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The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources v. V.P.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

March 21, 2019

THE WEST VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN RESOURCES, VICKIE BELL, AND LISA VINSON, Defendants Below, Petitioners
v.
V.P. AND R.P., HER HUSBAND, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND OF THE INFANT, L.T., Plaintiffs Below, Respondents

          Submitted: February 5, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Mingo County The Honorable Miki J. Thompson, Judge Civil Action No. 16-C-222

          Roberta F. Green Emily L. Lilly Shuman, McCuskey & Slicer, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Attorneys for the Petitioners

          Greg K. Smith Zachary H. Staten Law Offices of Greg K. Smith Williamson, West Virginia Attorneys for the Respondents

          JUSTICE HUTCHISON concurs and reserves the right to file a concurring opinion.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "'Only matters contained in the pleading can be considered on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b) R.C.P., and if matters outside the pleading are presented to the court and are not excluded by it, the motion should be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of under Rule 56 R.C.P. if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact in connection therewith. . . .' Syllabus Point 4, United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Eades, 150 W.Va. 238, 144 S.E.2d 703 (1965)." Syllabus point 1, in part, Poling v. Belington Bank, Inc., 207 W.Va. 145, 529 S.E.2d 856 (1999).

         2. "'This Court reviews de novo the denial of a motion for summary judgment, where such a ruling is properly reviewable by this Court.' Syl. Pt. 1, Findley v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 213 W.Va. 80, 576 S.E.2d 807 (2002)." Syllabus point 1, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         3. "'A circuit court's denial of summary judgment that is predicated on qualified immunity is an interlocutory ruling which is subject to immediate appeal under the "collateral order" doctrine.' Syl. Pt. 2, Robinson v. Pack, 223 W.Va. 828, 679 S.E.2d 660 (2009)." Syllabus point 2, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         4. "'The ultimate determination of whether qualified or statutory immunity bars a civil action is one of law for the court to determine. Therefore, unless there is a bona fide dispute as to the foundational or historical facts that underlie the immunity determination, the ultimate questions of statutory or qualified immunity are ripe for summary disposition.' Syl. Pt. 1, Hutchison v. City of Huntington, 198 W.Va. 139, 479 S.E.2d 649 (1996)." Syllabus point 3, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         5. "'In the absence of an insurance contract waiving the defense, the doctrine of qualified or official immunity bars a claim of mere negligence against a State agency not within the purview of the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, W.Va. Code § 29-12A-1 et seq., and against an officer of that department acting within the scope of his or her employment, with respect to the discretionary judgments, decisions, and actions of the officer.' Syl. Pt. 6, Clark v. Dunn, 195 W.Va. 272, 465 S.E.2d 374 (1995)." Syllabus point 7, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

         6. "To the extent that governmental acts or omissions which give rise to a cause of action fall within the category of discretionary functions, a reviewing court must determine whether the plaintiff has demonstrated that such acts or omissions are in violation of clearly established statutory or constitutional rights or laws of which a reasonable person would have known or are otherwise fraudulent, malicious, or oppressive in accordance with State v. Chase Securities, Inc., 188 W.Va. 356, 424 S.E.2d 591 (1992). In the absence of such a showing, both the State and its officials or employees charged with such acts or omissions are immune from liability." Syllabus point 11, West Virginia Regional Jail & Correctional Facility Authority v. A.B., 234 W.Va. 492, 766 S.E.2d 751 (2014).

          JENKINS, JUSTICE:

         The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources ("the DHHR"), Vickie Bell ("Ms. Bell"), and Lisa Vinson ("Ms. Vinson") (collectively "the DHHR Petitioners") herein appeal from the November 27, 2017 order of the Circuit Court of Mingo County denying the DHHR Petitioners' motion to dismiss on the ground of qualified immunity.[1] The DHHR Petitioners raise a single issue on appeal: whether the Circuit Court of Mingo County failed to recognize and enforce the immunities that protect the DHHR and its individual employees from simple negligence claims with respect to the discretionary judgments, decisions, and actions in the absence of waiver. Upon careful review of the briefs, the appendix record, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable legal authority, we find that the DHHR Petitioners are entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, we reverse the order of the circuit court and remand the case for entry of an order granting summary judgment to the DHHR Petitioners based on qualified immunity.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In or around April 2003, L.T., [2] an infant, was voluntarily surrendered by her biological mother, A.T. ("Mother"), into the home of Respondents, V.P. and R.P. (collectively "the Guardians").[3] Shortly thereafter, L.T. and two of her minor siblings, J.T. and S.T., [4] became the subject of an abuse and neglect proceeding in Logan County, West Virginia, directed at Mother. During the entirety of the abuse and neglect proceeding process, L.T. remained continuously in the physical care of the Guardians, while her siblings were in the care of the DHHR. From the time the abuse and neglect proceeding began until its conclusion in October 2006, the Guardians remained involved in the process, including the completion of a home study on the Guardians by the DHHR. Additionally, during this time period, the DHHR conducted multiple Multidisciplinary Team Meetings ("MDTs") regarding the children's and Mother's statuses. V.P. was involved in several of these MDTs.

         After approximately three years of the DHHR working with Mother, on July 27, 2006, Mother, by written document, voluntarily relinquished L.T. to the custody of her sister, V.P. Specifically, L.T.'s mother voluntarily and unequivocally consented to the permanent transfer of physical custody of L.T. to V.P. and of L.T.'s siblings, J.T. and S.T., to the DHHR. Mother's voluntary consent and relinquishment was submitted to the circuit court by Mother's attorney.

         In October 2006, a Final Order ("Final Order") was entered in the abuse and neglect proceeding in the Circuit Court of Logan County that mirrored Mother's voluntary consent and relinquishment of her custodial rights by placing the physical custody of L.T. with the Guardians. The Final Order provided "that subsidized guardianship would be sought for [J.T and S.T.] and physical custody of [L.T.] shall remain with [V.P]." The Final Order further provided, "[t]hat the WVDHHR shall take whatever steps appropriate to pursue subsidized guardianship for the infant respondents, [J.T.] and [S.T.], and of [L.T.] is [sic] so requested by [V.P].[5] Subsidized Guardianship is in the best interest of the infant respondents and is an appropriate final disposition of this matter." (Footnote added). Moreover, the Final Order provided that the "[c]ounsel for the WVDHHR and the Guardian Ad Litem agreed with the representations of [Mother's] counsel and represented that such final disposition was in the best interest of the infant respondents" and that the "matter shall be stricken from the active docket of the Court." Although the Guardians were involved in the underlying abuse and neglect proceedings, they were not named parties therein and they assert that they were not given a copy of this Final Order until approximately 2015.

         The Guardians contend that the DHHR Petitioners did not take any action to transfer legal custody of L.T. to establish permanency until November 2015 when V.P. filed a petition for guardianship in the Circuit Court of Mingo County. On November 2, 2015, V.P., [6] by counsel, filed a petition for guardianship requesting a subsidized guardianship for L.T. By order entered January 6, 2016, the circuit court granted temporary guardianship and physical custody of L.T. to V.P. and legal custody of L.T. to the DHHR for the purpose of facilitating a subsidized legal guardianship. The DHHR conducted an additional home study on April 4, 2016, which the Guardians passed. The circuit court granted legal guardianship of L.T. to V.P. by order entered in May 2016. The Guardians filed an Application for Subsidized Guardianship which listed that the legal custody of L.T. was with the DHHR from only May 27, 2003 to October 23, 2006. The parties finalized the Subsidized Guardianship Agreement ("Agreement") in June 2016. In July 2016, pursuant to the Agreement, the Guardians began receiving a monthly subsidy for L.T. in the amount of $600.00 per month.[7]

         On December 22, 2016, the Guardians filed a complaint against the DHHR in the Circuit Court of Mingo County. In their complaint, the Guardians alleged that the DHHR was ordered to '"take whatever steps appropriate to pursue subsidized guardianship for the infant [L.T.]'"; that the DHHR "negligently, recklessly[, ] and in gross disregard for the rights and best interest of the infant, [L.T.], failed and refused to perform its statutory and court ordered duties"; and that the DHHR "negligently failed to take appropriate action in the best interest of said infant to obtain permanency and a final disposition, as Ordered by the [circuit court] and mandated by West Virginia Code." The Guardians further asserted that, because of the failure of the DHHR, they were forced to hire counsel and file a petition for guardianship. In their Complaint, the Guardians requested compensatory damages. In particular, the Guardians allege that L.T. was unjustly denied the monthly $600.00 subsidy from October 2006 (entry of the Final Order) to June 2016 (date of Agreement) because of the actions of the DHHR Petitioners.[8]

         In response, the DHHR filed a motion to dismiss the complaint arguing that it must be dismissed because of 1) sovereign immunity, 2) improper venue, 3) qualified immunity, 4) statute of limitations, and 5) insufficient service of process. On April 19, 2017, the Guardians moved to amend their complaint to add additional parties. The DHHR objected to the motion to amend, and a hearing was held on April 27, 2017. Over the objection of the DHHR, the circuit court granted the Guardians leave to amend their complaint to add DHHR employees, Lisa Vinson[9] and Vickie Bell, as defendants and held the DHHR's motion to dismiss in abeyance. On June 23, 2017, the Guardians filed their amended complaint. In response, the DHHR Petitioners moved to dismiss the newly amended complaint on grounds of 1) qualified immunity, 2) sovereign immunity, and 3) statute of limitations.

         Following a hearing, the circuit court denied the DHHR Petitioners' motion to dismiss. The circuit court found that the Guardians were not parties to the underlying abuse and neglect proceeding, and were, therefore, not privy to the Final Order. The circuit court further found that the Guardians alleged that the DHHR Petitioners failed to comply with the Final Order by failing to establish permanency and take the steps necessary to achieve subsidized guardianship for L.T pursuant to that order. Construing the allegations "liberally in favor of the plaintiff," the circuit court found that qualified immunity is not a "one size fits all" proposition. The circuit court also found that a governmental agency and/or officer can be held liable for acts of negligence if their conduct violated a clearly established law of which a reasonable official would have known, and that, "[i]n this case, the [Guardians] allege that the agency and it's [sic] named employees violated the Order of the Logan County Circuit Court and the clearly established laws of Permanency and the best interest of the child, therefore Qualified Immunity does not bar [the Guardians'] claims." Finally, the circuit court held that issues regarding the role of the DHHR employees, and their involvement with the infant L.T., were issues that were to be properly explored in discovery, and were, therefore, premature. It is from this order that the DHHR Petitioners appeal.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Before discussing the appropriate standard for our review, we must address the posture in which this case is presented. The parties both appear to treat this appeal as one arising from a dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia ...


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