The County of Orange lost its battle in the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to overturn a record-setting $4.9 million judgment awarded to a Seal Beach woman, after two county social workers lied to a juvenile court commissioner in order to take away the woman’s two daughters.
It took Deanna Fogarty-Hardwick 6 ½ years to regain custody of her children.
The jury award given to Fogarty-Hardwick included damages against the two social workers. The Supreme Court also upheld $1.6 million in attorneys fees for Fogarty-Hardwick’s attorneys, but that could end being as much as $3 million, Fogarty-Hardwick’s attorney Shawn McMillan said.
The county and the two social workers will also be responsible for paying interest which has accrued on the $4.9 million jury award over the last four years, bringing the grand total close to $9.3 million, McMillan said.
Fogarty-Hardwick’s attorneys had offered to settle with the county for $500,000.
Orange County Social Services social workers Marcie Vreeken and Helen Dwojak filed false reports and held back evidence which would have cleared Fogarty-Hardwick, an Orange County jury found. Vreeken would later be promoted, according to county records.
A third social worker was found not liable.
According to court papers, Vreeken threatened that if Fogarty-Hardwick did not “submit” to her will, she would never see her children again. The social workers also tried in 2000 to coerce Fogarty-Hardwick to sign a document saying she was a bad parent by threatening to take her daughters away, Fogarty-Hardwick alleged.
She refused. A county commissioner ordered Fogarty-Hardwick’s daughters, 6 and 9, taken from their mother and put in Orangewood Children’s Home.
The girls were later put in foster care.
Fogarty-Hardwick gave her ex-husband full custody in 2002, hoping to protect her daughters. She was then allowed two supervised visits a month for two years. She eventually won 50-50 custody in 2006.
Fogarty-Hardwick sued the county in 2002, arguing the Social Services Agency and its two social workers violated her civil rights. A jury ruled against her.
She sued again, arguing this time county’s policies violated her constitutional rights, including her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Fogarty-Hardwick’s accused the county of violating her constitutional rights by removing her children without making a finding of imminent danger or serious physical injury; interviewing her daughters without a parent present; holding her children without cause; fabricating evidence; and failing to properly train employees about parents’ constitutional rights.
An Orange County jury voted 10-2 in 2007 in favor of Fogarty-Hardwick and awarded her $4.9 million.
The county appealed the judgment.
In the Fourth District Court of Appeal 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.”
“Despite Fogarty-Hardwick’s complaints, and the concerns expressed by others about the handling of this dependency case, SSA did not investigate the situation or consider assigning different social workers to the matter. Neither of the social workers involved was disciplined. Instead, Vreeken was promoted to supervisor in 2001,” Bedsworth wrote.
The Watchdog is looking into whether Vreeken and Dwojak still work for the county.
“What the county and these social workers did to her was horrendous and she deserves to be compensated in full measure,” McMillan said.
“It’s a big deal for a private citizen to take on the government all the way to the United States Supreme Court,” McMillan said. “(Fogarty-Hardwick) poured her whole life into this case. She provided a valuable service to Orange County and to other parents for having the tenacity to stick with it.”