AURORA | A federal judge on Tuesday threw out a class-action case filed by Aurora City Council member Danielle Jurinsky against Arapahoe County’s Department of Human Services, which Jurinsky has accused of agency-wide misconduct.
Jurinsky filed the case on behalf of herself and other families after Robin Niceta — a former DHS caseworker and the ex-girlfriend of Aurora’s ex-police chief, Vanessa Wilson — anonymously and falsely reported that Jurinsky had sexually molested her own son.
Niceta made the report shortly after Jurinsky criticized Wilson on a talk radio show. Investigators later concluded that Niceta’s accusation was unsubstantiated.
Niceta has since been charged with retaliation against an elected official and making a false report of child abuse as a mandatory reporter. She is expected to stand trial on those charges in November.
The trial date was postponed earlier this year after Niceta and her mother were indicted for allegedly trying to dupe prosecutors in that case into thinking that Niceta was incapacitated by cancer, fabricating medical records and creating an online presence for a fake cancer clinic.
Jurinsky has argued that Niceta’s misconduct reflects deeper problems within the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services. Last fall, she and others who say their families were targeted by the agency filed a class-action lawsuit against the department; Niceta; her supervisor, Michelle Dossey; and the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners.
In his written decision dismissing the case, Judge Philip Brimmer wrote that Jurinsky did not plausibly accuse Niceta of acting “under the color of state law” when Niceta made the anonymous report. He pointed out that the county hotline used by Niceta was open to members of the public.
“Although Ms. Jurinsky’s complaint alleges that Ms. Niceta ‘knew exactly the false information she had to provide’ to trigger an investigation, it does not allege that Ms. Niceta took any action beyond what any other citizen could have done by anonymously contacting ACDHS,” Brimmer wrote.
Jurinsky also accused Niceta of using her position to try to get Jurinsky’s case assigned to herself and tamper with or try to tamper with related documents. Brimmer cited a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision which found that officials can’t be found to have acted under the color of law when their actions “clearly fall within ‘the gambit of their personal pursuits.’”
“Interfering with an investigation and altering, destroying, or fabricating evidence are plainly not part of a caseworker’s official duties. Instead, these actions fall within the gambit of Ms. Niceta’s personal pursuits,” Brimmer wrote.
While Jurinsky argued that she was deprived of her right to due process by alleged investigative failures on the part of Arapahoe County, Brimmer replied that Jurinsky’s complaint did not specify whether she was formally investigated nor separated from her son.
Although the case was dismissed with prejudice, following the ruling, Jurinsky said she and the other plaintiffs plan to refile the case against the county, excluding Niceta as a defendant, in the near future.
“It could be this week. It’s already written out,” Jurinsky said. “The fight is not over.”
In a news release, Carrie Warren-Gully, chair of the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners, described Brimmer’s decision as vindicating for the county.
“Today’s ruling confirms what we’ve known all along — our human services employees are committed to the highest standards of protection for children and vulnerable adults,” she said.
“These steadfast employees have been wrongly vilified, placing undue public scrutiny against them due to a groundless lawsuit and the actions of one bad actor. We’re grateful to be able to put this behind us and continue serving the needs of our residents.”
The news release also mentioned the findings of a review commissioned by the Colorado Department of Human Services that was completed earlier this year and cleared the county of wrongdoing. Jurinsky previously called the audit a “whitewash.”