DeShaney in the Circuits (VII): Another Disturbing Affirmative Duty Case Lost by Plaintiffs
I have blogged previously about how the Supreme Court’s controversial DeShaney decision has fared in the circuits. DeShaney held that as a general matter governments have no affirmative substantive due process duty to protect persons from private harm (of course, it’s more complicated than that). The first post was on 8-22-11; the second was on 6-1-12; the third was on 5-20-13; the fourth was on 6-6-13; the fifth was on August 27, 2014, and the most recent was on April 10, 2015.
Here is a particularly disturbing DeShaney-related decision from the Fourth Circuit. I came across it when preparing the now-published 2016 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).
Doe 2 v. Rosa, 759 F.3d 429 (4th Cir. 2015)
In Doe 2, two brothers sued the president of a public military college under section 1983 and substantive due process, alleging that he failed to protect them from being sexually molested by a camp counselor, a former cadet, while at summer camp on campus.
Affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the president, the Fourth Circuit found no liability under the state-created danger approach. Relying on its decision in Pinder v. Johnson, 54 F.3d 1169 (4th Cir. 1995), the Fourth Circuit determined that the president did not create or substantially enhance the danger that the boys faced.
The Fourth Circuit observed that the counselor began abusing the boys in 2005 and 2006, two years before the president could have been aware (through a complaint) that the counselor was a pedophile. Thus the president could not have created a danger that already existed.
Nor did he increase the risk to the boys: there was nothing that the counselor did to the boys during the early summer in 2007 that was not ongoing for two years, and this was all unrelated to any action by the president.
DeShaney had established that continued exposure to an existing danger by failure to intervene was not the equivalent of creating or increasing that danger.
Moreover, even if the boys did face a new or increased risk of abuse, this was not the result of any affirmative acts of the president: his inaction was solely his failure to alert the authorities about the counselor’s past conduct.
In these kinds of cases plaintiffs have the heavy initial burden of showing the existence of an affirmative due process duty to act in some manner. In order to get around the DeShaney no affirmative duty rule, plaintiffs typically attempt to use one or both of two exceptions: (1) special relationship and (2) danger creation. In Doe 2, there was no special relationship because the president did not himself place the brothers in a situation where they could not protect themselves. The circuits have typically held that even public school officials have no affirmative duty under a special relationship theory to protect their students from sexual abuse by teachers or other students.
That left the plaintiffs with the danger creation theory based on the allegation that he failed to alert the authorities about the counselor’s past conduct. But even that did not work for them because, according to the Fourth Circuit, the president did not play an affirmative causal role in creating or increasing the danger of sexual abuse to them. In other words, he did nothing that changed the situation in which they found themselves. This was determinative of the no-duty outcome in Doe 2, even though the president’s failure to notify authorities was plausibly related as a causal matter to the brothers’ continuing victimization.
Doe 2 is yet another example of the effectiveness of the DeShaney no-duty rule as a gatekeeper in keeping such section 1983 cases out of the federal (and state) courts. All that the plaintiffs alleged was the president’s failure to alert authorities about the counselor’s past conduct; they were not seeking any other form of affirmative protection from him. And still DeShaney applied.
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