Printer Friendly
The Free Library
22,710,190 articles and books

U.S. courts grapple with constitutional claims for loss of adult children.

Shortly after midnight on October 1, 1988, two Philadelphia police officers noticed a car parked in the middle of the road, its engine running. They found 19-year-old Donta Dawson in the driver's seat driv·er's seat
A position of control or authority.
, apparently unconscious and unhurt, and he did not respond to their questions or get out of the car when asked. Finally, one officer reached into the car and saw the young man's arm move; the officer, convinced that he had seen a gun, killed Donta with a shot to the bead bead

Small object, usually pierced for stringing. It may be made of virtually any material—wood, shell, bone, seed, nut, metal, stone, glass, or plastic—and is worn or affixed to another object for decorative or, in some cultures, magical purposes.
. Later, the officers discovered that Donta was unarmed.

The courts found that the shooting officer had acted reasonably and dismissed three criminal charges against him. Donta's mother, Cynthia, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and several police officers. She sought damages for violations of Donta's civil rights, wrongful death The taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of another person or persons.

If a person is killed because of the wrongful conduct of a person or persons, the decedent's heirs and other beneficiaries may file a wrongful death action
, and for violations of her own civil rights by depriving her of her right to Donta's companionship companionship

the faculty possessed by most truly domesticated animals. They are social creatures and have a great need for the companionship of other animals. Animals in groups are quieter and more productive as a rule.
. The city settled with Cynthia in what the Philadelphia City Paper Philadelphia City Paper, a free alternative news weekly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was established in November 1981 as a spin-off of the now defunct WXPN Express newsletter. New issues are released every Thursday.  called "one of the largest ever--and one of the fastest" city settlements. Since she released the defendants from all claims in the settlement agreement, Cynthia's claim that her civil rights had been violated was not considered.

But a few months later Donta's father, Bobby McCurdy, filed his own suit, claiming that the police officer's actions had denied him, too, a constitutionally protected right to his relationship with his son. McCurdy filed under [section] 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. (McCurdy v. Dodd, 352 F.3d 820 (3d Cir. 2003).)

His suit brought to the forefront a question that has bedeviled courts across the country: Is a parent's right to a relationship with an adult child constitutionally protected? The Seventh and Tenth circuits, for instance, have adopted all expansive view of the parental liberty interest, allowing parents (and even siblings siblings npl (formal) → frères et sœurs mpl (de mêmes parents) ) to sue under [section]1983, while the First and District of Columbia District of Columbia, federal district (2000 pop. 572,059, a 5.7% decrease in population since the 1990 census), 69 sq mi (179 sq km), on the east bank of the Potomac River, coextensive with the city of Washington, D.C. (the capital of the United States).  circuits have taken a much narrower view--and the Supreme Court has never had to decide the issue.

McCurdy's suit progressed to the Third Circuit, where it was dismissed in December 2003. Writing for the majority, Judge Julio Fuentes noted that while "we are mindful mind·ful  
Attentive; heedful: always mindful of family responsibilities. See Synonyms at careful.

 of the broad remedial purposes of [section]1983 grounded on alleged parental liberty interests, we are venturing into the murky area of unenumerated constitutional rights."

The court found that McCurdy was proposing too broad an expansion of due process rights and that the state had not specifically intended to interfere with his relationship with Donta. (Intent is a crucial element in finding a due process violation.)

The judges also noted that there was no evidence to show a close relationship between McCurdy and Donta and that Cynthia had largely raised him on her own. Finally, Fuentes concluded that while the definition of a"child" is fluid, it would be a "serious mistake ... to extend the liberty interests of parents into the amorphous Unorganized or vague. A lack of structure. For example, the amorphous state of a spot on a rewritable optical disc means that the laser beam will not be reflected from it, which is in contrast to a crystalline state which will reflect light. See crystalline.  open-ended area of a child's adulthood."

Blame it on Bailey

The McCurdy ruling repudiates almost 20 years of district court decisions in the Third Circuit that go back to a landmark ruling, Estate of Bailey v. County of York. The Bailey judges recognized a "cognizable The adjective "cognizable" has two distinct (and unrelated) applications within the field of law. A cognizable claim or controversy is one that meets the basic criteria of viability for being tried or adjudicated before a particular tribunal.  liberty interest in preserving the life and safety of a minor child"; yet the decision has been cited routinely to support claims that involve adult children. (768 E2d 503 (3d Cir. 1985).)

"District courts misread mis·read  
tr.v. mis·read , mis·read·ing, mis·reads
1. To read inaccurately.

2. To misinterpret or misunderstand: misread our friendly concern as prying.
 a footnote Text that appears at the bottom of a page that adds explanation. It is often used to give credit to the source of information. When accumulated and printed at the end of a document, they are called "endnotes."  in Bailey, thinking [the parental liberty question] was a decided issue," explained Sarah Ricks, a former attorney for the city and a Rutgers School of Law professor, who wrote an amicus brief in McCurdy.

"They never recognized that it was, in tact, undecided in the Third Circuit and split in the federal circuits. But since then, the courts have consistently misread that decision and ruled in favor of this expanded parental liberty interest. What McCurdy did was to recognize the split in the courts, and to finally decide it with a ruling firmly grounded in U.S. Supreme Court analysis." In fact, the trial court cited Bailey when it allowed Cynthia to press her [section]1983 claim.

The McCurdy decision is one of two key Third Circuit cases that deal with this issue. The other was brought by the family of a 23-year-old murder victim, Shannon Schieber.

In May 1998, Philadelphia police officers responded to an early-hours emergency call from Schieber's neighbor, who reported that he and his wife heard a scream and "a choking Choking Definition

Choking is the inability to breathe because the trachea is blocked, constricted, or swollen shut.

Choking is a medical emergency. When a person is choking, air cannot reach the lungs.
 sound." This was in a neighborhood where several recent rapes had been attributed to the so-called Center City rapist rap·ist  
One who commits rape.

Noun 1. rapist - someone who forces another to have sexual intercourse

aggressor, assailant, assaulter, attacker - someone who attacks
. When the police arrived, the neighbors expressed some doubt about the origin of the noises. The officers knocked on Schieber's door; when no one answered, they told the neighbors to call 911 again if they heard anything, and left.

The next clay, Schieber's brother broke into her apartment; she had been raped and murdered.

A few months later, the Schiebers sued the city and the police officers in federal court, under the same due process theory that McCurdy used. Senior District Judge Norma Shapiro, ruling that the case could go before a jury, agreed that the officers had violated Shannon Schieber's civil rights by placing her "in a worse situation than if they had not responded at all"--the so-called state-created-danger doctrine. Given that Schieber was probably still alive when the officers arrived, and that they knew the Center City rapist was still at large, Shapiro agreed they should have foreseen serious danger.

The judge also ruled unequivocally that the parents of an adult child have a liberty interest in their child's life "because of the parents' interest in custody and maintaining the family."

The Third Circuit granted summary judgment for the officers in February 2003, saying that there was no evidence that Shannon's civil rights had been violated, and remanded the case to the trial court. Significantly, the judges left open the parental liberty question. In the words of the chief judge: "I express no view on whether the Schiebers, as parents, had a liberty interest in the continued companionship of their adult, emancipated e·man·ci·pate  
tr.v. e·man·ci·pat·ed, e·man·ci·pat·ing, e·man·ci·pates
1. To free from bondage, oppression, or restraint; liberate.

 child." (Schieber v. City of Philadelphia, 320 E3d 409 (3d Cir. 2003).)

With the question of parental liberty still undecided, resolving the debate was left to the judges in McCurdy. Ricks said McCurdy sets the precedent for any similar claims that the court will consider in the future: "This totally changes the framework. It puts an end to these parental claims, and does so by being grounded in Supreme Court holdings."

While the Supreme Court has never ruled specifically" on the relationship between parents and their adult children, it has examined related issues. Troxel v. Granville Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States, citing a constitutional right of parents to rear their children, struck down a Washington state law that allowed any third party to petition state courts for  first established that "the parent-child relationship is constitutionally protected" by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment, addition to the U.S. Constitution, adopted 1868. The amendment comprises five sections. Section 1

Section 1 of the amendment declares that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens and citizens
 and that parents have a constitutional right to the "care, custody, and control" of their children. But the justices made it clear that this applied only to minor children, on the assumption that parents do not "control" their adult children. (530 U.S. 57 (2000).)

Troxel also laid down the requirement that for a government action to be unconstitutional, it had to be specifically aimed at harming the parent-child relationship. In McCurdy's case, noted Ricks, "the relationship of Donta Dawson to his parents was not on the police officer's mind when he pulled the trigger."

Fifteen years earlier, in Tennessee v. Garner Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, they may use deadly force only to prevent escape , the Court ruled that a father had the right to sue for loss of companionship under [section] 1983 for the death of his 15-year-old son, shot by police. The Court reasoned that the father could compel Compel - COMpute ParallEL  his son's companionship because the boy was still a minor. (171 U.S. 1 (1985).)

An ongoing fight?

Constitutional arguments are also wending their way into typical wrongful death cases that involve parents' loss of adult children. One reason is that the states vary widely in the compensation they allow for losses related to an adult child's wrongful death (a few states don't allow any), and plaintiff attorneys are looking to federal remedies.

Two years ago in Seattle, a trial court judge overturned years of precedent when she allowed the parents of 22-year-old Yianni Philippides to sue after he was run down in a crosswalk while riding his bicycle.

The defendants--Robert Bernard, who was driving the car that hit Yianni; Wolverine World Wide Wolverine World Wide NYSE: WWW is a footwear manufacturer. They have their own brand, Wolverine Boots and Shoes, and also make footwear for other companies, such as Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson. Wolverine also makes shoes and boots for the military. , for whom Bernard worked as a salesman; and Robert Johns This article is about the American musician. For the American photographer, see Robert John (photographer).
Robert John (born Robert John Pedrick, Jr., 1946, Brooklyn, New York) is an American singer-songwriter.
, another motorist--argued that state law allowed parents to sue tot loss of consortium only if the child was a minor.

But Judge Kathleen Learned disagreed, noting in her pretrial pre·tri·al  
A proceeding held before an official trial, especially to clarify points of law and facts.

1. Of or relating to a pretrial.

 ruling a 1988 change in the law's wording that "a mother or father, or both, of a child on whom either, or both, are dependent for support may maintain or join as a party an action as plaintiff for the injury or death of the child." She added that nothing in the law required that support to be specifically financial, and that the Philippideses could sue for loss of emotional support. (Philippides v. Bernard, No. 01-2-099744SEA, 2002 WL 31923585 (Wash., King County Super. Ct. Aug. 19, 2002).)

Around the same time, Glenn and Kay Estensen of Newark, Illinois Newark is a village in Kendall County, Illinois, United States. The population was 887 at the 2000 census. Geography
Newark is located at  (41.536297, -88.580767)GR1.
, lost their son Matthew, 23, in a fiery three-car pileup in Iowa. Their attorney, Martin Diaz of Iowa City Iowa City, city (1990 pop. 59,738), seat of Johnson co., E Iowa, on both sides of the Iowa River; founded 1839 as the capital of Iowa Territory, inc. 1853. Among its manufactures are foam rubber, animal feed, paper, and food products. The city is the seat of the Univ. , is preparing to challenge a state law that bars them from recovering damages.

The law violates the rights to due process and equal protection, Diaz argued. "If it were the father who died in a car crash, the son could sue. It's the same two people, it's the identical relationship--why is it only a one-way street Noun 1. one-way street - unilateral interaction; "cooperation cannot be a one-way street"
unilateralism - the doctrine that nations should conduct their foreign affairs individualistically without the advice or involvement of other nations


Diaz called McCurdy "a bad decision," saying, "All of these arguments about the constitutional liberty interest focus on the age concept. The Supreme Court has ruled only on cases involving minors, and there is absolutely no dispute that the right to a relationship with your child is a constitutional right. So why does this right disappear when your child reaches majority?"

He added, "What if the state were telling you, now your child is 18, so you can't have him in your house? That would be state interference in free association. That would be unconstitutional, clearly. The state can't interfere with your choice of who you associate with." He noted that certain types of adult-to-adult relationships are constitutionally protected and said, "It's not about parent-child, it's about the right to associate with whom you want."

Change in the law can be slow. Ricks noted that the city of Philadelphia had waited "about 10 years," letting many similar cases go by unchallenged, before finding the one that could settle the parental liberty issue, at least in the Third Circuit. "It's been a conscious, long-term strategy of waiting for the right case, and tiredly, this was it."
COPYRIGHT 2004 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sileo, Carmel
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:Med-mal on his mind.
Next Article:No rise in class action recoveries or fees, study finds.

Related Articles
Marriage trumps biology in California paternity fight.
Parents seek increased control over children's lives in legislatures, courts.
Rules and regulations- prisoner.
Blocking the blockers.
Pretrial detention.
Judge to hear views on funding for public defenders.
Indiana curfew struck down by Seventh Circuit - for now.
Challenge to paperless voting in Florida OK to proceed.
Adult siblings can claim wrongful death damages, says Vermont high court.
Sectarian 'Teen Ranch' has no right to tax funding, court rules.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters