Dobson v. Harris, 435PA99.

Citation530 S.E.2d 829, 352 N.C. 77
Case DateJune 16, 2000
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

James A. Dickens, Greensboro, for plaintiff-appellee.

Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, L.L.P., by Jon Berkelhammer and Shannon R. Joseph, Greensboro, for defendant-appellant Holly Harris.

FREEMAN, Justice.

This case concerns provisions in the North Carolina General Statutes, N.C.G.S. § 7A-543 (1995) (repealed and recodified as N.C.G.S. § 7B-301 (1999)),1 that require anyone suspecting child abuse or neglect2 to report that behavior to the Department of Social Services. Further, this case examines the rigor of statutory immunity from civil or criminal liability for a person reporting such abuse or neglect, as well as that of a statutory presumption of good faith, codified in N.C.G.S. § 7A-550 (now N.C.G.S. § 7B-309 (1999)). It is clear that the legislative intent of these statutes is that citizens are to be vigilant in assuring the safety and welfare of the children of North Carolina. We therefore conclude that such policy compels a significant evidentiary burden for those who challenge the presumption that people who report such abuse or neglect do so in good faith.

The circumstances giving rise to this lawsuit arose in May 1997 in a J.C. Penney department store. Defendant Harris worked at the catalogue-layaway counter. Plaintiff, accompanied by her fifteen-month-old child, came to the store to pay for and pick up an item she had put on layaway. Defendant Harris retrieved the wrong item and mistakenly reported to plaintiff the balance due. Neither she nor defendant Harris realized the error until after plaintiff had written her check. When plaintiff did so, however, she berated Harris, who apologized and retrieved the proper item. As it was more expensive, plaintiff had to rewrite a check for the correct amount. Plaintiff alleged that defendant Harris' unprofessional attitude spurred her to ask for the name of Harris' supervisor; Harris obliged. Meanwhile, plaintiff's child had become restive, and plaintiff reportedly yelled at the child, picked her up off the counter where she had been sitting, and slammed her back down. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff and her child left the store.

The parties' accounts differ as to the actual danger threatened the child by her mother's treatment of her at the store, but it sufficiently alarmed defendant Harris that she subsequently notified a representative of the Guilford County Department of Social Services (DSS). The representative requested the name and address of plaintiff, which defendant Harris obtained from plaintiff's check.

Plaintiff was informed by DSS that a complaint had been made against her for abuse and neglect of her child, and an investigation was initiated that ultimately lasted some two months.

In her complaint and affidavit, plaintiff accused defendant Harris of reporting her to DSS in retaliation for her requesting the name of Harris' supervisor, and she sued Harris and J.C. Penney as respondeat superior for damages due to slander per se and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In her answer and verified responses to interrogatories, defendant Harris asserted that she had honestly reported her perception of plaintiff's actions to the proper parties and that her report was "made in good faith, without malice, pursuant to a moral and social duty to make such statements." The qualified privilege afforded such statements, she averred, barred plaintiff's claim for slander per se.

The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant J.C. Penney and in favor of defendant Harris as to intentional infliction of emotional distress. It reversed summary judgment on plaintiff's claim against defendant Harris for slander per se and remanded for trial on that issue.

This Court granted defendant Harris' petition for discretionary review, which raised the single question whether the facts alleged in plaintiff's complaint and affidavit supporting her claim for slander per se were sufficient to overcome the statutory presumption of defendant's good faith in reporting child abuse or neglect.

False accusations of crime or offenses involving moral turpitude are actionable as slander per se. Penner v. Elliott, 225 N.C. 33, 34, 33 S.E.2d 124, 125 (1945). As a preliminary matter, we agree with the Court of Appeals in the case sub judice, 134 N.C.App. at 580, 521 S.E.2d at 716, that child abuse is one such crime or offense "`involv[ing] an act of inherent baseness in the private, social, or public duties which one owes to his fellowmen or to society, or to his country, her institutions and her government.'" Grievance Comm. v. Broder, 112 Conn. 269, 275, 152 A. 292, 294 (1930) (quoting Kurtz v. Farrington, 104 Conn. 257, 262, 132 A. 540, 541 (1926)), quoted in State v. Mann, 317 N.C. 164, 170, 345 S.E.2d 365, 369 (1986)

. It is this perception of child abuse or neglect as "inherently base" that not only underpins serious criminal classifications for those who commit it, see N.C.G.S. §§ 14-318.2 (1999) (Class 1 misdemeanor), 14-318.4 (1999) (felony), but also has prompted the promulgation of laws like those before us here, which recognize that, when a child's welfare is jeopardized, swiftly engaging the state's protective mechanisms is paramount.

Government has no nobler duty than that of protecting its country's lifeblood—the children. For this reason, all fifty states have codified mandatory reporting statutes that impose a duty to report suspected or observed child abuse upon specified persons or institutions, particularly those that work regularly with children. See Danny R. Veilleux, Annotation: Validity, Construction, and Application of State Statute Requiring Doctor or Other Person to Report Child Abuse, 73 A.L.R.4th 782 (1989). North Carolina's reporting statutes, however, impose this duty universally—everyone, not just officers of the state, physicians, teachers, administrators, social workers or clergy, shares the state's role as parens patriae in this regard for all North Carolina children.

Affirming that distinguishing adults from children for purposes of definitions under the Juvenile Court Act, N.C.G.S. § 7A-278 (1969), passes muster under the Equal Protection Clause, Justice Huskins wrote in In re Walker, 282 N.C. 28, 39, 191 S.E.2d 702, 710 (1972), "it is our view that the desire of the State to exercise its authority as parens patrieae and provide for the care and protection of its children supplies a `compellingly rational' justification for the classification." The doctrine of parens patriae in the context of parental autonomy versus the child's welfare was similarly noted by Justice Lake in In re Williams, 269 N.C. 68, 79, 152 S.E.2d 317, 326 (1967): ("neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation. Acting to guard the general interest in youth's well being, the State as parens patriae may restrict the parent's control by requiring school attendance, regulating or prohibiting the child's labor and in many other ways."), quoting with approval Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166, 64 S.Ct. 438, 442, 88 L.Ed. 645, 652 (1944)

. North Carolina's reporting statutes similarly give rein to this doctrine, providing procedures clearly intended to encourage the participation of all citizens in swiftly detecting and remedying child abuse or neglect.

N.C.G.S. § 7A-543 (now N.C.G.S. § 7B-301) imposes an affirmative duty for anyone with "cause to suspect" child abuse or neglect to report that conduct to the department of social services. It provides, in pertinent part:

Any person or institution who has cause to suspect that any juvenile is abused, neglected, or dependent, as defined by G.S. 7A-517 [now 7B-101] ... shall report the case of that juvenile to the Director of the Department of Social Services in the county where the juvenile resides or is found.... The report shall include information as is known to the person making it including ... information which the person making the report believes might be helpful in establishing the need for protective services or court intervention.

N.C.G.S. § 7A-543, para. 1. In order to encourage people to report circumstances that prompt them to believe a child is in jeopardy, N.C.G.S. § 7A-550 (now N.C.G.S. § 7B-309) provides immunity from liability to those who act in accordance with the reporting statute. Notably, in addition, this latter section presumes the reporter's good faith:

Anyone who makes a report pursuant to this Article, cooperates with the county department of social services in a protective services inquiry or investigation, ... or otherwise participates in the program authorized by this Article, is immune from any civil or criminal liability that might otherwise be incurred or imposed for such action provided that the person was acting in good faith. In any proceeding involving liability, good faith is presumed.

N.C.G.S. § 7A-550 (1995) (emphasis added).

Read without this last sentence, these two provisions together codify a "qualified or conditionally privileged communication" as recognized at common law, "`[t]he essential elements [of which] ... are good faith, an interest to be upheld, a statement limited in its scope to this purpose, a proper occasion, and publication in a proper manner and to proper parties only.'" Stewart v. Nation-Wide Check Corp., 279 N.C. 278, 285, 182 S.E.2d 410, 415 (1971) (quoting 50 Am.Jur.2d Libel and Slander § 195 (1970)).

Just as public policy underpins the immunity provided under these statutes, so in the common law "[t]he great underlying principle of the doctrine of privileged communications rests in public policy." Alexander v. Vann, 180 N.C. 187, 189, 104 S.E. 360, 361 (1920), quoted in Ponder v. Cobb, 257 N.C. 281, 295, 126 S.E.2d 67, 77 (1962)

. When an otherwise defamatory...

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