Ramsey v. Yavapai Family Advocacy Center – 7/13/2010

August 2, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That A Counselor Treating an Alleged Victim of Abuse Owes No Duty of Care to an Alleged Third-Party Abuser.

Ramsey and his ex-wife had one child.  The ex-wife took the child to a counselor, Sheets, and told Sheets that she suspected that Ramsey had molested the child and the child later told Sheets that Ramsey had touched her inappropriately.  Sheets reported the situation to Child Protective Services, which triggered a criminal investigation.  As a result, Denton and Ness examined the child at the Yavapai Family Advocacy Center (“YFAC”), concluding that there likely was a long history of sexual abuse.  A grand jury subsequently indicted Ramsey, but the State dismissed the indictment, apparently believing it did not have a sufficiently strong case.

After the dismissal, Ramsey sued the various entities involved for claims related to the investigation and indictment.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on several grounds, including immunity under A.R.S. § 13-3620.J, insufficient evidence, and that Sheets did not owe a duty of care to Ramsey.  Ramsey appealed.

The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.  First, Ramsey argued that the medical professionals (Sheets, Denton, and Ness) should not have been granted summary judgment on an immunity theory.  Under A.R.S. § 13-3620, Arizona’s mandatory reporting statute, certain individuals must report if they “reasonably believe” that a child has been abused.  In most situations, the statute provides immunity to the reporting person if the person had “reasonable belief” and did not act in malice.  In addition, a person participating in an investigation “resulting from a report” is immune regardless of “reasonable belief.”  The Court held that summary judgment was proper because there was no dispute that immunity applied:  (1) Ness and Denton were not subject to the “reasonably believed” standard because they acted as part of the criminal investigation; (2) Sheets had a reasonable belief for her report based on Ramsey’s ex-wife’s statements and on the child’s own statements; and (3) no evidence was presented to show that Ness, Denton, or Sheets acted with malice.

Second, the Court held that summary judgment was proper as to YFAC.  Nothing in the record supported any claim against YFAC, which took no part in the investigation or examination of the child other than providing a facility.

Finally, the Court held that summary judgment for Sheets was appropriate because Sheets did not owe a duty of care to Ramsey.  Ramsey argued that Sheets’s negligence harmed him by hurting his relationship with the child.  The Court noted that no Arizona case has held that a therapist or counselor owes a duty of care to a third-party accused abuser.  After surveying cases outside Arizona, the Court concluded that it would follow the majority of other states that have held that there is no such duty.  The Court explained that its holding would encourage the availability of treatment for victims of abuse.

Judge Orozco authored the opinion.  Judges Johnsen and Thompson concurred.

PRACTICE NOTE:  Ramsey also challenged the statute on constitutional grounds, but the court considered those arguments waived.  Ramsey did not raise his constitutional arguments until his motion for reconsideration of the grant of summary judgment.