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Ninth Circuit Rules Against Parents in Infant Spinal Tap Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against a pair of parents who sued doctors and Boise police officers after law enforcement officials removed their infant daughter from their custody for a medical treatment that the parents had previously refused. The Ninth Circuit upheld a 2007 jury verdict in the case, finding that the defendants did not violate the parents’ civil rights.

We’ve attempted to condense the facts below. (If you want the full story, see the statement of facts from the Ninth Circuit’s 2009 opinion in Mueller v. Auker.)

On August 12, 2002, Corissa and Eric Mueller's five-week-old infant, Taige, developed a fever. As it continued to get worse, Corissa consulted with the child's naturopathic physician, Dr. Karen Erickson, via telephone. Dr. Erickson recommended that Corissa have the infant examined to rule out such conditions as an ear infection, a urinary tract infection, or possibly meningitis.

Dr. Erickson, who had no hospital privileges, informed Corissa that, if she took Taige to an emergency room, doctors would likely want to conduct a chest x-ray, urinalysis, and blood tests as well as "automatically" begin an antibiotic regimen and perform a spinal tap.

The Muellers, thinking that they could refuse the spinal tap and antibiotics, decided that Corissa should take Taige to the hospital.

The hospital ran a chest x-ray, blood work, urinalysis, and a stool sample with Corissa's consent. Corissa withheld consent for the spinal tap and antibiotics.

The results ruled out a urinary tract infection and ear infection, but no test had been administered which could rule out meningitis. When Corissa declined to proceed with a spinal tap or get a second opinion, a hospital social worker contacted Child Protective Services (CPS) and law enforcement.

Detective Dale Rogers made a decision (permitted by Idaho law) to remove Taige temporarily from her parents' custody in order to secure a medical diagnostic test and treatment, procedures which pediatric doctors advised Rogers were both necessary and within the standard of care for the Taige's situation. (The spinal tap came back clear, indicating that Taige did not have meningitis.)

The Muellers sued a number of the parties involved, including Detective Rogers; the litigation has been ongoing for years.

The question in this appeal was whether the police officers involved had an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that Taige was in imminent danger, and for causing her parents to lose custody without a judicial hearing. Judge Stephen S. Trott, writing for a unanimous Ninth Circuit panel this week, agreed with the jury that the officers did not violate the Muellers' constitutional rights. Judge Trott noted, "Society has seen fit to qualify parental rights in certain circumstances in favor of the life and liberty rights of a child."

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