A nearly $1 million damages award against grandparents found by a jury to have conspired with law enforcement officials to snatch their grandchild and have their daughter arrested will stand, an appeals court ruled.
Jack and Angela Howser, found by a jury in Southern Illinois U.S. District Court to have violated daughter Jade Green's constitutional rights, appealed to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to overturn the jury's finding and $970,000 award.
In a Nov. 7 decision authored by Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Barrett, who cited Russian author Leo Tolstoy's observation that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," the court ruled against the Howsers' claims the verdict was based on insufficient evidence; that a magistrate judge failed to allow certain evidence; and that the damages award was excessive.
Judges Kenneth Ripple and Ilana Rovner concurred in the judgment.
The appeal has its roots in the soured relationship between the Howsers and their daughter, when she began a relationship with Josh Green, who she married in April 2014. The older couple believed the Greens were not providing a suitable home for their four-year-old granddaughter, identified only as E.W., and were concerned they had moved to Lawrenceville, a community in far southeastern Illinois, about nine miles from Vincennes, Ind., and an hour away from the grandparents' home.
After first attempting to blackmail her with threats to publish nude photographs of their daughter in an online publication they ran, or send them to Josh Green's workplace, the Howsers then embarked on the alleged conspiracy with law enforcement, according to the appeals court decision.
"They enlisted the local police, the sheriff’s office, the county prosecutor and a private investigator to help them wrest custody of E.W. from Jade," Barrett wrote in the opinion.
The Howsers, who ran an online publication called Disclosure, employed their daughter, but fired her. Jade Green closed a back account from which she wrote a $200 check to her mother. Knowing the account had been closed, Angela Howser tried to cash the check anyway.
A complaint was filed, and then Lawrence County state's attorney Chris Quick drew up a felony charge for check bouncing and obtained a warrant for Green's arrest.
"Together, the group agreed that they would arrest Jade while Jade’s husband was out of the house so that the Howsers could take the child," the decision said, adding that one Sunday after midnight a caravan of cars carrying Lawrence County Sheriff Russell Adams, a sheriff's deputy, the Howsers and their private investigator headed toward the Greens' home.
After Green was arrested, and without receiving her consent, the child was handed over into the care of the Howsers. The following day, after she posted bail and attempted to meet the prosecutor, she was arrested again, this time on a complaint of stealing a memory card from a company cell phone.
The suit against the Howsers alleged they conspired with officials "to violate her due process right to make decisions regarding the care, custody and control of her child."
In arriving at the decision to affirm the jury's verdict and award, the appeals court dismissed the appellants' arguments that Green never specifically said she did not want her child placed with the Howsers and that they simply reported her to law enforcement for alleged check bouncing and theft of the memory card.
"The jury heard testimony that the Howsers arranged numerous meetings with law enforcement, got officers to agree to execute the warrant when Jade’s husband wouldn’t be home, called the sheriff on his personal cell phone to ensure that the arrest and transfer of custody, rode in the law enforcement caravan on the night of the arrest, waited for an officer to signal that Jack could enter Jade’s home and took E.W. with the sheriff’s approval," Barrett wrote.
"That is more than enough evidence to support the jury’s finding that the Howsers conspired with law enforcement officials to take custody of E.W. over Jade’s objection."
The three judge panel concluded: "These factors indicate that both Howsers engaged in reprehensible conduct. Their conspiracy with law enforcement officers to forcibly take E.W. was intentional, manipulative and deceitful.
"And though they did not physically hurt Jade, their behavior reflected total indifference to her mental and emotional health, not to mention her federally protected rights."
There was plenty of evidence of a conspiracy, the trial judge rightly excluded certain testimony, and the damages award was appropriate, Barret wrote.
According to the opinion, Jade Green had previously sued Quick and Adams, as well, over their involvement in the case. That complaint was settled for $75,000 before the case against the Howsers proceeded to trial, according to a report published by the Carmi Times.
Quick failed to win reelection in 2016.