Social Work Expert’s Opinion on Purported Constitutional Violation in Family Court Case is Relevant, Helpful

Zach Barreto

Written by
— Updated on April 20, 2021

Social Work Expert’s Opinion on Purported Constitutional Violation in Family Court Case is Relevant, Helpful

Court: United States District Court for the Southern District of California
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Dees v. County of San Diego
Citation: 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6280

In this Family Court case, the plaintiff alleges a social worker violated constitutional rights by conducting an unannounced school interview. The plaintiff’s social work expert witness intends to opine on standard protocols and procedures for social workers. The defendant’s challenge focuses on specific portions of the testimony, rather than at the expert under Rule 702 or Daubert/Frye. By finding no issues with the expert’s expert designation, the defendant fails to show a compelling reason why certain portions of testimony cannot stand.

Facts

The plaintiff filed this lawsuit on behalf of her family following alleged constitutional rights violations by a social worker. This social worker was investigating the plaintiff’s family regarding allegations of child sexual abuse. After interviews with the plaintiff, spouse, and children, the investigation was closed as unfounded. But subsequently, the social worker conducted another interview with one of the children at her school. This interview was conducted without parental consent. The social worker later submitted a non-custodial parent letter to Family Court to remove both children from their parents’ custody.

The plaintiff filed a Monell claim and retained a social work expert witness to testify on the standard protocols and procedures applicable to social workers. The defendant did not raise a Rule 702 challenge but challenged specific portions of the expert’s opinions.

The Plaintiff’s Social Work Expert Witness

The defendant sought to limit or exclude testimony from the plaintiff’s social work expert witness. Overall, the expert offered six opinions in her expert report:

  1. The father did not act unlawfully in taking pictures of one child
  2. The social worker coerced the mother to consent to the home interviews
  3. The social worker pressured the mother to consent to sign a safety plan
  4. Opinions related to how the social worker failed to inform and later changed the mother’s custodial rights and removed the children by using an oral safety plan
  5. The social worker had no basis, new referral, reason, and no suspicion that the child was in imminent danger of serious bodily injury to justify her re-interviewing the child without a court order or her mother’s presence or consent
  6. The social worker and her supervisors failed to provide accurate, complete, and truthful information to the Family Court. Further, their protocol in informing the Family Court was beyond standard social worker investigation procedures

Discussion

Both parties agreed that the first, third, and fourth opinions were irrelevant. Further, they agreed the jury should assess the second opinion. Thus, these four opinions were excluded. The defendant also sought to exclude the fifth opinion. They argued the expert’s opinion was irrelevant and presented a legal opinion without foundation. Here, the court disagreed because this opinion was relevant to the plaintiff’s Monell claim. This particularly related to the plaintiff’s allegations that the school interview constituted a Fourth Amendment violation.

The court found that the expert’s opinion on whether there was a basis for the school interview was relevant and helpful to the jury. The court also noted that the defendant had not challenged the expert under Rule 702. Thus, the expert could offer this opinion as it relied on her expertise in the social work field.

The court believed that the social worker did not have the right to re-interview the children at their school. In response, the defendant argued the court had already ruled in a previous order that the letters sent to the Family Court did not violate Fourth Amendment rights. Thus, the sixth opinion should be inadmissible. The court clarified that this order was limited to the non-custodial parent letter. It also explained the social worker’s purported coercion and whether the school interview was a Monell violation were issues to leave for trial. The court reserved ruling on the admissibility of the expert’s sixth opinion.

Ruling

The court granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion to exclude the plaintiff’s social work expert witness’s testimony.

Key Takeaways for Experts

This case demonstrates the limitations to an expert challenge absent Rule 702 or Daubert/Frye invocations. We see here how the expert’s expert status affords portions of her opinions to stand.

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