JACKSONVILLE -- A case of child protective investigations, conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO), has resulted in a decision that sustains a district court ruling regarding government immunity held in court.
U.S. Appeals Judge Gerald Tjoflat, on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, issued a 22-page ruling Dec. 14, affirming the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida decision in the lawsuit filed by Doris Freyre against Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, HCSO, Iris Valdez and Jessica Pietrzak.
The appellate court sustained the district court ruling, considering that the HCSO was not acting as an arm of the state, and, for that reason, the office did not qualify for government immunity, causing the lower court to deny a motion for summary judgment.
Freyre sued HCSO, the sheriff, and investigators Valdez and Pietrzak over the removal of her child after the office received calls of abuse. Since 1998 an agreement made by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) has allowed the HCSO to conduct investigations regarding child abuse in Hillsborough County.
As stated in the ruling, "On March 16, 2011, DCF received a call on its abuse hotline alleging Doris Freyre had neglected her disabled child, MAF. [The office],through child protective investigators Jessica Pietrzak and Iris Valdez and under Sheriff David Gee’s supervision, conducted an investigation that ended in the removal of MAF from Freyre’s care."
After a hearing in state court, per the ruling, "the judge agreed with HCSO that there was probable cause to remove MAF from Freyre’s care but asked whether, instead of permanent removal, 24-hour home health care services could be obtained," but, "the state was unable to secure those services, and MAF was
temporarily hospitalized at Tampa General Hospital."
HCSO attempted to transfer the minor to a long-term facility in Miami, but Freyre declined to consent.
After that, Freyre's father served with a pro se petition requesting a hearing at a state court, but the sheriff's office never received that document. There was no hearing, and the minor was transported to Miami, ultimately passing away.
Freyre filed the suit in November 2013, based on how the removal and the transfer were held. She alleged the people involved violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In his ruling, Judge Tjoflat sided with the district court, stating "we ultimately conclude that HCSO does not act as an arm of the state when conducting child protective investigations pursuant to the specific grant agreement between HCSO and DCF," denying government immunity on the case.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit Court case number 17-11231