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County cleared in woman's slaying; Suit said disabled victim should have been protected

County caseworkers never entered the home of Laura Cummings before she was killed at the hands of her mother, even though they had received complaints of abuse in the months before the disabled woman's torture and killing, attorneys allege.

Lawyers for Cummings' estate want to interview those caseworkers under oath to find out why.

They might not get that chance.

A judge has dismissed two civil lawsuits against Erie County and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard that allege county caseworkers from Adult Protective Services failed to adequately investigate complaints about the Cummings home in North Collins and that a sheriff's deputy failed to sufficiently investigate why the mentally impaired woman ran away from home.

John T. Loss, an attorney with Connors & Vilardo, which brought the suits against Erie County, said they are looking into appealing the decision.

"Whenever you have a case like this, you want to have the chance to interview the caseworker under oath," Loss said. "And we believe we're entitled to be able to do that."

The lawsuits, filed in December 2010, allege that Erie County was negligent for failing to protect Laura Cummings from mental, physical and sexual abuse by her mother, Eva M. Cummings, and her half brother, Luke J. Wright, as far back as 1995.

But Erie County cannot be held responsible under state law for actions that its workers had discretion over how to handle, State Supreme Court Justice Diane Y. Devlin ruled last week.

"There is no municipal liability for judgmental error," Devlin wrote. "Certainly the action taken by the deputy sheriff, the one time that the Sheriff's Office had contact with Laura, in returning the girl home was a discretionary act as opposed to a ministerial act."

The decisions Social Services workers made in their investigations of complaints of abuse would also be immune from lawsuits under the same legal principles.

"Those decisions are inherently discretionary," Devlin wrote.

Attorneys for Erie County sought to dismiss the lawsuits in November, shortly before a lead caseworker from Adult Protective Services was scheduled to be interviewed under oath, Loss said.

The lawsuits seek damages on behalf of Laura Cummings' estate for the pain she suffered for years in an abusive home and for her suffocating and scalding death in January 2010. Laura Cummings had several family members who were not charged in her death, including other siblings.

Eva M. Cummings is serving a sentence of more than 50 years for killing and brutalizing her daughter at their home in North Collins. Luke J. Wright was sentenced a year ago to 40 years to life for raping and assaulting her.

Attorneys for the estate contend that the county "breached its duty to Laura Cummings" when caseworkers for the Department of Social Services determined that complaints about abuse in her home were "unfounded."

Laura Cummings' brother, Richard Cummings, and North Collins Town Justice John M. Stevens contacted Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services "on multiple occasions" between July 2009 and her death, according to the lawsuits.

The lawsuits allege that caseworkers never interviewed Laura Cummings outside of the presence of her abusers and failed to obtain a search warrant to enter the home to investigate the complaints.

The county employees also failed to obtain Laura Cummings' medical records and failed to follow up to ensure she was receiving medical treatment, the lawsuits alleged.