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Jepsen v. County of Pope

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

December 23, 2019

William Jepsen, as Trustee for the Heirs and Next of Kin of Eric Parker Dean, Appellant,
v.
County of Pope, et al., Respondents, David Dean, et al., Defendants.

          Pope County District Court File No. 61-CV-17-58

          Anu Chudasama, Paul D. Peterson, William D. Harper, Harper & Peterson, P.L.L.C., Woodbury, Minnesota (for appellant)

          James R. Andreen, Samantha R. Alsadi, Erstad & Riemer, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondents)

          Jason L. DePauw, Robins Kaplan LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Minnesota Association for Justice)

          Kenneth H. Bayliss, Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., St. Cloud, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association)

          Considered and decided by Florey, Presiding Judge; Reyes, Judge; and Smith, Tracy M., Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         Minn. Stat. § 626.556, subd. 4(b) (2018)[1] does not abrogate the common-law doctrine of official immunity for county social workers.

          OPINION

          SMITH, TRACY M., JUDGE.

         On appeal from partial summary judgment in favor of respondents on appellant's negligence claims arising out of the wrongful death of a child, appellant argues that the district court erred by deciding (1) that Pope County and its child-protection social workers were immune from liability under the doctrines of official immunity and statutory immunity and (2) that, as a matter of law, the evidence was insufficient to establish that the social workers' failure to cross-report suspected child abuse to law enforcement was a proximate cause of the child's death. We affirm.

         FACTS

         This case arises out of the tragic death of a child, Eric Parker Dean.[2] In March 2013, Eric died from internal injuries after his father's girlfriend, Amanda Peltier, threw him against a wall. Eric was four years old.

         Appellant William Jepsen is the trustee for Eric's heirs and next of kin. The trustee sued respondents Pope County and Pope County Human Services (PCHS) social workers Kelly Lurken-Tvrdik, Amy Beckius, and Mary Schley for negligence, gross negligence, and wanton and willful negligence for the wrongful death of Eric.[3] The following facts, which the district court determined to be uncontested in its summary-judgment order, are not challenged on appeal. The parties instead dispute the legal implications of those facts.

         Eric lived with his mother and father, David Dean, until they separated in early 2010. Eric then lived with his mother until late 2010, when Pope County child protection removed him from his mother's home based on multiple reports of abuse. Eric was placed in his father's home, and his father was granted permanent physical custody and legal custody. From July 20, 2011, until August 2, 2012, there were multiple reports to PCHS of suspected abuse perpetrated against Eric. During that time, Eric was living with Dean, Peltier, their five other joint and nonjoint children, and, for most of that time, Peltier's mother.

         Minnesota's statute governing the reporting of maltreatment of minors, Minn. Stat. § 626.556 (2018) (RMMA), [4] controls the handling of reports of child abuse. The statute addresses the screening of and responses to reports of child abuse by local welfare agencies. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 626.556, subd. 10. It also requires that local welfare agencies cross-report child-abuse reports to local law enforcement. See, e.g., id., subd. 7.

         The Minnesota Department of Human Services provides child-maltreatment screening guidelines to aid social workers in assessing and responding to reports of child maltreatment. Under the guidelines as they existed during the relevant time period for this case, upon receiving a report of child maltreatment, child-protection staff first had to determine whether the report met the legal definition of child maltreatment. Only reports meeting the legal definition could be accepted, with each report being considered independently from any prior referral history in determining whether to accept the report. Once a report was accepted, the guidelines provided two child-protection response types: a family assessment or a full investigation. The guidelines stated that a family assessment was "the preferred response when conditions of safety permit."

         The first report in this case was made on July 20, 2011. Eric was treated for a broken arm after reportedly falling down the stairs. Doctors who treated Eric believed that the type of fracture could indicate child abuse and made a report to PCHS. PCHS screened the report, accepted it, and opened a full investigation; Lurken-Tvrdik conducted the investigation. Lurkin-Tyrdik interviewed Dean and Peltier, among others. She also consulted with a pediatrician specializing in child abuse, who indicated that there were some red flags but that the injury could have occurred from falling. The investigation concluded that no abuse had occurred. PCHS social workers did not cross-report the incident to law enforcement.

         On October 25, a month after the investigation closed, a preschool teacher made another report to PCHS about bite marks and bruising on Eric. Beckius took the intake information, and the report was then screened by Beckius, Schley, Lurken-Tvrdik, and two others. They determined there was not enough information to meet child-maltreatment criteria. They still decided to offer services to Dean and Peltier, but Dean declined the services.

         On November 14, the same preschool teacher again reported visible injuries suffered by Eric. The teacher indicated that Eric said that his brother had hit him. The teacher also said that Eric reported that he had fallen down the stairs the previous weekend. Schley, Beckius, and another social worker discussed the report and decided it did not meet child-maltreatment criteria.

         Reports of suspected child maltreatment were also made on January 24, 2012, this time by Eric's new daycare provider and an early childhood education teacher who worked with Eric. They indicated that Eric had bite marks and bruising on his face and that, when they asked Eric about what happened, he said that he had hurt himself. Schley, Beckius, Lurken-Tvrdik, and three others screened the report, determined it met child-maltreatment criteria, and elected to respond with a family assessment. They chose a family assessment, rather than a full investigation, because they concluded the case did not involve "substantial endangerment." As part of the assessment, PCHS social workers interviewed Dean, Peltier, and their children, and also assessed Eric's behavior at daycare. Dean admitted that he did sometimes spank the children with his hand. The children indicated that Eric hurt himself, but they also admitted that sometimes they would bite and pinch each other. The reporting daycare provider told PCHS interviewers that Eric had unexplained bite marks and bruises and that she had never seen him harm himself. Dean and Peltier indicated that they would supervise Eric more and that they would start him in play therapy, so Lurken-Tvrdik determined that no further child-protection response was necessary. The social workers did not cross-report this incident to law enforcement.

         The same daycare provider then reported, on February 3, that Eric had suffered new injuries-a bruised right ear and swollen lip. When the provider asked Peltier about what had happened, she said that Eric tripped and hit his lip on a table. When the provider asked one of Eric's siblings what had happened, he said that Eric hit his lip on the couch the night before. Eric simply said that he "got hurt." The report was screened by Beckius and Lurken-Tvrdik, who determined that the allegations did not meet child-maltreatment criteria.

         The last report that was accepted as meeting child-maltreatment criteria occurred on March 12, 2012. The same daycare provider reported a number of injuries that Eric had suffered during the previous month. Throughout February, the provider noticed a variety of bruises on Eric's face, head, and neck, swollen cheeks, scratches, a black eye, and a bleeding ear. Peltier gave various explanations of how Eric was injured to the daycare provider, including that Eric had hit himself on a door frame and that, on one occasion, he had thrown a temper tantrum and beaten himself up. Beckius, Schley and another PCHS employee screened the case, determined it met child-maltreatment criteria, and opted for another family assessment.

         As part of the assessment, the daycare provider submitted a written report indicating that Eric had frequently come to daycare with bruises on his face and that Peltier had frequently changed her explanations for the injuries. The provider indicated that she had seen Peltier discipline Eric "in a mean way." Despite this, she reported that she was unsure of who had harmed Eric and that she was unsure if Eric was in danger. Eric's pediatrician also examined Eric and found a number of bruises but did not suggest that there were ...


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