This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
My Brothers’ Keeper,
Filed January 14, 2003
Scott County District Court
File No. 200109239
Gary L. Phleger, 1055 East Wayzata Boulevard, 300 Anchor Bank Building, Wayzata, MN 55391 (for respondent)
Mary K. Martin, 2411 Francis Street, South St. Paul, MN 55075 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Randall, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
This is an appeal from a judgment that appellant employer terminated respondent employee in retaliation for a report of vulnerable-adult maltreatment and thus violated Minn. Stat. § 626.557 (2002). By notice of review, respondent challenges the district court’s denial of his demand for punitive damages. Because we conclude that the district court did not err by concluding that respondent made a report of maltreatment as defined by the statute or by refusing to award punitive damages, we affirm.
Appellant My Brothers’ Keeper (MBK), a nonprofit corporation that operates homes for the developmentally disabled, employed respondent Richard Odoms as a caregiver at Atwood House, an MBK facility in Shakopee. When Odoms worked at Atwood House, two developmentally disabled adults (referred to by Atwood House as “clients”) usually resided there; in the summer of 2000, Odoms cared for two clients named Chris and Tim.
Chris had difficulty controlling his emotions and was often profane, while Tim was more introverted. In the summer of 2000, Chris was often disrespectful toward Tim. For example, when Tim was watching television, Chris would sometimes barge into the room and change the channel to watch his preferred program. On August 15, police reported to Atwood House because Chris was screaming uncontrollably; this incident left Tim frightened. Also, Odoms had seen another MBK caregiver viewing pornography on the Internet in Tim’s presence. Odoms grew concerned for Tim’s continued well-being at Atwood House, particularly in light of what he perceived as Chris’s “complete domination” of Tim.
At his supervisor’s behest, Odoms prepared a written report of the August 15 incident. Besides recounting the facts of the incident, the report states that Chris
has been assuming the position of thinking he is a member of the staff, telling Tim what to do, telling Tim that he has to go to bed and not taking Tim’s feelings or status into consideration. * * *
This is all to the detriment of the overall mission of Atwood House, the good and welfare of Tim and of any other clients that might move in.
* * * *
In fact and in my opinion, Atwood House is not a healthy environment for Tim as long as Chris’[s] negative behaviors exist.
(Emphasis omitted.) By this time, Odoms was also highly critical of the way MBK treated its employees. In both the incident report and a separate letter to MBK’s executive director, Odoms detailed his complaints concerning MBK management.
As a caregiver, Odoms was a mandated reporter of vulnerable-adult maltreatment, under Minn. Stat. § 626.557 (2002). All reports of maltreatment must be made to a “common entry point,” a unit designated by each county, responsible for screening reports of maltreatment and referring them to the appropriate county or law-enforcement agency for investigation. Id., subds. 9, 9a. In April 2000, Odoms had taken a test on his statutory duty to report maltreatment and correctly answered 33 out of 37 questions. Also in April, Odoms had signed a register indicating that he had reviewed the MBK policy and procedure manual, which further detailed the duty to report maltreatment and contained the telephone number for Scott County’s common entry point. Nonetheless, Odoms testified at trial that, while he was working at Atwood House, he did not know what a common entry point was.
By the end of the summer, Odoms had learned that MBK planned to move at least one more client into Atwood House in September. Odoms told his supervisors that he believed it was a bad idea to move another client into a home where the existing roommates had such a poor relationship, and he threatened to inform the county authorities if MBK persisted with its plan. Odoms’s supervisors dismissed his concerns. Frustrated with MBK’s response and concerned about Tim’s welfare, Odoms decided to tell the county authorities about the conditions in Atwood House.
On or about September 8, Odoms personally delivered copies of the incident report and his letter to MBK’s executive director to two social workers from the Scott County Community Services Division (SCCSD). Although SCCSD operated the Scott County common entry point, the two social workers were not assigned to the common entry point and did not refer any of Odoms’s concerns about conditions in Atwood House to the common entry point.
MBK fired Odoms on or about September 11. His termination letter states that Odoms violated various provisions of the MBK policy and procedure manual. At trial, MBK supervisors testified that Odoms was fired because he had “assum[ed] management prerogatives” by discussing the conditions in Atwood House with the SCCSD social workers.
Odoms sued MBK, alleging that he was fired in violation of Minn. Stat. § 626.557, subd. 17, which prohibits retaliation against an employee who reports maltreatment of a vulnerable adult. MBK asserted counterclaims for defamation, tortious interference with contractual relations, and coercion. After a bench trial, the district court found that, though Odoms did not communicate his concerns to the common entry point, he did meet with social workers from SCCSD, which was the “lead agency” for reports of maltreatment in the county. Based on this finding, the district court concluded that Odoms made a report within the meaning of the statute and that, therefore, his termination was unlawful retaliation. The district court’s judgment awards Odoms only compensatory damages and makes no mention of MBK’s counterclaims.
MBK now appeals, arguing that (1) the district court erred by concluding that Odoms made a report of maltreatment as defined in Minn. Stat. § 626.557, (2) the district court erred by failing to find that MBK rebutted the presumption that its actions were retaliatory, and (3) it is entitled to recover on its counterclaims. By notice of review, Odoms challenges the district court’s refusal to award him punitive damages.
D E C I S I O N
MBK first contends that the district court erred by concluding that Odoms made a report of maltreatment as defined in Minn. Stat. § 626.557 (2002). We review de novo the district court’s interpretation of a statute. Brookfield Trade Ctr., Inc. v. County of Ramsey, 584 N.W.2d 390, 393 (Minn. 1998). But we will not disturb the district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
The statute provides:
A mandated reporter who has reason to believe that a vulnerable adult is being or has been maltreated * * * shall immediately report the information to the common entry point.
Minn. Stat. § 626.557, subd. 3(a); see also id., subd. 4.
A facility * * * shall not retaliate against any person who reports in good faith suspected maltreatment pursuant to this section * * * because of the report.
* * * *
There shall be a rebuttable presumption that any adverse action * * * within 90 days of a report, is retaliatory. For purposes of this clause, the term “adverse action” refers to action taken by a facility * * * against the person making the report * * * because of the report, and includes, but is not limited to:
* * * *
(2) discharge or termination of employment[.]
Id., subd. 17(a), (c).
The statute defines a “report” as
a statement concerning all the circumstances surrounding the alleged or suspected maltreatment * * * of a vulnerable adult which are known to the reporter at the time the statement is made.
Id. § 626.5572, subd. 18 (2002). “Maltreatment” includes “neglect,” which the statute defines as
[t]he absence or likelihood of absence of care or services, including but not limited to * * * supervision necessary to maintain the physical and mental health of the vulnerable adult which a reasonable person would deem essential to obtain or maintain the vulnerable adult’s health, safety, or comfort considering the physical or mental capacity or dysfunction of the vulnerable adult.
Id. § 626.557, subd. 17(b) (2002).
The district court concluded that Odoms made a report of maltreatment. We agree. Odoms’s incident report suggests that if MBK management did not provide better supervision of Chris, Tim’s well-being could suffer. This was a good-faith allegation of neglect. We recognize that the allegation never reached the common entry point, but in light of the maltreatment-reporting system in Scott County, we conclude that Odoms made a report. One of the social workers who met with Odoms on September 8 testified at trial that he was employed by the same county agency (SCCSD) that operated the Scott County common entry point. He further testified that he worked in the building where the common entry point was located and that his office telephone number and the telephone number of the common entry point were the same. Therefore, there was little to differentiate the social workers Odoms met with from the Scott County common entry point. We do not believe that a statute intended to protect a person who reports maltreatment “in good faith” also requires that person to navigate a complex and confusing social-services bureaucracy with absolute precision. Thus, we are satisfied that Odoms made a report of maltreatment.
MBK argues that this court’s decision in Cannon v. Habilitative Servs., Inc. requires a reversal here. 544 N.W.2d 790 (Minn. App. 1996). There, the plaintiff employee based her claim of retaliatory discharge on three alleged reports of vulnerable-adult abuse. Id. at 791. The first two communications were anonymous telephone calls to county authorities, and the plaintiff employee admitted at trial that they were not reports of abuse as defined in Minn. Stat. § 626.557. Id. With respect to the third alleged report, the plaintiff claimed that she told a county social worker about the suspected abuse at a meeting, but the social worker later testified that she was not present at the meeting. Id. This court concluded that the plaintiff had not established that she had made a report within the meaning of section 626.557. Id. at 794. But Odoms personally delivered copies of his August 15 incident report and letter to MBK’s executive director to the SCCSD social workers. Therefore, Cannon does not provide guidance here.
The district court did not err by deciding that Odoms made a report of maltreatment as defined in section 626.557. We furthermore conclude, after a review of the record, that MBK has not rebutted the presumption that its termination of Odoms was retaliatory. Finally, we conclude that the district court’s judgment is an implied denial of MBK’s counterclaims, and we will not disturb the district court’s decisions on those claims.
By notice of review, Odoms argues that the district court erred by denying his request for punitive damages. We review de novo the district court’s interpretation of the statutes authorizing punitive damages. See Brookfield Trade Ctr., 584 N.W.2d at 393.
Here, the district court observed that Minn. Stat. § 626.557, subd. 17(b), authorizes punitive damages but denied Odoms’s demand on the ground that Odoms did not establish that MBK’s conduct showed a “deliberate disregard” for the maltreatment-reporting process. More importantly, the record shows that Odoms did not comply with the procedural rules for receiving district court approval for demanding punitive damages provided by Minn. Stat. §§ 549.191-.20 (2002). Therefore, we decline to disturb the district court’s decision not to award punitive damages.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.