CHARLESTON – A lawsuit filed by a local woman against the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has been accepted by a federal judge in the Southern District Court.
The suit stems from the seizure of Amanda Underwood’s two children, an incident which the Spirit investigated in March. Her parental rights were subsequently terminated after she pleaded guilty to medical neglect after one of the children had fallen behind on scheduled immunizations when Underwood missed a doctor’s appointment.
Underwood also failed to complete an “improvement period,” though she says it was impossible to comply with all of its terms simultaneously.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge John Yoder “reluctantly” terminated Underwood’s parental rights in January 2011 but also ruled that the DHHR had violated her due process rights, had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence during discovery and had made untrue statements to the court – though he did not rule on whether these had been intentional or accidental.
Underwood appealed to the state Supreme Court, but it refused to hear oral arguments and reaffirmed the termination in a brief memorandum.
Then, one year ago, Underwood filed a lawsuit against the DHHR and several DHHR employees. She sought an injunction and a declaratory judgment which would have forced the DHHR to return her children to her. She also filed claims that the DHHR had violated her 4th and 14th Amendment rights and the West Virginia Constitution; that it was in contempt of a 1984 consent decree called Gibson v. Ginsburg, which set strong limits and guidelines for the seizure of children; that West Virginia’s abuse and neglect laws are unconstitutional because they create a high risk of errors that violate parents’ and children’s due process rights; and that DHHR employees had committed negligent, wanton, reckless and malicious infliction of emotional distress by their mishandling of the case. She is seeking a $1 million judgment for the final claim.
The DHHR in turn filed a motion to dismiss the case. Their motion was based on a legal precedent called the “Rooker-Feldman Doctrine” which prevents defendants who lose cases in state courts from appealing to federal courts for relief.
Last month, Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin issued a ruling which dismissed both the pleas for an injunction and for declaratory relief – the two actions which could have resulted in Underwood’s children being returned to her – under the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine.
“The Rooker-Feldman doctrine says that you can’t go to the federal district court level to appeal the final decision of the state court,” explained Underwood’s attorney Nancy Dalby. “The question is still whether the case as a whole was handled in a constitutional manner, but even if it is found that the case was unconstitutional, the federal court does not have the power to overturn the termination of parental rights because that was a state court judgment.”
The court’s decision not to issue an injunction or declaratory relief is not based on the facts of the case, but only on the general doctrine that federal courts cannot be forums for the appeal of state court decisions, she explained.
However, Goodwin refused to dismiss the claims that the DHHR had violated Underwood’s rights, was in contempt of a consent decree and had inflicted emotional distress. He also agreed to hear the claim that West Virginia’s abuse and neglect regime as a whole violates the U.S. and West Virginia Constitutions.
“Courts don’t like to rule that way,” Dalby said. “They go under the assumption that statutes are constitutional, but I think that this statute is not written in a constitutional manner. And it was certainly not constitutionally applied to Amanda. There was never any finding that she was an unfit parent, and that is the constitutional standard that has to be shown (for parental rights to be terminated).”
“I am hoping to get a ruling that the West Virginia (abuse and neglect) statute … is unconstitutional, or that it is unconstitutional as it was applied to Amanda. The test is whether the procedures chosen by the DHHR are likely to lead to error,” she said.
Dalby said the case has now entered the discovery phase where both sides depose witnesses and share evidence with one another.
After the discovery process concludes, there will likely be a second set of motions to dismiss filed by the DHHR, Dalby explained. If Underwood’s claims survive this second round, her case will then move forward to trial.