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Jackson v. Commissioner of Human Services

Supreme Court of Minnesota

September 18, 2019

Shonwta D. Jackson, Appellant
Commissioner of Human Services, Respondent.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Mary F. Moriarty, Chief Hennepin County Public Defender, Peter W. Gorman, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, Scott H. Ikeda, Assistant Attorney General, Heather Kjos, Assistant Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.


         1. The Department of Human Services Background Studies Act, Minn. Stat. ch. 245C (2018), as applied to appellant's case, does not create an irrebuttable presumption in violation of the Due Process Clause.

         2. The Department provided appellant sufficient notice of his rights under the Background Studies Act.

         3. Appellant's challenge to the issue of the constitutionality of the preponderance of the evidence standard in the Background Studies Act was forfeited.


          MCKEIG, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Shonwta D. Jackson challenges the constitutionality of the Department of Human Services (DHS) Background Studies Act (the Act) as applied to his case. Minn. Stat. ch. 245C (2018). Chapter 245C governs background studies that DHS performs to regulate which workers may interact with vulnerable populations in DHS-licensed facilities. Respondent, the Commissioner of DHS, determined that Jackson is permanently disqualified from working in a capacity where he may have contact with people who access services from a DHS-licensed program because of the information gathered during a 2002 child-protection investigation and assessment. Jackson argues that the intersection of three sections of chapter 245C creates an "irrebuttable presumption" in violation of his due process rights. Jackson also argues that he should be granted relief because of alleged errors by the Commissioner. Finally, he argues that the preponderance of evidence standard used in chapter 245C fails to provide sufficient procedural protections for a disqualified individual.

         Jackson filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the court of appeals, which affirmed the decision of the Commissioner. We affirm.


         Jackson sought employment as a residence manager at a DHS-licensed substance abuse treatment program. As a condition of employment, he was required to undergo a background study. Before discussing the facts, we begin with the statutory framework at issue. Chapter 245C governs background studies performed by DHS for individuals who seek employment in certain licensed facilities where the employee may have contact with people accessing services at that facility. Minn. Stat. §§ 245C.01–.34 (2018).

         The purpose of the background studies conducted by DHS is to ensure the safety of the people who use DHS-licensed facilities. The Act gives the Commissioner the authority to disqualify an individual from employment in certain positions if that individual has a background that indicates a potential risk to people accessing services. "The commissioner shall disqualify an individual . . . from any position allowing direct contact with persons receiving services from the license holder" if the Commissioner determines that "a preponderance of the evidence indicates the individual has committed an act or acts that meet the definition of any of the crimes listed in section 245C.15 [of the Act.]" Minn. Stat. § 245C.14, subd. 1(a)(2). As part of the background study, the Commissioner "shall review" information from a variety of locations, including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the social service information system, which holds records about "findings of maltreatment of minors." Minn. Stat. § 245C.08, subd. 1.

         An individual who has been determined, by a preponderance of evidence, to have committed acts that meet the definition of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree is permanently disqualified, meaning the disqualification may not be "set aside" for any reason or after any period of time. Minn. Stat. §§ 245C.14, subd. 1(a)(2), .15, subd. 1, .24, subd. 2. A person who is disqualified for any reason may request reconsideration, in writing, by submitting information showing that the Commissioner relied on incorrect information. Minn. Stat. § 245C.21, subds. 1, 3(a)(1). "The commissioner shall rescind the disqualification if the commissioner finds that the information relied upon to disqualify the subject is incorrect." Minn. Stat. § 245C.22, subd. 2. In cases where a person is disqualified for less serious conduct, "[t]he commissioner may set aside the disqualification" upon a showing that "the individual does not pose a risk of harm." Minn. Stat. § 245C.22, subd. 4.

         In order to preserve the right to a hearing, a disqualified person must challenge the disqualification within the statutory time period. Minn. Stat. §§ 245C.21, subd. 2; .27, subd. 1(a); .29, subd. 2(a)(2). A person who is disqualified because DHS determined by a preponderance of the evidence that the person committed acts that constitute a crime listed in section 245C.15 (a "preponderance of the evidence disqualification") may request a "fair hearing" after a reconsideration decision. Minn. Stat. § 245C.27, subd. 1(a). But if that disqualification is "conclusive" under section 245C.29, the person does not have the right to request a fair hearing. Id., subd. 1(e). "A disqualification is conclusive for purposes of current and future background studies if: . . . the individual did not request reconsideration under section 245C.21 . . . ." Minn. Stat. § 245C.29, subd. 2(a)(2).

         In Jackson's case, his first background study was performed after a 2010 request by his employer. In this background study, DHS discovered a 2002 child-protection report that Jackson had sexually abused his son during an incident sometime around 1998. The report stated that Jackson inserted an object into his son's anus as a punishment for his son's alleged sexual misconduct with another family member. The case notes from that report conclude that "[t]here was a preponderance of evidence to substantiate both [physical and sexual abuse] by both parents," and the caseworker made a maltreatment determination.

         Following the child-protection report, in 2003, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office filed a Petition to Terminate Parental Rights or Transfer Permanent Legal and Physical Custody of Jackson's six children, including his son. Under the heading "Maltreatment Substantiated," the County stated that it had received a report that "[a] CornerHouse interview determined [Jackson's son] was sexually and physically abused by his parents . . . ." Jackson and the children's mother voluntarily terminated their parental rights to five of their children (but not the son), and the judge entered an order to that effect in 2004. The district court made no findings about abuse because the parents agreed to a voluntary termination of their rights and waived the right to a trial. Jackson testified that he believed it was in the best interests of the children to have his parental rights terminated, and the court stated that good cause was shown. The son who had been sexually abused was placed in long-term foster care, at the age of 14, but parental rights to him were not terminated.

         On July 15, 2010, DHS sent its response to a second request for a background study on Jackson. In its letter to Jackson, it stated that it had determined that his "parental rights were terminated" in 2004 and "there is a preponderance of evidence that on or around 1998, [Jackson] committed an act which meets the definition of a disqualifying characteristic (§609.342-felony first degree criminal sexual conduct)." It stated that "this conviction and act" disqualified Jackson from working in "any position allowing direct contact with, or access to, persons receiving services from programs licensed by" DHS, among other agencies. The letter also stated that "[t]he Commissioner has determined that you pose an imminent risk of harm to persons receiving services" from the licensed facility, and listed several factors that went into that determination. One such factor was that Jackson had "a disqualification which may not be set aside regardless of how much time has passed." The letter informed Jackson that his employer was told to immediately remove him from his position but was not told why.

         In a section titled, "Permanent Bar to Set Aside Disqualification," the letter stated that no "variance" could be granted, no matter how much time had passed, and that Jackson may ask for reconsideration within 30 days of receiving the letter if "the information used to disqualify [him was] incorrect." The letter explained that if he did request reconsideration, the disqualification either could be "rescinded" or he would continue to be disqualified. If he did not request reconsideration or if the disqualification was affirmed, "subsequent background studies [would] result in an order ...

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