• March 9, 2010

A pre-teen girl allegedly confided in a friend by saying that her brother had touched her in inappropriate ways.  After a delay of 90 days or so, the friend’s mother made a report of possible sexual abuse to the county’s child-protection authorities.  There was subsequent investigation and, ultimately, no finding of any abuse was made.  The girl’s family sued the friend’s mother, alleging common-law claims of defamation and invasion of privacy and a statutory claim of making a false report of maltreatment of a child.  The district court granted summary judgment to the friend’s mother on the ground that she was immune from liability pursuant to Minnesota law regarding the mistreatment of minors.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment but remanded to the district court for resolution of a pending motion for attorney fees.

There seems to be a significant likelihood of reversal, based on argument before the Minnesota Supreme Court on March 8.

Plaintiff/Appellant’s position is that the District Court and the Court of Appeals have adopted a novel and improper summary judgment standard in cases of statutory immunity. ( Rehn v. Fischley, 557 N.W.2d 328, 332-33 (Minn. 1997) was discussed at some length although Plaintiff/Appellant argued that Defendant/Respondent waived the argument.)  Plaintiff-Appellant argued strenuously that the District Court impermissibly made factual findings as to whether the Defendant/Respondent acted “in good faith.”

The statute makes a reporter immune from liability if the report is made “in good faith.”  It could be difficult for anyone to show “no genuine issue of material fact” on something as indeterminate as “good faith” (and thus entitlement to summary judgment on statutory immunity).

Justices Gildea and Magnuson, in particular, seemed concerned about Defendant/Respondent’s position and the decisions of the two courts below.  Justice Gildea, in questioning counsel for Defendant/Respondent, conjured up a scenario whereby the reporter of abuse only reported the supposed abuse after she got a threatening letter from counsel for the Plaintiff/Appellant.  Couldn’t a jury conclude that this is what happened and the report of alleged abuse was not for the safety of the child but was to protect herself from a claim by the family, the Justice asked?

The case poses an extremely difficult and thorny issue where the Court must balance the critical importance of encouraging reports of abuse while recognizing the extremely destructive potential of false reports.

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