Justices affirm $5 million verdict for Seal Beach mom
SANTA ANA A Santa Ana appellate court has affirmed a nearly $5 million legal judgment delivered in 2007 against Orange County’s Department of Social Services for wrongfully depriving a Seal Beach woman of her children.
In a 35-page opinion released on Monday, justices of the Fourth District Court of Appeal said a jury verdict in favor of Deana Fogarty-Hardwick was based upon on evidence of improper conduct by social workers.
Lawyers for Fogarty-Hardwick contended that two social workers fabricated negative evidence against her and suppressed positive evidence to support their decision to recommend that her daughters, who were then 6 and 9, be taken from her care and control.
The lawsuit contended that an Orange County commissioner in 2000 removed the girls from Fogarty-Hardwick’s custody because of the fraudulent statements by the social workers, and they were placed first in Orangewood Children’s Home and then in foster care.
A civil jury in Superior Court Judge Ronald Bauer’s courtroom voted 10-2 that Fogarty-Hardwick’s right to raise her children free of governmental interference had been violated, said Shawn A. McMillan, one of her attorneys.
McMillan said the more than $4.9 million verdict included approximately $4.5 million in general damages against the county for providing inadequate training and/or supervision to the social workers and for showing deliberate indifference.
The verdict was one of the largest of its kind in the state and perhaps the nation.
But in May 2007, the county board of supervisors decided to appeal after Dr. Michael Riley, the director of Children and Family Services, contended that the verdict had been unfair.
The decision handed down Monday is the result of that appeal. It also affirmed $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees.
In the opinion, Justice William Bedsworth wrote, “the evidence adduced at trial obviously caused both the jury and the judge to conclude not only that something seriously wrong was done to Fogarty-Hardwick in this case, but also that the wrongful conduct was not an isolated incident.
“This conclusion is something the County should be taking very seriously,” Bedsworth added.
Justices Kathleen O’Leary and Eileen Moore concurred in the decision.
The opinion did strike two injunctions imposed against the Department of Social Services by Judge Bauer after the Fogarty-Hardwick trial. Bauer ordered that the county be barred from including allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment against parents in dependency cases without some evidence, and he also banned the agency from requiring a parent to sign a “voluntary agreement” waiving parental rights unless the agency had reasonable evidence that the child was in danger.
In the Fogarty-Hardwick case, she contended that she was coerced to sign such an agreement.
In a 2007 interview, Fogarty-Hardwick said that after her children were taken away by the county in February 2000, she was allowed only monitored visits for two years when they were at Orangewood Children’s Home and with foster parents.
Her ex-husband was given custody of the children in 2002, and she was given visitation two weekends a month, Fogarty-Hardwick said. She later shared custody of her daughters with her ex-husband when they became teenagers.
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