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All Angels Preschool/Daycare et al v. County of Merced et al

July 11, 2011

ALL ANGELS PRESCHOOL/DAYCARE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
COUNTY OF MERCED ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Merced County. Carol K. Ash, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. CV000605)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kane, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (Pen. Code, §§ 11164-11174.3; hereafter the Reporting Act), when a person reports known or suspected child abuse or neglect to an appropriate government agency, the identity of the person making the report is to remain confidential. (Pen. Code, § 11167, subd. (d)(1).)*fn1 In this case, defendant County of Merced (the County) and its employee, defendant Xiong Pha, allegedly violated that duty of confidentiality by disclosing to a parent that plaintiff Gerald Campbell, her child's preschool operator, made a report accusing her of child neglect. Although the matter was closed after a brief investigation, the parent was upset by Mr. Campbell's report and removed her children from the preschool run by plaintiffs Mr. Campbell and Antoinette Searle, causing the preschool to lose income. Plaintiffs filed a complaint against defendants for damages allegedly caused by defendants' breach of the statutory duty to keep the reporter's identity confidential. Defendants demurred on several grounds, including that the County was not liable under Government Code*fn2 section 815.6 (for breach of mandatory duty) and that its employee was immune from liability under section 821.6. The trial court sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the complaint set forth a viable cause of action.

For the reasons explained below, we hold that the trial court correctly sustained the demurrer without leave to amend. The issue of whether the County may be liable pursuant to section 815.6 for a failure to comply with the confidentiality provision in the Reporting Act boils down to a question of legislative intent. We conclude that the County is not liable under section 815.6 because the Legislature, in enacting the subject confidentiality provision, did not intend to protect against the type of harm suffered by plaintiffs in this case.*fn3 Additionally, we agree with the trial court that the public employee was immune from liability under section 821.6. The judgment is accordingly affirmed.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The operative pleading at the time of the demurrer hearing was the third amended complaint (the complaint), which we now summarize. Plaintiffs Gerald Campbell and Antoinette Searle were doing business as All Angels Preschool/Daycare (hereafter the Preschool), located near Los Banos, California. On July 2, 2008, Gerald Campbell, who was required by the Reporting Act to report instances of suspected child abuse or neglect,*fn4 contacted the Child Protective Services department of the County to report an incident of apparent child neglect by the parent of one of the children attending the Preschool. Mr. Campbell was instructed to submit a Department of Justice form entitled, "SUSPECTED CHILD ABUSE REPORT," which he promptly did. After a brief investigation, the County employee/social worker assigned to the case, Xiong Pha, determined that the situation had stabilized and the case was closed. However, in the course of his investigation, Xiong Pha disclosed to the parent who was under investigation that Mr. Campbell was the person who had filed the report against her.

According to the complaint, Xiong Pha revealed Mr. Campbell's identity as the reporter of suspected child neglect by sending to the child's parent the County's form letter entitled, "EMERGENCY RESPONSE NOTICE OF REFERRAL DISPOSITION," which was supposed to be mailed to Mr. Campbell to inform him of the disposition of his report, but was mailed to the parent's address instead. A copy of the form letter was included as an exhibit to the complaint, and it showed that the name of the addressee was "Gerald Campbell [¶] All [A]ngels Preschool." However, according to the complaint, the street address listed was that of the parent in question. The form letter purported to notify Mr. Campbell: "Situation stabilized--case closed." It also thanked Mr. Campbell for "[his] report" and "diligence in looking out for the safety of children ...." When this information was received by the parent, there could be no doubt in the parent's mind that Mr. Campbell had filed the report of child neglect to the County agency handling child protective services. As a result of that disclosure, the parent pulled her children out of the Preschool, resulting in a loss of income to plaintiffs' Preschool business. The complaint for damages was framed in terms of "negligence" based on violation of a mandatory statutory duty to keep the reporter's identity confidential.

On May 13, 2010, defendants demurred to the complaint on the grounds that plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action against the County under section 815.6 and that the County employee was immune from liability under section 821.6. On July 1, 2010, at the hearing of the demurrer, the trial court agreed that the employee was immune under section 821.6 because his actions occurred in the course of an official investigation of abuse or neglect. Further, because the employee was immune, the trial court concluded that pursuant to section 815.2, subdivision (b), the County was not liable. The demurrer was therefore sustained without leave to amend and the action was dismissed.

Plaintiffs' timely appeal followed.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

"In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint against a general demurrer, we are guided by long-settled rules. 'We treat the demurrer as admitting all material facts properly pleaded, but not contentions, deductions or conclusions of fact or law. [Citation.] We also consider matters which may be judicially noticed.' [Citation.] Further, we give the complaint a reasonable interpretation, reading it as a whole and its parts in their context. [Citation.] When a demurrer is sustained, we determine whether the complaint states facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. [Citation.] And when it is sustained without leave to amend, we decide whether there is a reasonable possibility that the defect can be cured by amendment: if it can be, the trial court has abused its discretion and we reverse; if ...


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