Social Worker Denied Qualified Immunity in Lawsuit Over Alleged Fabrication of Confession

Starting at O’Connell v TuggleYesterday’s decision was made by the Tenth Circuit (Judge Robert Bacharach joined by Judge Allison Eid).

The appeal is based on notes that a social worker took after speaking with a suspect of child abuse. Ms. Marcia Tuggle, a social worker, wrote that Mrs. Krystal O’Connell had admitted to it. Ms. O’Connell denies confessing to the crime and presented evidence that Ms. Tuggle had made a lie in her notes regarding the confession.

Do you think the law was clear in protecting Ms. O’Connell’s constitutional rights from the social workers fabricating confessions during criminal investigations? The district court answered “yes,” as we do….

Ms. O’Connell had her son Kyran in 2003. Mr. Patrick Ramirez took care of him. Kyran was soon diagnosed with severe brain injuries and died two months later.

An investigation was opened by the police. Sergeant Harry Alejo interviewed Mr. Ramirez. The police were informed that he had Kyran in his arms at the time of his fall.

Ms. Tuggle conducted her own investigation. He was also interviewed by Ms. Tuggle. Ms. Tuggle, Sergeant Alejo, and other witnesses were interviewed two days later.

Without any other people present, Sergeant Alejo interviewed Ms. O’Connell for the first time. Later that same day Sergeant Alejo interviewed Ms. O’Connell with Ms. Tuggle. Ms. O’Connell stated that Sergeant Alejo made accusations, while Ms. Tuggle viewed. Ms. Tuggle listened to the replies and stated that Ms. O’Connell admitted shaking Kyran, as well as slamming him onto the bed. Ms. O’Connell refuted this claim and provided evidence to support her assertion that Ms. Tuggle had made the confession.

Kyran’s final conviction was for Ms. O’Connell’s abuse of children, which led to her being convicted. In 2017, however, Ms. O’Connell’s 2017 conviction was overturned. After being convicted, Ms. O’Connell sued Ms. Tuggle. The district court denied Ms. Tuggle’s motion for summary judgment, rejecting her argument for qualified immunity….

Given the denial of summary judgment, we credit Ms. O’Connell’s allegations as true even if our own review of the record might suggest otherwise…. [One of those allegations is that]Ms. Tuggle deliberately falsified Ms. O’Connell’s information.” …

These allegations are so obvious that we need to consider whether there was a violation of the Constitution when Ms. Tuggle made a confession about child abuse.

  • While “participating to investigatory interviews”.
  • As she joined with Sergeant Alejo for the questioning, shortly after he’d charged Ms. O’Connell in child abuse.

“[A]When the state uses false testimony in order to convict a defendant, it violates his due process rights. Ms. O’Connell claims that the state used false testimony to obtain a conviction, thereby denying her due process rights. Under Ms. O’Connell’s version of events, Ms. Tuggle could not “have labored under any misapprehension that the knowing or reckless falsification … of evidence was objectively reasonable.”

Ms. Tuggle said that there was no obvious constitutional violation because she investigated separately from Sergeant Alejo. The district court accepted the claims that Ms. Tuggle participated with Sergeant Alejo in investigating the matter, participated in interviewing investigators, and had created reports to “later use” to prosecute and arrest Ms. O’Connell.

Ms. Tuggle knew that there was a criminal investigation of Ms. O’Connell….. And Ms. Tuggle knew that in the criminal investigation, her agency would need to share her notes with the sheriff’s office….

Mary Briscoe, Judge of the Court, disagreed, saying that “it wasn’t clearly established in February 2003, that notes fabricated during a social service investigation violate a parent’s constitutional rights associated avec a separate, yet related criminal investigation”.

My conviction is not that the alleged fabrication of unconstitutionality was obvious, as claimed by the majority. Defendant was informed that her “common sense,” like other public officials, would have told her that a social worker cannot knowingly give false information as part of an investigation. Defendant could have done so if she had not used common sense or referred to our previous case law. ConstitutiveThese are reasons and not some moral generality.

In determining whether the Defendant has qualified immunity we need to consider his actions in light of their constitutionality. I do not condone the allegations of misconduct in this case. Yet I would reverse the district court because the constitutional dimensions of Plaintiff’s claim were not clearly established in light of the particular facts presented….