive be investigated. A lengthy investigation revealed that Doe “did not meet the criteria for pedophilia” and presented “a low or very low risk of sexual recidivism.” The alleged victim of Doe’s previous offense asked Officer Rebecca Rodriguez “why Doe should live happy and comfortable when he took something from [her] that [she] can’t get back.”

Almost a year later, the request to move back into his family home was denied without explanation. The decision did, however, note: “[t]he victim’s perspective is always important,” and that the “crimes occurred within the family constellation.” Doe was told that he could not live with his family, but could obtain a studio apartment for himself. He appealed that decision to the regional director.

Doe also filed suit in federal court. Interestingly, after the district court expressed an interest in waiting on the appeal decision, the regional director granted Doe’s request to live with his family. But he specifically left open the possibility of disallowing cohabitation in the future; this “decision does not preclude any future decision to bar [Doe’s] contact with his son based on emerging issues, conditions or circumstances which would indicate to a parole officer that [Doe] is likely to or has sexually reoffended any child.”

In the district court, the parole officers claimed that they were entitled to absolute immunity, because they were performing a quasi-judicial function concerning the conditions of Doe’s parole, which are akin to a judicial role. The district court rejected that argument. In looking to whether qualified immunity would be appropriate, the district court refused to blanket the officers’ actions with qualified immunity because they gave no notice to Doe that these actions were even being considered.

The Court grounded its ruling in due process. The Court found that the Supreme Court has long held that any actions resulting in the termination of parental rights require notice. And since the defendants provided Doe no notice, they violated his rights.

The defendants also attempted to argue that since they had reversed their decision ejecting Doe from his family home, the issue was moot and the Court should not consider Doe’s claims. The district court also rejected that argument, noting that twice before the defendants had reversed their decision, and that this reversal only came after the filing of the suit. The Court also emphasized that the regional director’s order reversing the decision specifically left open the possibility that it could be reversed at the parole officer's discretion.

The court did not feel comfortable leaving that discretion to the parole officers, found that the situation was capable of being repeated, and therefore refused the mootness argument. The case is now awaiting discovery and trial. See:Doe v. Annucci, U.S.D.C. (S.D. N.Y.), Case no. 1:14-cv-02953-PAE; 2015 WL 4393012 (S.D. New York, July 15, 2015); 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91861 (S.D.N.Y. July 15, 2015).

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Related legal case

Doe v. Annucci