A federal court dismissed a lawsuit Friday that accused the Mississippi Department of Human Services and two of its employees of falsifying records to “steal” a woman’s two children.
The U.S. District Court in Gulfport dismissed all claims against DHS and the employees, Tequila Hall and Patricia Piazza, finding the agency “enjoys sovereign immunity” and the employees enjoy “qualified immunity” under statutes that shield state departments and their workers from lawsuits.
The lead plaintiff, Marie Gill, filed the lawsuit after her encounter with DHS’ child welfare division, now known as Child Protection Services. The suit repeated claims Gill made in a report to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office in February 2015.
Gill’s report came on the heels of a similar report made by Mindy Stiglet just weeks before and prompted Sheriff Ricky Adam to launch an investigation into employees at Hancock County’s DHS office. Both cases were included in the Sun Herald’s investigative series, Fostering Secrets.
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Gill’s situation began when she had an argument with her husband at her Gulfport residence. Emergency services were called after she threatened suicide by pretending to drink nail polish remover. Gill later said she let a small amount of the substance touch her lips and immediately spat it out, according to court records.
Gill was taken to Garden Park Medical Center in Gulfport. Doctors and staff found her to be healthy and not suicidal, and she was soon discharged, according to her hospital records.
Gill’s husband had taken their children to his parents’ home in Waveland. When Gill went there and asked the paternal grandparents to return her kids, they refused to do so. Gill then contacted Waveland police, which in turn called Hancock County DHS workers.
Piazza went to the grandparents’ home and spoke to them, then informed Gill the children would remain in the custody of the grandparents. Piazza handed a DHS “Safety Plan” document to Gill to sign, and when she refused, “Piazza threatened to place the children in foster care” if Gill did not do so, the suit says.
Gill took cell-phone photos of the document as she reluctantly signed it, the suit says.
Two days later, Gill met with DHS to show them the results of her mental evaluation and drug screen. She was then provided a copy of the Safety Plan, but the document had been altered to include more allegations that made it appear she was unfit to care for the children. One of the changes contained the phrase: “mother stated she drank a bottle of fingernail polish remover.”
The safety plan was later presented to the Harrison County Youth Court, which placed the children in state custody fostered by their paternal grandparents. Gill regained custody of her kids about two months later.
Gill claimed the document was “falsified,” while the defendants claimed it was merely “updated,” court records show.
“The Court finds that MDHS is entitled to the dismissal with prejudice of Plaintiff’s claims alleging that MDHS employees deliberately falsified the updated Safety Plan because MDHS itself retains immunity from such claims,” the court’s ruling said.
Gill claimed Hall’s signature was on the altered document, but according to the court’s dismissal order, the signature belonged to a different DHS supervisor who was not a party to the lawsuit.
The court found the actions of Hall and Piazza did not rise to the level of violating Gill’s constitutional rights, and even if they had, there was not enough evidence to defeat the qualified-immunity statute that protects state employees from lawsuits. To defeat qualified immunity, a plaintiff must prove the state employee acted with deliberate indifference or conscious and reckless disregard of the consequences of their acts.
“When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to show the defendants committed a constitutional violation,” the court said. “However, even if Defendants did violate Plaintiff’s clearly established constitutional rights, the Court finds that Defendant’s conduct was objectively reasonable in light of the clearly established law at the time.”
Gill’s attorney, Edward Gibson, who also represents several others in lawsuits against DHS, said the court acknowledged the document was altered but said the alterations didn’t rise to the level of conscious and reckless disregard.
“You have to prove that they acted with deliberate indifference, and I think that it’s going to be hard in all of these cases,” Gibson said. “The court took notice that it was altered but said it didn’t rise to the level of deliberate indifference.”
The court found the plaintiff presented no evidence the defendants’ actions were based on false allegations or malicious intent as Piazza swore “she acted in good faith with no malice to do what was in (her) opinion to be the best interest of the children.”
Hall’s attorney Bill Whitfield was satisfied with the court’s order to dismiss and said it proves Hall and the other defendants did nothing wrong.