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1st Circuit Finds Federal Court ‘Tilted the Playing Field’

Vacates and Remands the Case to Federal Court for Further Proceedings

(Providence, RI) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit found yesterday that a district court “abused its discretion” in connection with its dismissal of a federal suit calling for reform of Rhode Island’s dysfunctional child welfare system. The appeals court ruled that the district court acted improperly when it refused to allow plaintiffs to meet with counsel and when it barred them from obtaining evidence essential to their claims.

“Fairness is…the hallmark of federal-court litigation, and the essence of fairness is the provision of a level playing field,” wrote Circuit Court Judge Bruce M. Selya. “Here, however, the two errors…the total denial of counsel’s access to their clients and the imposition of an overly broad protective order — impermissibly tilted the playing field. Consequently, we must vacate the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.”

The 1st Circuit Court heard the appeal on March 4, 2015, after the federal district court dismissed the case. The three-judge panel included Judge Selya, Justice David H. Souter, retired associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez.

Children’s Rights, along with Rhode Island attorney John Dineen, then-Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston, and the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed the case—originally known as Cassie M. v. Chafee—in 2007. The federal district court refused to address plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, even though 12 plaintiffs had to be dismissed from the case after exiting state custody. The court ordered a November 2013 trial on the individual claims of the remaining two named plaintiffs. According to the 1st Circuit’s ruling, ordering a trial before deciding class certification “puts the cart before the mule.”

The 1st Circuit further found that the state’s justification for refusing to allow plaintiffs to meet with their counsel was “pie in the sky,” and that the protective order issued by the district court was highly prejudicial. “It is…nose-on-the-face plain that the adverse decision at trial rested in substantial part on the plaintiffs’ failure to adduce precisely the sort of evidence that the protective order prevented them from discovering,” the decision said.

“For years the state has fought this case at every turn, yet there are no indications that foster care is improving in Rhode Island,” said William Kapell, lead attorney with Children’s Rights. “After eight years and two reversals by the Circuit Court, it is time for the state to stop dodging and start fixing the dangerous practices that continue to put children in foster care at serious risk of harm.”

Many of the plaintiffs’ original concerns in the lawsuit remain relevant today:

•FY 2013 data puts Rhode Island at second worst in the country on maltreatment in care, and shows that only 81% of children in foster care received required monthly visits from their caseworkers.

•A January 2015 report from the Rhode Island Senate Task Force on the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the Family Care Networks found that “the current case load in Rhode Island is much higher than the rational best practices target of 14 cases per worker.”

•The same report found that the foster care maintenance payments rates are “low compared with other nearby states,” such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, and need to be raised.

A complete archive of documents related to the class action can be found at www.childrensrights.org/rhodeisland.