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H.L. v. Westmoreland County

December 28, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Arthur J. Schwab United States District Judge


Memorandum Opinion

I. Introduction

This is a civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff, who is the father and natural guardian of minor K.L. alleges that defendants, acting under color of state law, violated his constitutional rights under the First Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, in failing to protected his procedural and substantive due process rights, as well as his right to familial associations when they improperly or inadequately investigated certain reports of abuse during child custody proceeding to which plaintiff was a party. Currently pending before this Court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (doc. no. 31), and plaintiff's response thereto. After careful consideration, and for the reasons that follow, this Court will grant defendants' motion for summary judgment.

II. Background Facts

The facts as set forth in the parties statements of facts be fairly summarized as follows:*fn1

Plaintiff, H.L., is the natural father and Nicole Kaufmann (mother) is the natural mother of K.L., a minor who is now 8 years old. K.L and mother resided together for one or two months after K.L.'s birth, but mother eventually began a new relationship with Frank Giron, with whom she currently resides. For several years, H.L. and mother mutually agreed upon a custody arrangement without court intervention; however, in 2001, that agreement broke down and a custody action was commenced by H.L. on January 15, 2002. During the course of the custody proceedings, which have been described as "contentious," there were numerous allegations of abuse made, first against H.L. parents (K.L.'s paternal grandparents), and later against H.L.

The first allegation of abuse against H.L's parents occurred in November of 2001 (prior to the institution of custody proceeding), and that allegation was investigated by Westmoreland County Child Services (WCCB) worker defendant Shannon Kalp (now Shannon Haywood). That investigation included a psychological evaluation by Mercy Children's Medical Center. A report was issued by Mercy ("the Mercy report") on December 18, 2001, and according to the report, the psychologist could not make an affirmative determination whether K.L. had been sexually abused. However, it was noted in that report that the mother's paramour, Frank Giron should be investigated for potential involvement in a sexually abusive relationship with K.L.*fn2

Although defendants allege that all records regarding the abuse referrals were expunged and destroyed, pursuant to the Department of Public Welfare regulations (23 Pa.C.S. § 6337), plaintiff disputes that contention and states the Mercy report was not expunged.

During the pendency of the custody proceedings, other referrals were received by the WCCB regarding alleged physical and sexual abuse of K.L, and at least three of those referrals identified plaintiff, H.L., as the perpetrator. However, two of those referrals were investigated by caseworkers, including defendants Sara Gamola and Shannon Haywood, and were determined to be unfounded.

In late 2002/early 2003, counsel for H.L subpoenaed all records regarding the alleged sexual abuse of K.L. However, the records containing the Mercy report were not produced at that time.

In May, 2003, K.L. reported H.L and his mother (paternal grandmother) for alleged sexual abuse. After conducting several interviews and a psychological examination of K.L., caseworker/defendant Amy Patterson (now Amy Halter) found K.L. to be "consistent and credible in reporting sexual abuse." Thereafter, plaintiff filed a petition for special relief asking to have defendant Patterson removed as a caseworker from this case, which the Court denied. The WCCB, through Patterson, filed an "indicated" report of abuse against H.L.

On July 16, 2003, Patterson sent a letter to H.L. notifying him of the "indicated" report and advising him of his right to appeal.

On July 17, 2003, the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County entered primary physical custody and sole legal custody of K.L. to the child's mother, Nicole Kaufmann. As part of the order, H.L. was permitted to have therapeutic supervised visits ...

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