STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Teresa A. Schaak,
Group Health, n/k/a HealthPartners, Inc., et al.,
Filed November 3, 1998
Ramsey County District Court
File No. C6976440
Douglas Peine, 2600 Firstar Center, 101 East Fifth St., St. Paul, MN 55101-1808 (for appellant)
Paul H. Yoo, Catharine F. Haukedahl, Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon & Vogt, P.A., 601 Second Ave. S., Suite 4200, Minneapolis, MN 55402-4302 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Short, Judge.
Appellant contests the district court's grant of summary judgment on her claims of defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress. We affirm.
In April 1996, respondent Group Health terminated appellant Teresa Schaak, a licensed clinical social worker, after an investigation revealed that she failed to report a minor female client's allegations that she had been sexually abused. Respondent Jon Stumbras, appellant's former supervisor, then wrote a letter to the state Board of Social Work (Board) reporting that appellant had been terminated and detailing the allegations against her.
Appellant was later reinstated with back pay on the condition that she immediately resign her employment. Appellant then filed a civil suit against respondents Group Health and Stumbras alleging (among other things) defamation, libel, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted respondents' subsequent motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.
On appeal from summary judgment, a reviewing court must determine: "(1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact; and (2) whether the lower court erred in its application of the law." Lubbers v. Anderson, 539 N.W.2d 398, 401 (Minn. 1995). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993). "Questions of law, including the interpretation of statutes, are subject to de novo review." Bol v. Cole, 561 N.W.2d 143, 146 (Minn. 1997).
A professional engaged in the practice of psychological or psychiatric treatment who "knows or has reason to believe" that a child has been subject to neglect or physical or sexual abuse must immediately report that information to the local welfare agency or police department. Minn. Stat. § 626.556, subd. 3 (a) (1996). Anyone making a voluntary or mandated report under the statute is immune from civil or criminal liability if the report was made "in good faith." Id., subd. 4(a)(1) (1996). Failure to report allegations of sexual abuse as required under Minn. Stat. § 626.556 is a violation of a licensed social worker's ethical standards. Minn. R. 8740.0310, subpt. 1 (1997).
Likewise, Minn. Stat. § 148B.07, subd. 1 (1996) (before a 1997 amendment), stated "[a] person who has knowledge of any conduct constituting grounds for disciplinary action * * * under this chapter may report the violation to the board [of social work]." One who submits a report in good faith under Minn. Stat. § 148B.07 is immune from civil or criminal liability. Minn. Stat. § 148B.08, subd. 1 (1996).
Appellant argues that Stumbras' report was not made "in good faith." But there is ample evidentiary support for the district court's conclusion that Stumbras acted appropriately in reporting to the Board the allegations against appellant and the reasons for discharging her. While investigating appellant's conduct, Stumbras consulted with Group Health's Family Abuse Consultation Team and the Ramsey County Child Protection department. Both agreed that appellant should have reported the allegations of abuse. Stumbras later consulted with the Board regarding his duty to report findings concerning appellant's conduct and was told that he must report any ethical violations.
As a matter of law, there is substantial evidence supporting the district court's conclusion that Stumbras' letter to the Board was sent in good faith and was a "truthful report of a genuine professional controversy over [appellant's] exercise of discretion." For that reason, we affirm the conclusion that Stumbras is immune from civil and criminal liability. Summary judgment was proper.
Respondents have moved to dismiss this appeal, arguing that appellant waived her defamation claim during a deposition. Earlier, we denied respondents' motion because the district court had not addressed the issue of waiver, and we reserved that issue for consideration after making our decision on the immunity issue. Schaak v. Group Health, No. C7-98-631 (Minn. App. June 30, 1998) (order op.).
When the facts are not disputed, whether a party has waived a claim becomes a question of law. Montgomery Ward & Co. v. County of Hennepin, 450 N.W.2d 299, 304 (Minn. 1990). "A waiver is a voluntary and intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right." Id.
During a deposition, appellant stated:
When I responded by saying that the things that were reported to the Board of Social Work were defamatory, and it had nothing to do with this letter [from Stumbras]. It had to do with a subsequent letter that I received from the Board of Social Work after this letter was submitted to them, and what they required me to do was to respond to the allegations that were reported to them. So I am not saying that this letter was defamatory.Appellant clearly distinguished between Stumbras' letter to the Board and the letter the Board sent to her. She considered only the latter, not the former, to be defamatory. Appellant's unequivocal statement during the deposition, which she did not object to when the deposition transcript was reviewed, constitutes knowing and intentional waiver of her defamation claim. Even if appellant had prevailed in her argument that summary judgment based on immunity was improper, her defamation claim would fail because it was waived.
To prevail on claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress, plaintiffs must show that they were within a "zone of danger," reasonably feared for their safety, and "consequently suffer[ed] severe emotional distress with resultant physical injury." Stadler v. Cross, 295 N.W.2d 552, 553 (Minn. 1980). One exception to the "zone of danger" rule is available if plaintiffs can show "a direct invasion of [their] rights, such as defamation." Bohdan v. Alltool Mfg. Co., 411 N.W.2d 902, 907 (Minn. App. 1987), review denied (Minn. Nov. 13, 1987).
Appellant argues that summary judgment was inappropriate because the district court addressed only the zone-of-danger basis of her claim, and not the defamation basis. But to prevail on the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, appellant must first prevail on her defamation claim. See Bohdan, 411 N.W.2d at 907 (plaintiff may assert negligent infliction of emotional distress only if underlying defamation action stands). Because we have determined that the district court's decision to grant summary judgment on appellant's defamation claim was proper, her negligent infliction of emotional distress claim must also fail. The district court did not err by granting summary judgment on that claim.