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Tara M. by Kantner v. City of Philadelphia

June 02, 1998

TARA M., BY THE GUARDIAN OF HER ESTATE, NANCY KANTER
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA; PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; JOAN REEVES, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA; JOHN MCGEE, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR OF SOCIAL SERVICES OF THE CHILDREN AND YOUTH DIVISION, PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; KATHERINE M. CROSS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SOCIAL WORK ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ADOPTIONS BRANCH OF THE CHILDREN AND YOUTH DIVISION, PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; FRANCES CONWELL, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SOCIAL WORK SUPERVISOR OF THE ADOPTIONS BRANCH OF THE CHILDREN AND YOUTH DIVISION OF THE HUMAN SERVICES; JACQUELINE R. MARSHALL, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SOCIAL CASE WORKER; JOSEPH STUHL, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SOCIAL CASE WORKER; RICHARD WALKER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SOCIAL CASE WORKER; PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE; FEATHER O'CONNOR HOUSTOUN, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE FOR THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA; ASOCIACION DE PUERTORRIQUENOS EN MARCHA, INC., ["APM, INC."]; HILDA ARTEAGA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PRESIDENT OF APM, INC.; JESUS SIERRA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF APM, INC.; MYRIAM MATOS-MIRANDA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR OF THE CHILDREN, YOUTH & FAMILY SERVICE UNIT OF APM, INC.; MARIBEL GARCIA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ADOPTION CARE COORDINATOR AT APM, INC.; NANCY RODRIGUEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A FOSTER CARE COORDINATOR AT APM, INC.; LISETTE GONZALES, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS A FOSTER CARE COORDINATOR AT APM, INC.; NEW HOPES OF PHILADELPHIA; FEDERICO RODRIGUEZ; OWEN W. WILLIAMSON, M.D.; THE CHILD GUIDANCE CENTER OF THE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA; CITY OF PHILADELPHIA; PHILADELPHIA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; JOAN REEVES; JOHN MCGEE; KATHERINE M. CROSS; FRANCES CONWELL; JACQUELINE R. MARSHALL; JOSEPH STUHL, THIRD PARTY PLAINTIFFS
v.
NANCY KANTER, ESQ., THIRD PARTY DEFENDANT FRONTIER INSURANCE COMPANY, INTERVENOR IN DISTRICT COURT NANCY KANTER, ESQUIRE APPELLANT



Before: Stapleton and Alito, Circuit Judges, and Shadur,* District Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stapleton, Circuit Judge:

On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 97-cv-01041)

Argued: March 9, 1998

* Honorable Milton I. Shadur, Senior United States District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois, sitting by designation.

OPINION OF THE COURT

After suffering through years of abuse at the hands of various foster parents, Tara M., a minor represented by a court-appointed guardian, brought an action under the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Pennsylvania law against the City of Philadelphia, several municipal and state agencies responsible for child welfare, and a number of individuals associated with those agencies for their allegedly negligent handling of her case. Several of the individuals, the City of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (hereinafter "the city defendants") filed a third-party complaint against Tara's guardian ad litem, Nancy Kanter. They asserted that Kanter had breached various state-law duties in her negligent representation of Tara; therefore, if they were liable to Tara, the city defendants sought contribution from Kanter as a "joint tortfeasor" under Pennsylvania law. Kanter moved to dismiss the third-party complaint, asserting, inter alia, that she, as a court appointed guardian ad litem, was entitled to absolute immunity under section 1983. The district court denied the motion. We will affirm.

I. Background

Tara was born on April 10, 1987. Her 18-year-old mother was in the custody of the Pennsylvania child welfare system at the time, and Tara was consequently committed to the care of the child welfare system as well. During thefirst three years of her life, Tara and her mother were shuttled through six different foster homes. Authorities eventually discovered that Tara had been abused by her mother, and they determined that her mother lacked the ability properly to care for her. Therefore, in November 1990, Tara was separated from her mother and placed in another foster home. In January 1991, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas appointed Nancy Kanter as guardian ad litem for Tara. In June 1995, Tara was placed in yet another foster home where she suffered sexual abuse. Tara's nightmare continued in her next foster home, where she endured a variety of physical tortures. After several months of recovery in various institutions, Tara returned to another private foster home.

In February 1997, Tara, by and through her guardian ad litem, Kanter, filed a civil action in federal district court against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, several other social welfare organizations, and several individuals associated with all of these organizations. Her Complaint sought recovery under both federal and state law. Counts I and II of the Complaint assert violations of substantive due process and claim a remedy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, while Counts III to VI contain general allegations of breach of a state imposed duty of care in failing to protect Tara; failure to exercise ordinary skill, care, knowledge, and judgment in rendering care, protection, and services to her; and deviation from standards governing professional supervision, practice, and behavior in caring for and servicing dependent minors like Tara. Count VII alleges a civil conspiracy to commit unlawful acts that resulted in harm to Tara.

The city defendants filed a third-party complaint against Kanter. They claimed that if they were liable for the harm suffered by Tara, then the guardian ad litem, Kanter, must also have breached her state-law duties to protect Tara. The third-party plaintiffs alleged that Kanter's neglect was a "substantial factor" in Tara's damages, and they were therefore entitled to "contribution and/or indemnity" from Kanter as a joint tortfeasor under Pennsylvania's version of the Uniform Contribution Among Tort-feasors Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8324 (West 1982).

Kanter moved to dismiss the third-party complaint. She argued that section 1983 does not provide for contribution, neither federal nor state law authorized contribution for liability under section 1983, and in any event she, as a court appointed guardian ad litem, was entitled to absolute immunity under section 1983. The district court denied the motion, observing only that the third-party plaintiffs had not asserted a claim for contribution under section 1983. Kanter now appeals.

A. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

Normally, orders denying motions to dismiss are not immediately appealable. Such orders do not terminate the litigation and, hence, are not ordinarily final orders within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Nonetheless, some denials of motions to dismiss are final for that purpose. Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541 (1949). Such orders are reviewable under the so-called "collateral order" doctrine if they 1) conclusively determine a disputed question; 2) resolve an important issue separate from the merits of the underlying action; and 3) would be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. See Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 11-12 (1983); Rolo v. General Dev. Corp., 949 F.2d 695, 700 (3d Cir. 1991).

This appeal falls within the collateral order exception. First, although the district court did not expressly rule that Kanter was not immune from liability for contribution toward the third-party plaintiffs' liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the order so rules by direct implication. Citing Black v. Bayer, 672 F.2d 309 (3d Cir. 1982), Kanter expressly argued that, by virtue of section 1983, she was entitled to absolute immunity that protected her from having to defend against the third-party complaint. The effect of the district court's order was to require her to defend against that complaint. Thus, the court must be understood as having finally determined that Kanter was not entitled to the protection she claimed. Second, the issue of whether Kanter is entitled to be free of the burden of defending the third-party complaint is an important one unrelated to the merits of that complaint. Finally, the district court's refusal to dismiss the third party complaint is effectively unreviewable after entry of final judgment because immunity from suit is "an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation," an entitlement that is "effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). Therefore, we ...


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