On interlocutory appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.
Approved for Publication April 7, 1995.
Before Judges Michels, Keefe and Humphreys. The opinion of the court was delivered by Humphreys, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Humphreys
HUMPHREYS, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).
The critical issue in this case is the scope of the immunity afforded by a New Jersey statute, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13, to those who report suspected child abuse. We hold that immunity shall be broadly and liberally construed in favor of the reporting person. This accords with the clear legislative intent to protect those who report suspected child abuse and thereby to protect children.
The pertinent facts and procedural history can be summarized as follows. Plaintiffs are the parents of three children. Defendants are their neighbors. Defendant W.J.F., Jr., is an attorney who formerly represented plaintiffs and was also plaintiff F.A.'s business partner. Later, W.J.F., Jr., and F.A. were involved in litigation against each other in a number of matters.
In April of 1989, one of plaintiffs' children, three year old M.A., broke his leg. On March 8, 1990, W.J.F., Jr., anonymously called the Division of Youth and Family Services ("DYFS") and reported that he believed that M.A. was being abused by his parents. The next day a counselor from DYFS came to plaintiffs' home and informed P.A., the mother of M.A., that an anonymous report had been filed with DYFS accusing P.A. of child abuse in connection with M.A.'s broken leg. On the same day, the DYFS counselor interviewed plaintiffs' other two children, M.N. and C.A., at school in the presence of an Assistant Principal.
The next day, W.J.F., Jr., called DYFS and sought to withdraw the complaint. DYFS, however, continued its investigation resulting in a report which contains some indications of child abuse. The DYFS counselor cautioned P.A. and F.A. against the use of "physical discipline, especially using an instrument." They agreed to refrain from such conduct, and DYFS closed the case on March 16, 1990.
Two months later, plaintiffs' commenced this action seeking damages for defendants' reporting of the suspected child abuse. Plaintiffs charged defendants with: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (2) libel and slander and (3) abuse of process. Defendants filed an answer denying the charges and asserting as defenses the confidentiality of a report of child abuse, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a, and immunity from liability in making such a report, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13.
A Judge in the Law Division denied defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint and granted plaintiffs' cross-motion to vacate a protective order regarding discovery. Leave to appeal was granted. Another part of the Appellate Division affirmed the order below and held that the statute, N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13, did not afford absolute immunity from suit. F.A. by P.A. v. W.J.F., 248 N.J. Super 484, 591 A.2d 691 (App. Div. 1991).
The Appellate Division also stated that the defendants may be obliged in discovery to state the facts upon which they had reasonable cause to believe that M.A. had been subjected to child abuse and the reasons, if any, why such a report was not filed immediately. Id. at 490-91. The Appellate Division concluded that "if these prerequisites are met, then defendants as reporters would be entitled to immunity from civil or criminal liability and the complaint would accordingly be subject to dismissal. Or, in the event of a factual dispute, defendants would be entitled to have their credibility determined by a fact-finder in applying the statutory immunity." Id. at 491.
Thereafter discovery was conducted. Defendants later moved for summary judgment which was denied. The court below stated that (1) whether defendants had reasonable grounds to contact DYFS and (2) whether they did so immediately should be determined by a fact-finder. The court stated that "the jury must look at all the circumstances surrounding what occurred in this particular case, the incidents toward the children, the accumulation of the incidents and the eventual reporting of them to determine whether or not the conduct of the defendant was reasonable or defendants were reasonable. I just can't make those decisions on motions for summary judgment."
We granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs did not file an appellate brief and did not appear at oral argument of the interlocutory appeal.
DYFS filed a brief as amicus curiae urging that we reconsider the earlier decision in this case, F.A. by P.A., supra. Specifically, DYFS contends that the immunity provision should be construed as follows: (1) a person has reasonable cause to believe that a child was subject to child abuse if there are any facts from which it is objectively reasonable for a person, based upon the person's circumstances, training and experiences, to believe that a child has been abused; (2) a finding or substantiation by DYFS following an investigation that a child was abused or neglected should give rise to a presumption that the reporter had reasonable cause to believe that the child was abused; (3) if a reporter of child abuse can "articulate any fact" supporting the report, then discovery should be limited and summary judgment entered in the reporter's favor; and (4) where reasonable cause can be demonstrated by affidavits or reports, then immunity from liability should be extended to immunity from pre-trial discovery and the costs of trial.
Child abuse used to be called an ugly secret. It remains ugly but it is no longer a secret.
Child abuse is not a phenomenon of the Twentieth Century. Children have been physically traumatized, neglected, molested and deprived since the dawn of man's earliest recorded history. It was not until 1962, however, that it was formally identified as an observable, clinical condition, and, it was not until the early 1970's that America accepted it as a problem of devastating proportions.
[Brian G. Fraser, A Glance at the Past, a Gaze at the Present, a Glimpse at the Future: A Critical Analysis of the Development of Child Abuse Reporting ...