|DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services
[ Rehnquist ]
[ Brennan ]
[ Blackmun ]
DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioner is a boy who was beaten and permanently injured by his father, with whom he lived. Respondents are social workers and other local officials who received complaints that petitioner was being abused by his father and had reason to believe that this was the case, but nonetheless did not act to remove petitioner from his father's custody. Petitioner sued respondents claiming that their failure to act deprived him of his liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that it did not.
The facts of this case are undeniably tragic. Petitioner Joshua DeShaney was born in 1979. In 1980, a Wyoming court granted his parents a divorce and awarded custody of Joshua to his father, Randy DeShaney. The father shortly thereafter moved to Neenah, a city located in Winnebago County, Wisconsin, taking the infant Joshua with him. There he entered into a second marriage, which also ended in divorce. [p192]
The Winnebago County authorities first learned that Joshua DeShaney might be a victim of child abuse in January, 1982, when his father's second wife complained to the police, at the time of their divorce, that he had previously "hit the boy, causing marks, and [was] a prime case for child abuse." App. 152-153. The Winnebago County Department of Social Services (DSS) interviewed the father, but he denied the accusations, and DSS did not pursue them further. In January, 1983, Joshua was admitted to a local hospital with multiple bruises and abrasions. The examining physician suspected child abuse and notified DSS, which immediately obtained an order from a Wisconsin juvenile court placing Joshua in the temporary custody of the hospital. Three days later, the county convened an ad hoc "Child Protection Team" -- consisting of a pediatrician, a psychologist, a police detective, the county's lawyer, several DSS caseworkers, and various hospital personnel -- to consider Joshua's situation. At this meeting, the Team decided that there was insufficient evidence of child abuse to retain Joshua in the custody of the court. The Team did, however, decide to recommend several measures to protect Joshua, including enrolling him in a preschool program, providing his father with certain counselling services, and encouraging his father's girlfriend to move out of the home. Randy DeShaney entered into a voluntary agreement with DSS in which he promised to cooperate with them in accomplishing these goals.
Based on the recommendation of the Child Protection Team, the juvenile court dismissed the child protection case and returned Joshua to the custody of his father. A month later, emergency room personnel called the DSS caseworker handling Joshua's case to report that he had once again been treated for suspicious injuries. The caseworker concluded that there was no basis for action. For the next six months, the caseworker made monthly visits to the DeShaney home, during which she observed a number of suspicious injuries on [p193] Joshua's head; she also noticed that he had not been enrolled in school, and that the girlfriend had not moved out. The caseworker dutifully recorded these incidents in her files, along with her continuing suspicions that someone in the DeShaney household was physically abusing Joshua, but she did nothing more. In November, 1983, the emergency room notified DSS that Joshua had been treated once again for injuries that they believed to be caused by child abuse. On the caseworker's next two visits to the DeShaney home, she was told that Joshua was too ill to see her. Still DSS took no action.
In March, 1984, Randy DeShaney beat 4-year-old Joshua so severely that he fell into a life-threatening coma. Emergency brain surgery revealed a series of hemorrhages caused by traumatic injuries to the head inflicted over a long period of time. Joshua did not die, but he suffered brain damage so severe that he is expected to spend the rest of his life confined to an institution for the profoundly retarded. Randy DeShaney was subsequently tried and convicted of child abuse.
Joshua and his mother brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin against respondents Winnebago County, DSS, and various individual employees of DSS. The complaint alleged that respondents had deprived Joshua of his liberty without due process of law, in violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, by failing to intervene to protect him against a risk of violence at his father's hands of which they knew or should have known. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents.
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, 812 F.2d 298 (1987), holding that petitioners had not made out an actionable § 1983 claim for two alternative reasons. First, the court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not require a state or local governmental entity to protect its citizens from "private violence, or other [p194] mishaps not attributable to the conduct of its employees." Id. at 301. In so holding, the court specifically rejected the position endorsed by a divided panel of the Third Circuit in Estate of Bailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.2d 503, 510-511 (CA3 1985), and by dicta in Jensen v. Conrad, 747 F.2d 185, 190-194 (CA4 1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1052 (1985), that, once the State learns that a particular child is in danger of abuse from third parties and actually undertakes to protect him from that danger, a "special relationship" arises between it and the child which imposes an affirmative constitutional duty to provide adequate protection. 812 F.2d at 303-304. Second, the court held, in reliance on our decision in Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 285 (1980), that the causal connection between respondents' conduct and Joshua's injuries was too attenuated to establish a deprivation of constitutional rights actionable under § 1983. 812 F.2d at 301-303. The court therefore found it unnecessary to reach the question whether respondents' conduct evinced the "state of mind" necessary to make out a due process claim after Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327 (1986), and Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344 (1986). 812 F.2d at 302.
Because of the inconsistent approaches taken by the lower courts in determining when, if ever, the failure of a state or local governmental entity or its agents to provide an individual with adequate protective services constitutes a violation of the individual's due process rights, see Archie v. Racine, 847 F.2d 1211, 1220-1223, and n. 10 (CA7 1988) (en banc) (collecting cases), cert. pending, No. 88-576, and the importance of the issue to the administration of state and local governments, we granted certiorari. 485 U.S. 958 (1988). We now affirm.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that "[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Petitioners [p195] contend that the State [n1] deprived Joshua of his liberty interest in "free[dom] from . . . unjustified intrusions on personal security," see Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 673 (1977), by failing to provide him with adequate protection against his father's violence. The claim is one invoking the substantive, rather than the procedural, component of the Due Process Clause; petitioners do not claim that the State denied Joshua protection without according him appropriate procedural safeguards, see Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481 (1972), but that it was categorically obligated to protect him in these circumstances, see Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 309 (1982). [n2]
But nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors. The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. It forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law," but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means. Nor does history support such an expansive reading of the constitutional text. [p196] Like its counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to prevent government "from abusing [its] power, or employing it as an instrument of oppression," Davidson v. Cannon, supra, at 348; see also Daniels v. Williams, supra, at 331 ("to secure the individual from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government," and "to prevent governmental power from being ‘used for purposes of oppression'") (internal citations omitted); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 549 (1981) (Powell, J., concurring in result) (to prevent the "affirmative abuse of power"). Its purpose was to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other. The Framers were content to leave the extent of governmental obligation in the latter area to the democratic political processes.
Consistent with these principles, our cases have recognized that the Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual. See, e.g., Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297, 317-318 (1980) (no obligation to fund abortions or other medical services) (discussing Due Process Clause of Fifth Amendment); Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 74 (1972) (no obligation to provide adequate housing) (discussing Due Process Clause of Fourteenth Amendment); see also Youngberg v. Romeo, supra, at 317 ("As a general matter, a State is under no constitutional duty to provide substantive services for those within its border"). As we said in Harris v. McRae:
Although the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause affords protection against unwarranted government interference, . . . it does not confer an entitlement to such [governmental aid] as may be necessary to realize all the advantages of that freedom.
448 U.S. at 317-318 (emphasis added). If the Due Process Clause does not require the State to provide its citizens with particular protective services, it follows that the State cannot [p197] be held liable under the Clause for injuries that could have been averted had it chosen to provide them. [n3] As a general matter, then, we conclude that a State's failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.
Petitioners contend, however, that even if the Due Process Clause imposes no affirmative obligation on the State to provide the general public with adequate protective services, such a duty may arise out of certain "special relationships" created or assumed by the State with respect to particular individuals. Brief for Petitioners 13-18. Petitioners argue that such a "special relationship" existed here because the State knew that Joshua faced a special danger of abuse at his father's hands, and specifically proclaimed, by word and by deed, its intention to protect him against that danger. Id. at 18-20. Having actually undertaken to protect Joshua from this danger -- which petitioners concede the State played no part in creating -- the State acquired an affirmative "duty," enforceable through the Due Process Clause, to do so in a reasonably competent fashion. Its failure to discharge that duty, so the argument goes, was an abuse of governmental power that so "shocks the conscience," Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172 (1952), as to constitute a substantive due process violation. Brief for Petitioners 20. [n4] [p198]
We reject this argument. It is true that, in certain limited circumstances, the Constitution imposes upon the State affirmative duties of care and protection with respect to particular individuals. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97"]429 U.S. 97 (1976), we recognized that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), we recognized that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), requires the State to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated prisoners. 429 U.S. at 103-104. [n5] We reasoned [p199] that, because the prisoner is unable "‘by reason of the deprivation of his liberty [to] care for himself,'" it is only "‘just'" that the State be required to care for him. Ibid., quoting Spicer v. Williamson, 191 N. C. 487, 490, 132 S.E. 291, 293 (1926).
In Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307 (1982), we extended this analysis beyond the Eighth Amendment setting, [n6] holding that the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause requires the State to provide involuntarily committed mental patients with such services as are necessary to ensure their "reasonable safety" from themselves and others. Id. at 314-325; see id. at 315, 324 (dicta indicating that the State is also obligated to provide such individuals with "adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care"). As we explained:
If it is cruel and unusual punishment to hold convicted criminals in unsafe conditions, it must be unconstitutional [under the Due Process Clause] to confine the involuntarily committed -- who may not be punished at all -- in unsafe conditions.
Id. at 315-316; see also Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 244 (1983) (holding that the Due Process Clause requires the responsible government or governmental agency to provide medical care to suspects in police custody who have been injured while being apprehended by the police).
But these cases afford petitioners no help. Taken together, they stand only for the proposition that, when the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there [p200] against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general wellbeing. See Youngberg v. Romeo, supra, at 317 ("When a person is institutionalized -- and wholly dependent on the State[,] . . . a duty to provide certain services and care does exist"). [n7] The rationale for this principle is simple enough: when the State, by the affirmative exercise of its power, so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs -- e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety -- it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause. See Estelle v. Gamble, supra, at 103-104; Youngberg v. Romeo, supra, at 315-316. The affirmative duty to protect arises not from the State's knowledge of the individual's predicament or from its expressions of intent to help him, but from the limitation which it has imposed on his freedom to act on his own behalf. See Estelle v. Gamble, supra, at 103 ("An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met"). In the substantive due process analysis, it is the State's affirmative act of restraining the individual's freedom to act on his own behalf -- through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraint of personal liberty -- which is the "deprivation of liberty" triggering the protections of the Due Process Clause, not its failure to act to protect his liberty interests against harms inflicted by other means. [n8] [p201]
The Estelle-Youngberg analysis simply has no applicability in the present case. Petitioners concede that the harms Joshua suffered did not occur while he was in the State's custody, but while he was in the custody of his natural father, who was in no sense a state actor. [n9] While the State may have been aware of the dangers that Joshua faced in the free world, it played no part in their creation, nor did it do anything to render him any more vulnerable to them. That the State once took temporary custody of Joshua does not alter the analysis, for, when it returned him to his father's custody, it placed him in no worse position than that in which he would have been had it not acted at all; the State does not become the permanent guarantor of an individual's safety by having once offered him shelter. Under these circumstances, the State had no constitutional duty to protect Joshua.
It may well be that, by voluntarily undertaking to protect Joshua against a danger it concededly played no part in creating, the State acquired a duty under state tort law to provide [p202] him with adequate protection against that danger. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 (1965) (one who undertakes to render services to another may in some circumstances be held liable for doing so in a negligent fashion); see generally W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 56 (5th ed.1984) (discussing "special relationships" which may give rise to affirmative duties to act under the common law of tort). But the claim here is based on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which, as we have said many times, does not transform every tort committed by a state actor into a constitutional violation. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. at 335-336; Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. at 544; Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277, 285 (1980); Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 146 (1979); Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701 (1976). A State may, through its courts and legislatures, impose such affirmative duties of care and protection upon its agents as it wishes. But not "all common law duties owed by government actors were . . . constitutionalized by the Fourteenth Amendment." Daniels v. Williams, supra, at 335. Because, as explained above, the State had no constitutional duty to protect Joshua against his father's violence, its failure to do so -- though calamitous in hindsight -- simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause. [n10]
Judges and lawyers, like other humans, are moved by natural sympathy in a case like this to find a way for Joshua and his mother to receive adequate compensation for the grievous [p203] harm inflicted upon them. But before yielding to that impulse, it is well to remember once again that the harm was inflicted not by the State of Wisconsin, but by Joshua's father. The most that can be said of the state functionaries in this case is that they stood by and did nothing when suspicious circumstances dictated a more active role for them. In defense of them, it must also be said that, had they moved too soon to take custody of the son away from the father, they would likely have been met with charges of improperly intruding into the parent-child relationship, charges based on the same Due Process Clause that forms the basis for the present charge of failure to provide adequate protection.
The people of Wisconsin may well prefer a system of liability which would place upon the State and its officials the responsibility for failure to act in situations such as the present one. They may create such a system, if they do not have it already, by changing the tort law of the State in accordance with the regular lawmaking process. But they should not have it thrust upon them by this Court's expansion of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1. As used here, the term "State" refers generically to state and local governmental entities and their agents.
2. Petitioners also argue that the Wisconsin child protection statutes gave Joshua an "entitlement" to receive protective services in accordance with the terms of the statute, an entitlement which would enjoy due process protection against state deprivation under our decision in Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972). Brief for Petitioners 24-29. But this argument is made for the first time in petitioners' brief to this Court: it was not pleaded in the complaint, argued to the Court of Appeals as a ground for reversing the District Court, or raised in the petition for certiorari. We therefore decline to consider it here. See Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. at 316, n.19; Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321, 323, n. 1 (1977); Duignan v. United States, 274 U.S. 195, 200 (1927); Old Jordan Mining & Milling Co. v. Societe Anonyme des Mines, 164 U.S. 261, 264-265 (1896).
3. The State may not, of course, selectively deny its protective services to certain disfavored minorities without violating the Equal Protection Clause. See Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886). But no such argument has been made here.
4. The genesis of this notion appears to lie in a statement in our opinion in Martinez v. California, 444 U.S. 277 (1980). In that case, we were asked to decide, inter alia, whether state officials could be held liable under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the death of a private citizen at the hands of a parolee. Rather than squarely confronting the question presented here -- whether the Due Process Clause imposed upon the State an affirmative duty to protect -- we affirmed the dismissal of the claim on the narrower ground that the causal connection between the state officials' decision to release the parolee from prison and the murder was too attenuated to establish a "deprivation" of constitutional rights within the meaning of § 1983. Id. at 284-285. But we went on to say:
[T]he parole board was not aware that appellants' decedent, as distinguished from the public at large, faced any special danger. We need not and do not decide that a parole officer could never be deemed to "deprive" someone of life by action taken in connection with the release of a prisoner on parole. But we do hold that, at least under the particular circumstances of this parole decision, appellants' decedent's death is too remote a consequence of the parole officers' action to hold them responsible under the federal civil rights law.
Id. at 285 (footnote omitted). Several of the Courts of Appeals have read this language as implying that, once the State learns that a third party poses a special danger to an identified victim, and indicates its willingness to protect the victim against that danger, a "special relationship" arises between State and victim, giving rise to an affirmative duty, enforceable through the Due Process Clause, to render adequate protection. See Estate of Bailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.2d 503, 510-511 (CA3 1985); Jensen v. Conrad, 747 F.2d 185, 190-194, and n. 11 (CA4 1984) (dicta), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1052 (1985); Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dept., 855 F.2d 1421, 1425-1426 (CA9 1988). But see, in addition to the opinion of the Seventh Circuit below, Estate of Gilmore v. Buckley, 787 F.2d 714, 720-723 (CA1), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 882 (1986); Harpole v. Arkansas Dept. of Human Services, 820 F.2d 923, 926-927 (CA8 1987); Wideman v. Shallowford Community Hospital Inc., 826 F.2d 1030, 1034-1037 (CA11 1987).
5. To make out an Eighth Amendment claim based on the failure to provide adequate medical care, a prisoner must show that the state defendants exhibited "deliberate indifference" to his "serious" medical needs; the mere negligent or inadvertent failure to provide adequate care is not enough. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. at 429 U.S. 105"]105-106. In 105-106. In Whitley v. Albers,475 U.S. 312 (1986), we suggested that a similar state of mind is required to make out a substantive due process claim in the prison setting. Id. at 326-327.
6. The Eighth Amendment applies
only after the State has complied with the constitutional guarantees traditionally associated with criminal prosecutions. . . . [T]he State does not acquire the power to punish with which the Eighth Amendment is concerned until after it has secured a formal adjudication of guilt in accordance with due process of law.
7. Even in this situation, we have recognized that the State "has considerable discretion in determining the nature and scope of its responsibilities." Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. at 317.
8. Of course, the protections of the Due Process Clause, both substantive and procedural, may be triggered when the State, by the affirmative acts of its agents, subjects an involuntarily confined individual to deprivations of liberty which are not among those generally authorized by his confinement. See, e.g., Whitley v. Albers, supra, at 326-327 (shooting inmate); Youngberg v. Romeo, supra, at 316 (shackling involuntarily committed mental patient); Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 11 (1980) (removing inmate from general prison population and confining him to administrative segregation); Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 491-494 (1980) (transferring inmate to mental health facility).
9. Complaint ¶ 16, App. 6 ("At relevant times to and until March 8, 1984, [the date of the final beating,] Joshua DeShaney was in the custody and control of Defendant Randy DeShaney"). Had the State, by the affirmative exercise of its power, removed Joshua from free society and placed him in a foster home operated by its agents, we might have a situation sufficiently analogous to incarceration or institutionalization to give rise to an affirmative duty to protect. Indeed, several Courts of Appeals have held, by analogy to Estelle and Youngberg, that the State may be held liable under the Due Process Clause for failing to protect children in foster homes from mistreatment at the hands of their foster parents. See Doe v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 649 F.2d 134, 141-142 (CA2 1981), after remand, 709 F.2d 782, cert. denied sub nom. Catholic Home Bureau v. Doe, 464 U.S. 864 (1983); Taylor ex rel. Walker v. Ledbetter, 818 F.2d 791, 794-797 (CA11 1987) (en banc), cert. pending, Ledbetter v. Taylor, No. 87-521. We express no view on the validity of this analogy, however, as it is not before us in the present case.
10. Because we conclude that the Due Process Clause did not require the State to protect Joshua from his father, we need not address respondents' alternative argument that the individual state actors lacked the requisite "state of mind" to make out a due process violation. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. at 334, n. 3. Similarly, we have no occasion to consider whether the individual respondents might be entitled to a qualified immunity defense, see Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987), or whether the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to support a § 1983 claim against the county and DSS under Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), and its progeny.