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Jones v. County of Los Angeles

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

September 21, 2015

MICHAEL N. JONES, an individual; JILL JONES, an individual; G. J., an individual, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES, Defendant, and DR. CLAUDIA WANG, an individual, Defendant-Appellant

Argued and Submitted, Pasadena, California: April 11, 2014.

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:11-cv-02851-SJO-VBK. S. James Otero, District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY[**]

Civil Rights / Qualified Immunity

The panel affirmed the district court's denial of Dr. Claudia Wang's motion for summary judgment based on her alleged qualified immunity in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action brought against Dr. Wang.

The Jones family alleged that Dr. Wang violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and committed various torts during her investigation into whether G.J. had been abused.

The panel held that, resolving all factual disputes in the Joneses' favor, the alleged conduct of Dr. Wang could support a claim that Dr. Wang violated the Joneses' clearly established constitutional rights. Namely, the panel held that the Joneses' version of the facts supported a claim that Dr. Wang seized G.J. from his parents without exigent circumstances. The panel held that because both parts of the qualified immunity test were satisfied, the Joneses were entitled to attempt to prove their version of the facts to a jury and summary judgment was not appropriate.

The panel also held, concerning Dr. Wang's asserted state statutory immunities to the Joneses' state-law claims, that Dr. Wang was not entitled as a matter of law to the reporters' privilege under Cal. Penal Code § 11172(a) or discretionary immunity under Cal. Government Code § 820.2.

District Judge McNamee dissented, and he would find that Dr. Wang is entitled to qualified immunity because she did not violate either the Fourth Amendment or clearly established law.

Donald A. Garrard (argued) and Steven D. Davis, Garrard & Davis LLP, Santa Monica, California, for Defendant-Appellant.

Robyn C. Crowther (argued), Michael J. Proctor, Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky, Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

Before: N. Randy Smith and Mary H. Murguia, Circuit Judges, and Stephen M. McNamee, District Judge.[*] Opinion by Judge Murguia; Dissent by Judge McNamee.

OPINION

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MURGUIA, Circuit Judge:

The Jones family--Jill, Michael, and their son G.J.--brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Dr. Claudia Wang violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and committed various torts during her investigation into whether G.J. had been abused. The district court denied Dr. Wang summary judgment on her qualified immunity defense. We conclude that, resolving all factual disputes in the Joneses' favor, the alleged conduct of Dr. Wang can support a claim that Dr. Wang violated the Joneses' clearly established constitutional rights.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Dr. Wang appeals the district court's denial of summary judgment on her qualified immunity defense. We accept as true all of the Joneses' evidence, and we draw all justifiable inferences in the Joneses' favor. Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (per curiam).

The events underlying this suit begin on the evening of February 24, 2010. As Jill Jones descended the steps from the loft in her Santa Monica condominium with her sleeping infant son G.J. in her arms, she tripped and G.J. slipped out of her grip. G.J. tumbled down several stairs and landed on his head on the hardwood floor. Jill rushed G.J. to the Emergency Department at the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center.

At the Emergency Department, a CT scan of G.J.'s head revealed a complex fracture on the back of G.J.'s skull. G.J.'s ribs were also fractured, but because the bones were still aligned, the fractures were not visible on the x-ray of G.J.'s chest done that day. Hospital staff made a routine report of G.J.'s injury to the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), noting that G.J.'s injuries were consistent with Jill's explanation that

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she had accidentally fallen down the stairs. G.J. stayed in the hospital for two days after the accident. On February 26, 2010, he was discharged to his parents. After Jill brought G.J. home from the hospital, she noticed a popping noise coming from G.J.'s chest, which was caused by the undetected rib fractures. Jill was concerned because G.J. appeared to be in pain every time she heard a pop from his chest.

On March 4, 2010, Nancy Hayes, UCLA's Suspected Child Abuse and Negligence (SCAN) team case manager, referred G.J.'s case to Dr. Claudia Wang, the SCAN team medical director. Dr. Wang reviewed the case and concluded that G.J.'s injuries were unusual and potentially, but not necessarily, inconsistent with Jill's explanation. Even though the skull fracture could be consistent with Jill's explanation that G.J. had fallen down stairs and hit his head, because of the fracture's severity, Dr. Wang decided to order routine child abuse screening tests and examine G.J. herself. Dr. Wang called G.J's pediatrician, who called Jill and coordinated with Jill to bring G.J. in for an opthalmological exam, a skeletal survey x-ray, and a physical examination with Dr. Wang the following morning. Jill's pediatrician told Jill that the tests were routinely done to rule out child abuse and should have been done before G.J. was discharged from the hospital the week before. Dr. Wang also called Jill and assured her that the tests were routine. Jill was also aware that these tests were routinely conducted to investigate child abuse because of her work as a lawyer for L.A. County Social Services. Jill told Dr. Wang about the popping she heard in G.J.'s chest and the pain it was causing G.J.

The next day, March 5, 2010, Jill brought G.J. to the UCLA Westwood campus medical facilities for the tests as scheduled. The opthamological examination showed that G.J. had no retinal hemorrhages, which are often found in infants with abusive head trauma.

The first radiologist to interpret G.J.'s skeletal survey, Dr. Ines Boechat, told Dr. Wang that she saw fractures on G.J.'s sixth and seventh right ribs on the posterior (back) side. Dr. Wang looked at the skeletal survey images herself and compared them with the chest x-ray taken at the Emergency Department immediately after the fall, which appeared not to show any rib fractures. Dr. Wang was not able to make out the fractures on G.J's right ribs that Dr. Boechat identified, but she did see fractures on G.J.'s left sixth and seventh ribs. Dr. Wang surmised that the left fractures were new, while the right side fractures were not. Dr. Boechat suggested to Dr. Wang that the skeletal survey might faintly show another skull fracture on the left side of G.J.'s skull that had also not been detectable on the February 24, 2010, CT scan. Dr. Boechat recommended that Dr. Wang get an opinion from another radiologist.

At Dr. Wang's request, a second radiologist, Dr. Ted Hall, reviewed both the chest x-ray from the Emergency Department and that morning's skeletal survey. Unlike Dr. Boechat and Dr. Wang, Dr. Hall interpreted G.J.'s skeletal survey to show fractures on G.J.'s sixth and seventh ribs on both sides. Dr. Hall opined that the right-side fractures might have been present on the February 24 chest x-ray, but he did not see the left-side fractures on that x-ray image. Dr. Hall saw no second fracture on the left side of G.J.'s skull. Dr. Hall also disagreed with Dr. Wang's observation that G.J. might have fractures on his femur and tibial bones. He explained to her that what she suspected were fractures were actually a normal variant in infant legs.

After consulting with specialists after that morning's child ...


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