Dahn v. Amedei, No. 16-1059 (10th Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
When a state fails to protect a foster child from harm, the foster child can sue the state under the special-relationship doctrine, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983. The special-relationship doctrine provides an exception to the general rule that states aren’t liable for harm caused by private actors. This case is about the geographical reach of the special-relationship doctrine: whether the special relationship (and its accompanying duty to protect)—crosses state lines. James Dahn, a foster child, sued two Colorado social workers responsible for investigating reports that he was being abused, along with others involved with his adoption. Dahn had been in Oklahoma’s custody until, with Oklahoma’s approval, a Colorado-based private adoption agency placed him for adoption with a foster father in Colorado. The foster father physically abused Dahn before and after adopting him. The private adoption agency was responsible for monitoring Dahn’s placement. Together with Colorado, it recommended approval of his adoption by the abusive foster father. Dahn eventually escaped his abusive foster father by running away. Dahn then sued the private adoption agency, its employees, and the Colorado caseworkers who were assigned to investigate reports of abuse from officials at Dahn’s public school. The district court dismissed all of Dahn’s claims except a section 1983 claim against the two Colorado caseworkers and two state-law claims against the agency and its employees, concluding the special-relationship doctrine allowed Dahn to move forward with the 1983 claim, and it exercised supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims. The Colorado caseworkers appealed. Though the Tenth Circuit condemned their efforts to protect the vulnerable child, the Court concluded, under the controlling precedents, that the Colorado caseworkers were entitled to qualified immunity, and reversed.