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Greenfield v. Miles

Supreme Court of Delaware

May 30, 2019

Tiffany GREENFIELD, AS NEXT FRIEND and Guardian ad litem FOR Ethan FORD, a minor, Plaintiff Below, Appellant,
DFS Director Laura MILES, individually and in her official capacity; DFS Director Victoria Kelly Psy.D, individually and in her official capacity; Family Crisis Therapist Trina N. Smith, individually and in her official capacity; Jamie Zebroski M.S.W., individually and in her official capacity as a Supervisor for DFS; Crystal Bradley, M.S., individually and in her official capacity as a Senior Family Services Specialist for DFS; Nancy Craighton, individually and in her official capacity as a Supervisor for DFS, Defendants Below, Appellees.

         Submitted: March 6, 2019

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          Court Below— Superior Court of the State of Delaware, C.A. No. N16C-07-115

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

         Andrew C. Dalton, Esquire (argued) and Bartholomew J. Dalton, Esquire; DALTON & ASSOCIATES, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; Attorneys for Plaintiff Below, Appellant.

         Joseph C. Handlon, Esquire (argued) and Wilson B. Davis, Esquire, DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Wilmington, Delaware; Attorneys for Defendants Below, Appellees.

         Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices, constituting the Court en Banc.


         TRAYNOR, Justice, for the Majority:

         This is an appeal from the Superior Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought on behalf of a minor, Ethan Ford, by his guardian, Tiffany Greenfield,[1] against three child-welfare workers and their supervisors.[2] Greenfield alleged that the defendants, who worked for the Delaware Division of Family Services ("DFS"),[3] contributed in one fashion or another— some as case workers, others as managers and supervisors— to four faulty investigations of reports that Ford and his half-sister, Autumn Milligan, were being abused and neglected by their mother, Tanasia Milligan. According to Greenfield’s complaint, the defendants’ dereliction of duty resulted in the tragic death of Autumn and permanent and irreversible damage to Ford— damage that necessitates long-term physical care and psychological services.

         But what was once a sprawling complaint against two former DFS Directors, three DFS supervisors, and three DFS caseworkers that included claims of negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of the caseworkers by their supervisors is now a case against just two of the caseworkers, Trina Smith and Crystal Bradley, and their direct supervisors focused solely on their direct involvement in their investigations. In 2009, Smith was assigned to investigate Tanasia’s care of the new-born

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Ford when a hospital test detected marijuana in his system. After a visit to the home where Tanasia lived with Ford, Smith concluded that Ford appeared to be "well-cared for"[4] and closed her investigation. Five years later, Bradley was the designated caseworker charged with investigating Tanasia after she and her boyfriend— both apparently under the influence of drugs— appeared at Greenfield’s house to pick up Ford and Autumn. After a seven-week-long investigation, during which Bradley met with Tanasia and her children "multiple times" and spoke with Tanasia by phone on six additional occasions, Bradley and her supervisor "moved [the case] into treatment."[5]

         Because Smith, Bradley, and their supervisors were public employees, Greenfield’s claims are subject to the Delaware State Tort Claims Act,[6] which immunizes public officers and employees against claims based on the performance of official duties that involve the exercise of discretion unless the act or failure to act causing the alleged harm was not done in good faith or was performed in a grossly negligent manner. Greenfield has not alleged bad faith, and the Superior Court determined that the investigations conducted by Smith and Bradley involved the exercise of discretion and that Greenfield had not alleged facts supporting an inference of gross negligence. Accordingly, the court ruled that Greenfield failed to state a claim for relief under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6) and entered an order of dismissal. The Superior Court also dismissed related civil-rights claims that were based on the same allegedly inadequate investigations.

          Preliminarily, we state the obvious. The DFS caseworkers’ efforts to ensure the safety of Tanasia’s children, Autumn and Ford, failed with doleful consequences. And in cases such as this, the same humanity that causes our hearts to break when we hear of the mistreatment of a child also cries out and demands that those who are responsible for the needless suffering be held to account. But it is worth stressing that the claims we are called upon to assess in this case have not been made against the person at whose hands Autumn and Ford suffered. Instead and for reasons that we do not fault, Ford’s guardian seeks redress from individuals who were charged with protecting him but who were unable to do so. Those same individuals, however, are also required to preserve and foster the family unit, which creates an obvious tension between their duties that requires the exercise of judgment.

          Under such circumstances, our law requires that complaints against such individuals be written to a higher standard. We agree with the Superior Court that Greenfield’s complaint did not satisfy that standard and therefore affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND[7]

         Tanasia Milligan was the custodial parent of Ethan Ford and his younger half-sister, Autumn Milligan. During the five-and-a-half years between Ford’s birth and Autumn’s tragic death,[8] DFS conducted four separate investigations of reports that Tanasia was abusing and neglecting Ford and Autumn.

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          A. January 2009

          DFS conducted its first investigation following Ford’s birth in January 2009 when hospital tests detected marijuana in Ford’s system. Tanasia admitted that she had smoked marijuana during her pregnancy because it helped with her nausea. Trina Smith was the caseworker assigned to this investigation. Smith’s supervisor was Nancy Craighton. At that time, Laura Miles was the Director of DFS.

         According to Greenfield’s Amended Complaint ("Complaint"), "Smith and Craighton identified the following concerns and risk factors: (1) possible substance abuse; and (2) lack of cooperation with recommended services."[9] Smith attempted to schedule a meeting with Tanasia "for a drug evaluation."[10] It is unclear from the Complaint whether an evaluation was completed, but it is alleged that "a drug screen was never completed."[11] Smith visited Tanasia’s home and determined that Ford "was well-cared for."[12] This investigation was closed— allegedly by Smith and Craighton— after forty-one days as "unsubstantiated with concern."[13] Neither Smith nor Craighton had any further interaction with Tanasia or her children.

          B. September 2012

         Three-and-a-half years later, DFS opened its second investigation after receiving a report that Ford and Autumn were "found outside after midnight in diapers."[14] The investigation disclosed that Tanasia’s 16-year old brother was babysitting the children and had fallen asleep. The caseworker, who is not identified in the Complaint, assigned the case a low priority. The caseworker met with Tanasia on two occasions, during one of which Ford and Autumn were present. Although the caseworker determined that the children were developmentally delayed and referred Tanasia to programs, Tanasia did not follow through or have Ford and Autumn evaluated. According to the Complaint, "[a]fter six (6) failed attempts to follow-up with [Tanasia], the caseworker closed the case within 55 days as ‘unsubstantiated with concern.’ "[15] The Complaint does not identify the caseworker or allege that any of the defendants were involved in any capacity in this second investigation.

          C. Spring 2013

         In the spring of 2013, DFS opened a third investigation following a report from an unidentified source that "the children were locked in a room for long periods of time and could not communicate appropriately."[16] The Complaint does not disclose the identity of the caseworker assigned to this investigation or state whether any evidence tending to support the report was uncovered. The investigating caseworker who is alleged to have been working under the supervision of DFS Director Kelly, "met with [Tanasia], twice with [Ford] and

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Autumn present, and determined that the children were clean and well fed, but developmentally delayed."[17] The case was closed as unsubstantiated after forty-six days. The Complaint alleges that a caseworker failed to fill out a risk assessment form in accordance with DFS policy, which led to the case being closed prematurely.

          Before moving on to the fourth and final investigation, we pause to observe that, up to this point, contrary to the Complaint’s labeling of the first three cases as showing a "pattern of neglect and abuse," with the exception of Ford’s positive marijuana test at birth, the Complaint does not affirmatively allege that any of these investigations had substantiated that abuse or neglect had occurred.

          D. Fall 2013

         By the fall of 2013, Tanasia and her children were living at the Budget Motor Lodge ("Budget") with Willie Reeder, whom the Complaint describes as Tanasia’s "boyfriend and ‘pimp.’ "[18] The Complaint says that other residents of the motel later reported that Tanasia "often hit her children for misbehaving and that both children were often locked in the motel room alone."[19] The Complaint does not allege, however, that DFS knew of those conditions until later.

          E. April 2014

         The fourth and final DFS investigation was opened in early April 2014 after Tanasia and Reeder appeared at Greenfield’s house to pick up the children while under the influence of drugs. Greenfield resisted but Reeder "barged in the home and took the children."[20] Greenfield and Tanasia’s other sisters called the child-protection hotline, which prompted the opening of an investigation.

         This time, Crystal Bradley, a senior family services specialist, was assigned to the case under the supervision of Jamie Zebroski. Over a period of fifty-two days, Bradley met with Tanasia and her children "multiple times"[21] and spoke with Tanasia by phone six additional times. The Complaint notes, however, that on four occasions, Tanasia could not be reached by phone. Additionally, the Complaint alleges that "caseworkers failed to interview motel residents or other collateral contacts that could have been helpful in providing the information needed to adequately investigate the claims by [Tanasia]’s sisters that she was neglecting and abusing [Ford] and Autumn."[22] The Complaint also notes that "the sisters mentioned marks on the children’s bodies"[23] and that the caseworkers’ notes did not indicate that an examination was ever completed.

         Unlike the three previous investigations, this case was moved into treatment to address numerous concerns and risk factors, including the possibility of drug and alcohol abuse; mental health factors; appropriate parenting/discipline; housing conditions; the children’s developmental delay; and the children’s medical and educational needs. According to the Complaint, Tanasia permitted DFS to send the children to a pediatrician and agreed to undergo drug screening but "later ...

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