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State Found to be Proper Party in Negligence Suit Against Montgomery County DHHS

Menefee v. State of Maryland
No. 37, September Term 2010 (Md. 2011)

By Kevin M. Cox, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

This case reflects upon the unique governmental relationship between the State of Maryland (“State”) and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”). John Menefee (“Mr. Menefee”), on his behalf and for his son, John Damien Menefee (“John Damien”) appealed the judgment of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County — dismissing the suit they filed against the State — which reasoned that the State was not a proper party to the civil suit for damages based on alleged tortiuous conduct by DHHS employees. Specifically, Mr. Menefee alleged that DHHS employees and/or Child Protective Services (“CPS”) negligently failed to investigate Menefee’s claims regarding abuse suffered by John Damien and John Damien’s mother, Sheila Menefee (divorced from Mr. Menefee), who was murdered ultimately by her boyfriend and in the presence of John Damien. Mr. Menefee claimed that it was this failure that was the proximate natural cause of John Damian’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), which developed assertedly as a result of direct child abuse by the boyfriend and witnessing his mother’s murder.

Generally, Mr. Menefee claimed that the State, through CPS/DHHS and two (2) CPS employees, failed to perform a reasonable investigation of a reported incident of suspected abuse; failed to find that the abuse occurred while in the physical custody of Ms. Menefee; and failed to investigate and/or report each of his complaints subsequent to the initial investigation; and, that such failures were the proximate and actual cause of John Damian’s PTSD. The State filed a “Motion to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment” claiming among other things, that it was not a proper party to the action. The State primarily relied upon the language of MD. CODE ANN., HEALTH–GEN., § 3-402(a), which provides that, “[i]n Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Government shall administer state social service . . . programs that in other counties are administered by a local department . . .” Further, the State relied on MD. CODE ANN., STATE GOV’T. § 12-103.2(d), which provides that “a tort claim shall be considered, defended, settled, and paid in the same manner as any other claim covered by the Montgomery County Self-Insurance Fund.” Mr. Menefee argued that the State was a proper party because the Maryland Tort Claims Act includes expressly an “Employee of a County who was assigned to a local department of social services, including a Montgomery County employee” in the definition of “State Personnel”. After hearing oral arguments, the Circuit Court judge granted the State’s Motion, explaining that “I think clearly the intent of the legislature was that in this particular instance, with this set of facts, that the proper party in this case would be Montgomery County, not the State of Maryland.”

On appeal, the Court of Appeals held that the State was a proper party to the litigation and vacated the judgment of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. The Court found that, notwithstanding MD. CODE ANN., STATE GOV’T. § 12-103.2 mandate that Montgomery County is responsible for defending and paying any judgment resulting from a suit against it or its personnel in carrying out social service programming under Article 3, Subtitle 4 of the Human Services Article, the State was a proper party to such a suit. Pursuant to the Maryland Tort Claims Act, Montgomery County and its employees, when carrying out State social service programming under Article 3, Subtitle 4 of the Human Services Article, are considered a “State Unit” and “State Personnel,” respectively, whereby the State waives sovereign and governmental immunity and assumes liability for any wrongdoing on behalf of Montgomery County or its employees. Pursuant to the State Government Article of the Maryland Code, in considering the Montgomery County DHHS as a “State Unit” and its employees as “State Personnel,” the Maryland General Assembly intended for the State to waive sovereign and governmental immunity, and assume liability for negligence arising from the administration of social service programming under Article 3, Subtitle 4 of the Human Services Article. Finally, because the State funds and maintains a degree of oversight and control over the Montgomery County DHHS for providing State services to Montgomery County residents, the State was a proper party.


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