Suit Proceeds Over Placement of Special Needs Children

, New York Law Journal

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Three children in silhouette

Special needs children suing placement agencies after enduring years of abuse from a con artist who adopted them have overcome timeliness barriers to some—but not all—of their claims, a federal judge ruled.

In a case that grabbed national headlines, Florida authorities removed the children in 2007 from their adoptive mother, Judith Leekin, after learning of beatings, imprisonment, neglect and other forms of mistreatment.

Leekin's scheme stretched back more than 25 years and originated in New York City where she used fake identities and documents with city officials and private foster care agencies to gain custody of the children and then adopt them.

Ten of the 11 children Leekin adopted sued the agencies and the city in 2009 for failing to properly screen Leekin and uncover her inconsistencies. The plaintiffs are now between 22 and 33 years old.

The city settled its portion of the suit for $9.7 million in 2012.

On Jan. 17, Eastern District Judge Eric Vitaliano (See Profile) denied a request by placement agencies for summary judgment in part, allowing eight plaintiffs—including three over 21 years old before the complaint's filing—to proceed with a federal civil rights claim.

He let five of the eight plaintiffs press their state common-law negligence claims but ruled that the claims of three were time-barred.

He also dismissed the civil rights claim of two plaintiffs placed by the city; the pair did not sue the private agencies for negligence.

Ruling in S.W. v. City of New York, 09-cv-01777, Vitaliano identified numerous factual issues, such as the sufficiency of the agencies' supervision.

"While not all of the failures that plaintiffs raise would necessarily amount to gross negligence individually—and some may not have been negligent at all—taken together, they unquestionably present disputed issues of fact as to whether the agency defendants engaged in 'repeated acts of negligence' sufficient to constitute deliberate indifference," he wrote.

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