State pays $1.2M to settle suit over DCS search of vet’s office

The state of Indiana will pay an Indianapolis veterinarian $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit she filed claiming a Department of Child Services case manager conducted an illegal search of her office then posted a notice falsely informing her that her children had been removed from her home.

A spokesman for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, which represented DCS in the litigation, confirmed the settlement amount for Beth Breitweiser, DVM. She filed a federal lawsuit against the agency and a family case manager whose conduct she alleged violated her civil rights.

“We agreed to a $1.2 million settlement because it was deemed to be in the best interest of the State of Indiana,” AG spokesman William McCleery wrote in an email.

DCS spokesman James B. Wide did not reply to a message seeking comment on the settlement reached earlier this month. Breitweiser’s attorney, E. Scott Treadway, did not respond to a message Tuesday seeking comment on the settlement, but previously confirmed the matter had been settled.

Breitweiser’s complaint, Beth Breitweiser v. Indiana Department of Child Services, et al., 1:15-cv-1687, alleged that she and her two children were temporarily living in an apartment in the basement of her northside clinic, All Things Wild Exotic Animal Hospital near Broad Ripple, while the family home was being renovated.

After receiving a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, DCS family case manager Nola Hunt and another DCS worker came to the office, refused to identify themselves, and demanded to interrogate Breitweiser, according to the record.

Breitweiser said she feared for her safety and left the office with her children, according to the complaint. Hunt later searched the clinic and apartment and took photos without permission or a warrant, the suit said. Hunt later went to the family’s primary home where she posted a notice that said “Your child(ren) have been taken into custody,” and that court proceedings had been initiated, the complaint said. Neither was true.

DCS later opened children in need of services proceedings that involved home inspections and interviews, but no evidence of abuse or neglect was found. Nevertheless, Breitweiser claims DCS continued to insist she relinquish custody of her children and continued to press its CHINS case despite a lack of evidence.

About a month after the CHINS case opened, Hunt admitted in a deposition at least part of her report was inaccurate and false, according to the record. Still, DCS continued to press its CHINS petition until the day before a scheduled evidentiary hearing in the matter, after which Breitweiser filed a tort claim notice with the state. Two months later, DCS filed a substantiation against her, placing her on the Child Protection Index. Another month later, after Breitweiser petitioned for administrative review, DCS reversed itself, and the accusations against her were unsubstantiated.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in July granted Breitweiser partial summary judgment and set the matter for a trial on damages. Pratt’s order adopted a magistrate judge’s report that found there was no question based on the facts of the case that Hunt had conducted an unwarranted search, and that Breitweiser was entitled to judgment on that question because there were no exigent circumstances that would have warranted the search. However, Pratt also ruled Breitweiser had not overcome Hunt’s qualified immunity defense on Breitweiser’s due process claims regarding Hunt’s alleged threat to remove Breitweiser’s children.

The settlement is the second of greater than $1 million DCS has paid this year to resolve claims of abuses by the agency or its employees. In May, DCS agreed to settle a long-running dispute in which a jury awarded $31 million to Roman and Lynette Finnegan and their family in northern Indiana. The Finnegans were wrongly prosecuted after DCS employees falsified information concerning the death of their 14-year-old daughter. That case settled for $25 million, by far the largest settlement ever paid from the state’s tort claims fund.

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