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Heithcock v. Tennessee Department of Children's Services

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 20, 2018

SAMARA HEITHCOCK, Individually and as next friend of her minor daughter, M. H., Plaintiff,
v.
TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN'S SERVICES, et al., Defendants.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE, BROWN

          MEMORANDUM

          WILLIAM L. CAMPBELL, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Pending before the Court are Defendant Sugri's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 59); Plaintiff's Answer To Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 62); and Defendant's Reply (Doc. No. 6). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant Sugri's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 59) is GRANTED, and this action is DISMISSED.

         II. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Samara Heithcock brought this action, individually and as next friend of her minor daughter, M.H., raising claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Tennessee law arising out of the temporary removal of M.H. from Plaintiff's custody. (Doc. Nos. 1, 6). Plaintiff named as Defendants the Tennessee Department of Children's Services (“DCS”), DCS Commissioner James M. Henry, DCS employee Sharonika Nelson Jones, DCS employee Jamila Sugri, and John Does 1 through 10. (Id.)

         Through Memorandum and Order issued on August 14, 2015, Judge Aleta A. Trauger, to whom this case was originally assigned, granted Defendants' motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's federal claims for: (1) violation of Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment right to familial association; (2) violation of Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure; and (3) supervisory liability based on these two claims. (Doc. Nos. 33, 34). More specifically, Judge Trauger determined that Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity barred the claims against Defendant DCS, and the official capacity claims against Defendants Henry, Jones, and Sugri; absolute testimonial immunity barred the claims against Defendant Sugri for her testimony and recommendations to the juvenile court; quasi-judicial immunity barred the claims against Defendant Sugri for her child abuse investigation regarding M.H.; and Plaintiff failed to allege any personal involvement supporting the individual capacity claims against Defendants Henry or Jones. (Id.) Judge Trauger declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims because the federal claims had been dismissed, and because she concluded that the subject matter of the action would be best suited for resolution by Tennessee courts. (Id.)

         Plaintiff appealed the dismissal, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all claims except Plaintiff's substantive due process claim for bad-faith child-services investigation against Defendant Sugri and any supplemental state law claims. (Doc. No. 46). On remand, Defendant Sugri filed the pending motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 59). The case was subsequently reassigned to the undersigned Judge. (Doc. No. 65).

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Samara Heithcock is the mother of M.H., who was three years old at the time of the events relevant to this lawsuit. (Response To Statement Of Undisputed Facts In Support Of Defendant Sugri's Motion For Summary Judgment, at ¶ 1 (Doc. No. 64) (hereinafter “Plaintiff's Response To Facts”)). Plaintiff and M.H.'s father, Homer Disher (hereinafter “Father”), continued their relationship for a short time after the child was born, but by the events relevant to this lawsuit, they lived separately. (Id., at ¶ 2). The parents shared custody of M.H. during the events relevant here, and the child spent alternating weekends with her father. (Id., at ¶ 3).

         Plaintiff admits that the parents had “some hostility” toward each other. (Id., at ¶ 4). Plaintiff has alleged that Father was overly sexually aggressive toward her, and that he “solicited a hooker” two days before the birth of M.H. (Id.) Plaintiff has taken out a restraining order against Father. (Id.) Plaintiff has alleged Father is a demon worshipper, and has complained about Father's excessive drinking and sexual addiction. (Id.) At various times prior to this case, Plaintiff has asked the Williamson County Juvenile Court to restrict Father's visitation with M.H. (Id., at ¶ 5).

         According to Plaintiff, after the summer of 2013, M.H. began exhibiting behaviors that caused her concern, like touching her vaginal area and attempting to insert a hairbrush handle into her vaginal area, causing redness. (Id., at ¶ 6). Plaintiff reported these behaviors to M.H.'s pediatrician in November 2013, who recommended an appointment at Our Kids, a private organization that provides expert medical evaluations and crisis counseling services in response to concerns of child sexual abuse. (Id., at ¶ 7); (Doc. No. 60, at 2 n.1). Our Kids required Plaintiff to refer concerns of sexual abuse to DCS prior to making an appointment. (Id., at ¶ 8). Plaintiff called the DCS child abuse hotline and reported the behaviors that her child's physician suggested might be sexual abuse. (Id., at ¶ 9). Plaintiff did not allege that Father or anyone else had actually abused M.H. (Id.) Pursuant to DCS operating procedure, Plaintiff's hotline call was assigned to Child Protective Services investigator Jamila Sugri for further investigation. (Id., at ¶ 10).

         Defendant Sugri immediately scheduled M.H. for a forensic interview with Davis House Child Advocacy Center, a private organization that provides comprehensive services, such as forensic interviews, case management, child and family advocacy, and counseling to alleged child abuse victims and their non-offending family members or caregivers. (Id., at ¶ 11); (Doc. No. 60, at 3 n. 2). The interview occurred on November 22, 2013. (Id.)

         Defendant Sugri did not participate in the November 22 forensic interview, but instructed one of her colleagues to attend and report the details of the interview. (Id., at ¶ 12). The colleague reported her summary to Defendant Sugri on the same day. (Id.) Defendant Sugri also watched the video recording of the interview and reviewed the forensic investigator's report. (Id.) The forensic investigator's report classified the child's interview statements as being a “partial disclosure, ” meaning the child “acknowledged that something happened, but did not provide detail.” (Id., at ¶ 13).

         According to Defendant Sugri, the report demonstrated inconsistencies in the child's statements during the initial forensic interview that gave her reasons to believe the child had not suffered any sexual abuse: (1) the child indicated that the abuse had taken place at Plaintiff's house but was perpetrated by the father, even though the father had not been present in Plaintiff's house since the child was approximately six months old; (2) the child's statements were internally inconsistent in that she told the forensic interviewer at various times that her clothes were both on and off, and that the abuse had occurred at her father and mother's house; (3) the child was evasive in answering questions and flatly ignored some of the interviewer's attempts to gain additional information; and (4) the only details related to the child's allegations that the father had touched her concerned the application of medicine, which her grandmother and mother had also allegedly applied. (Doc. No. 60, at ¶¶ 14-17). Plaintiff neither admits nor denies that M.H made inconsistent statements, and contends that the alleged inconsistencies could be due to a lack of training by Defendant. (Plaintiff's Response To Facts, at ¶¶ 14-17).

         After watching the video of the interview, Plaintiff alleges that the interviewer coached the child into making the disclosures. (Id., at ¶ 18). Plaintiff admits that she does not know whether M.H. was touched, but contends that this conclusion is the result of insufficient and inadequate investigation. (Id.)

         Because the initial forensic interview did not result in a clear disclosure, Defendant Sugri scheduled three separate follow-up interviews to gather more information. (Id., at ¶ 19). Plaintiff and the child appeared for these interviews. (Id.) According to Defendant Sugri, the follow-up interviews did not result in sufficient information to substantiate any claims of sexual abuse by the child's father or anyone else. (Doc. No. 60, at ¶ 20). Plaintiff admits only that this is Defendant's interpretation of those interviews. (Plaintiff's Response To Facts, at ¶ 20).

         Plaintiff and Father appeared in court on December 16, 2013, on Plaintiff's motion to restrict Father's visitation. (Id., at ¶ 21). In evaluating whether to restrict Father's visitation, the juvenile court inquired of Defendant Sugri about the status of the investigation into the sexual abuse allegations. (Id., at ¶ 22). The following is the entirety of Defendant Sugri's testimony:

The Court: What's your name, ma'am?
Ms. Sugri: Jamila Sugri.
The Court: And you are through who?
Ms. Sugri: Department of Children's Services.
The Court: Okay. And is there some reason that I should be concerned about this child going to her dad's house?
Ms. Sugri: Can I ask that the Court (inaudible) due to the nature of the allegations?
The Court: Sure. So if you are not involved in this case, please remove yourself from the courtroom, including you.
Ms. Sugri: (Inaudible), the department received a referral of allegations of sexual abuse against M., and that case is still under investigation. She was - M. was forensically interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center, and in her interview, she made a questionable disclosure, and so we asked that she receive an extended forensic of (sic) that center. So far she has been to two sessions. I believe she is scheduled for another one today.
There has not been a clear disclosure. Disclosure - it's kind of questionable. The first forensic, she did - well, the allegations (inaudible), but when she was interviewed, she stated that (inaudible) told her that touch her in the private area, but she - the location did not make sense. It couldn't have happened there - The Court: I gotcha.
Ms. Sugri: -- when she said it did. So we wanted a forensic - stated forensic and - The Court: How long does that take?
Ms. Sugri: Probably about - she may see her one more time, which is today, and after that, she doesn't believe that ...

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