June 26, 2012
CARE STATION PHYSICIANS, P.A. T/A CARE STATION II,*FN1 DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-1802-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued June 6, 2012
Before Judges Graves, J. N. Harris, and Koblitz.
Plaintiff F.A.O. appeals from an order granting defendant's motion for summary judgment dated October 17, 2011, and a subsequent order denying her motion for reconsideration dated December 2, 2011. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Plaintiff is a divorced, single parent of two children and a resident of Staten Island, New York. Her older child is now sixteen, and her younger child is fourteen. Plaintiff was previously employed as a customer service representative for Hertz Rent-A-Car at Newark International Airport.
As indicated in a psychiatric evaluation prepared by Dr. Joel A. Idowu, M.D., on October 10, 2008, plaintiff expressed "delusional thinking" in a letter dated January 22, 2008, sent to the principal of her older son's school:
She wrote that Hertz Rental Company has investigated her since 2002 and "[has] also involved the FBI and Secret Service" and "[they are] now using the modern day technology to terrorize me." She wrote . . . "my heart started to palpitate real fast and my blood started to flow very fast down my veins that I could feel it[."] She claimed in the letter that her car was damaged and that her son's toothpaste was laced with something that caused him to bleed.
She further wrote "I am writing so that you are aware that there is nothing ordinary about what has been going on around me. If anything should happen to [my son] in school, I want you to understand that it is not ordinary or coincidental, it is handiwork of [the] FBI Secret Service and the Hertz Corporation. They have nothing to prosecute me on and [their actions] have resulted [in] these harassments, brutality, framing, poisoning and serious invasion[."]
The letter was referred to the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), New York City's child protection agency, and plaintiff was evaluated at Richmond University Medical Center on Long Island. Following her evaluation, plaintiff participated in mental health counseling from January 31, 2008 through March 14, 2008. According to plaintiff's discharge summary, her ACS worker agreed that plaintiff's case should be closed because she did not represent a danger to herself or her children.
Plaintiff was a patient of Care Station II in Springfield, New Jersey, and a Care Station II physician saw plaintiff and her children on June 19, 2008. That same day, Ms. Laura Galloway, a physician's assistant employed by Care Station II, telephoned New York State's Office of Children and Family Services (Children Services) to express her concern for the safety of plaintiff's children. According to the intake report prepared by Children Services, Galloway provided the following information:
The mother suffers from hallucinations and is delusional. The mother believes her children's skin is getting darker each day due to radiation. This is an ongoing situation.
The mother goes to NJ to seek medical care.
The mother claims her 12 yr old has slurred speech. She also told the reporter her children have very cold skin, but their stomachs are on fire. Upon examining the children the reporter could not find anything. The 12 yr old child, denied ever having slurred speech and denies any of the mother's medical concerns. The mother also claims she is physically ill. She complains of bulging veins and chest pains. The reporter could not find anything physically wrong with the mother. The reporter requested a psychiatric evaluation. The mother claims she was seen by a psychiatrist in NY but would not give the name of the doctor.
On June 27, 2008, ACS initiated proceedings in the New York Family Court. ACS alleged plaintiff's children were in need of protective services because plaintiff was "mentally unstable," and unable to properly care for her children. The children were removed from their mother and placed in foster care.
While the matter was pending in the New York Family Court, plaintiff was referred to Dr. Idowu for a psychiatric evaluation. In his report dated October 10, 2008, Dr. Idowu noted that plaintiff's "paranoia and persecutory delusions," which were present earlier in the year, were not present during his evaluation. He concluded that plaintiff had experienced a brief psychotic disorder and recommended "comprehensive psychological testing" to determine the "presence or absence of an illness."
A fact-finding hearing was conducted by the New York Family Court on five separate days between November 2009 and March 2011. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found plaintiff had neglected her children. The order entered on April 8, 2011, specified: (1) plaintiff left the children unsupervised at home while she was at work from approximately 11:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; (2) she exhibited bizarre and irrational beliefs about the conditions of the children and exhibited obvious "signs of delusional paranoia"; and (3) she exhibited "signs of mental illness," which impaired her ability to adequately care for her children.
Plaintiff and her children appealed from the April 8, 2011 fact-finding order and, on January 10, 2012, a New York Appellate Court reversed the Family Court's order. The Appellate Court found there was "no evidence that the mother's mental illness or delusional beliefs placed the children in imminent danger"; and there was "insufficient evidence of inadequate supervision." The Appellate Court determined that ACS failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that plaintiff neglected her children, and the proceedings were dismissed.
While the New York appeal was still pending, plaintiff filed this action in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, seeking monetary damages. Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that Galloway's telephone call to Children Services on June 19, 2008, constituted "professional malpractice, false claim, defamation, willful misconduct and gross negligence." In its answer to the complaint, defendant denied any wrongdoing, and it asserted that any telephone calls made by its agents or employees regarding suspicions of child neglect or abuse were "mandated by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.14."*fn2
In a subsequent motion for summary judgment, defendant argued it was entitled to immunity under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13. The trial court agreed, reasoning as follows:
Summary Judgment is appropriate in this instance based upon the immunity provision of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13. Defendant is entitled to immunity because there was a reasonable basis for Galloway's report; the report was made pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10; and Galloway's concerns were substantiated by the investigation of Child Services and the Order of Fact Finding issued by the New York court. Summary judgment should, therefore, be granted consistent with the reasoning of [F.A. by P.A. v. W.J.F., 280 N.J. Super. 570 (App. Div. 1994)] which encourages the use of summary judgment procedures to decide the issue of immunity under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13. See F.A., supra, [280 N.J. Super.] at 579. Furthermore, Plaintiff has not raised a genuine issue of material fact relating to the Defendant's entitlement to immunity.
In denying plaintiff's motion for reconsideration, the motion judge stated:
Specifically, this court held that Galloway acted as a reasonable person in reporting what she believed to be the abuse or neglect of plaintiff's children and that she had a reasonable cause to make such a report . . . .
Secondly, the court found that Galloway was entitled to immunity because the investigations by Child Services in New York and the subsequent order of fact finding issued by [the New York Court] confirmed the reasonable basis of Galloway's report. The court held that the findings of the New York Court substantiated Galloway's concerns as to the safety of plaintiff's children which formed the basis of the report and held that the defendant was entitled to Summary Judgment on the basis of the Immunity Provision of N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13 and because no genuine issue of material fact existed as to Galloway's entitlement to immunity.
On appeal, plaintiff primarily argues that Galloway did not have "reasonable cause" to believe that plaintiff's children were being abused or neglected. We do not agree.
A trial court's grant of summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving party is entitled to judgment or order as a matter of law." R. 4:46-2(c). When reviewing a trial court's grant of summary judgment, an appellate court utilizes the same standard applied by the trial court. See, e.g., Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). We must first determine "whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). If there is no genuine issue of material fact, we must then decide whether the trial court's application of the law was correct. Id. at 537.
In the present matter, the trial court correctly concluded that there was no genuine factual dispute, and the court recognized the immunity provided by N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.13 should be broadly and liberally construed to promote the safety and well-being of children. See N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.8 (noting the Legislature's intent was "to assure that the lives of innocent children are immediately safeguarded from further injury and possible death and that the legal rights of such children are fully protected"). Accordingly, we affirm the orders entered on October 17, 2011 and December 2, 2011, substantially for the reasons stated by Judge Kenneth J. Grispin.