COA upholds judgment for teens’ doctors on parents’ constitutional claims

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Tipton County parents who alleged their children were unconstitutionally treated by doctors while in a grandmother’s care failed to convince the Indiana Court of Appeals that summary judgment for the doctors was inappropriate.

The Indiana Department of Child Services removed Dawn and Matthew Riddle’s two teenage children in September 2016 after receiving a report of abuse and neglect. The children were placed in the care of their maternal grandmother, Helen Cress, who began taking 13-year-old J.R. to psychologist Christopher Scruton. Cress also took 17-year-old M.R. to the hospital in December 2016 following a suicide attempt.

Dr. Syed J. Khan arranged for M.R. to be admitted to an adolescent mental health center and prescribed the antidepressant Celexa, which the juvenile court approved after the Riddles did not respond to DCS requests to administer the drug. The court later approved administration of the drug Buspar for her anxiety.

M.R. was discharged to Cress’ care in January 2017, when Khan’s treatment of her stopped. The teen then began seeing Dr. Chaitanya Chekkilla, who diagnosed her with severe menstrual cramps and prescribed Levora. The drug could be used for birth control, but Chekkilla specified that it was not being prescribed for that purpose.

The Riddles objected to the medication, claiming its birth control purposes violated their religious beliefs, but the juvenile court again approved the administration of the drug. Meanwhile, the Riddles had lodged an unsuccessful objection to the administration of the drugs Khan had prescribed.

By this point, both M.R. and J.R. had been adjudicated as children in need of services, a ruling that was reversed in 2018 for lack of a fact-finding period within the statutory 60-day period. The CHINS order was vacated and expunged on remand.

Then in February 2019, the Riddles sued Khan, Chekkilla and Scruton under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming the doctors violated their parental constitutional rights by treating the children without their permission. They also alleged the doctors conspired with DCS and other parties to deprive them of those rights.

The case was removed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana but remanded back to the Tipton Circuit Court, where a special judge presided. The doctors moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.

The Riddles appealed, but the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in Dawn Riddle and Matthew Riddle v. Syed J. Khan, Chaitanya Chekkilla, and Christopher H. Scruton, 20A-PL-1441.

The suit was filed Feb. 25, 2019, so any acts or omissions occurring before Feb. 25, 2017, would not fall within the two-year statute of limitations, Senior Judge Carr Darden wrote Monday. That timeframe foreclosed the claims against Khan, the panel held.

“The Riddles claim they were not made aware of the harm Dr. Khan allegedly caused them until as late as September 2018, when they spoke with M.R.,” Darden wrote. “Based on the undisputed facts in the record, we disagree.”

Specifically, the panel noted that DCS had attempted to contact the Riddles about Khan’s prescription of Celexa before Jan. 5, 2017, when the trial court approved the drug. They were also notified on Jan. 11, 2017, about the Buspar prescription, which they objected to on Feb. 8 of that year.

“This is undisputed evidence from which the trial court could have determined that the Riddles were aware of Dr. Khan’s alleged violations, which fell outside the statute of limitations period, and their complaint was accordingly time-barred as to Dr. Khan,” the panel held. The judges further rejected the argument that Khan’s actions fell within the continuing wrong doctrine, tolling the statute of limitations.

Scruton, however, could not prevail on a statute of limitations argument because the undisputed evidence showed he treated J.R. until June 26, 2017, which was within the two-year period. However, summary judgment for him was still proper, the COA ruled, because he did not act under color of state law.

Scruton worked for a private company, the panel noted, and there is no evidence he communicated with DCS officials, juvenile court personnel or other state actors. Further, there was no dispute about whether Scruton actually deprived the Riddles of a constitutionally protected right.

The COA reached a similar conclusion as to Chekkilla.

“The Riddles do not dispute that Dr. Chekkilla worked for a private company, was not an employee of the State, and did not have any contact with DCS or juvenile court personnel,” Darden wrote. “Further, it appears that Cress, who had legal custody and care of M.R., chose to take M.R. to Dr. Chekkilla’s office on her own initiative to establish primary health care on behalf of M.R.

“There is no evidence that anyone at DCS directed, encouraged, or suggested that Cress select Dr. Chekkilla to provide medical care to M.R.,” the senior judge continued. “In addition, there is no evidence that the doctor, prior to the presentation of M.R. for medical treatment, had ever met Cress, M.R., juvenile court personnel, or any DCS official involved in M.R.’s case. Finally, there is no evidence that Dr. Chekkilla played any role in M.R.’s removal from the Riddles’ care or her placement with Cress.”

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