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Doe v. Indiana Department of Child Services

Supreme Court of Indiana

August 24, 2017

John Doe #1, ET AL., Appellants (Plaintiffs),
Indiana Department of Child Services, Appellee (Defendant).

         Appeal from the Marion Superior Court Civil Division 11, No. 49D11-1404-CT-11045 The Honorable John F. Hanley, Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 49A02-1506-CT-682

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS Christopher D. Wyant Wyant Law Office, LLC Indianapolis, Indiana

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Frances Barrow David Steiner Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana

          Rush, Chief Justice.

         The Indiana Department of Child Services told a child-abuse reporter that his report was confidential, but then released it without redacting his identity. The reporter and his family sued DCS based on both the statute protecting reporter anonymity and our common law. We denounce DCS's thoughtlessness, but find no basis for liability under either theory. The statute protecting anonymity provides no private right of action-and we will not judicially infer one since the statute's main purpose is to protect children in general and since it already provides enforcement mechanisms. Likewise, DCS's recitation of the confidentiality statute did not create a common-law duty. We thus affirm summary judgment for DCS.

         Facts and Procedural History

         John Doe #1 lived with his wife, two adult sons, and minor daughter in a small southern-Indiana town where "[e]verybody knows everybody." Each Wednesday, John drove neighborhood children to church. Over time, he noticed that something wasn't quite right with some of his young passengers-eventually suspecting they were victims of abuse and neglect.

         After talking it over with his wife, John called the DCS abuse and neglect hotline to report his suspicions. Near the end of the call, the DCS hotline employee asked for his contact information. Hesitant, John said he did not want anyone to know he called. But the operator explained, "Well, it's confidential. Nobody will find out." John gave his first name and phone number, then hung up.

         A few days later, John was mowing the grass when an irate neighbor began screaming at him while waving the DCS report-which was unredacted. Word spread around town and the Does were soon labeled "snitches." John was "stared at, glared at, mooned, flipped off, [and] yelled at." His wife was threatened that someone might "cut that smirky grin off" her face. Their daughter required counseling because of bullying at school. And the Does' sons hesitated to go outside- thinking twice about cooking on the grill or taking out the trash. All this harassment shook the family, making them wish they could afford to leave their longtime home for a different city.

         The Does sued DCS for negligently disclosing John's identity, raising two theories: one statutory, the other common-law. First, they claimed that the statute requiring DCS to protect reporter identity-Indiana Code section 31-33-18-2 ("Section 2")-implies a private right of action. Second, they asserted that the DCS hotline operator's statement that "[n]obody will find out" was a promise creating a common-law duty of confidentiality. DCS moved for summary judgment, asserting that Section 2 implies no right of action because it was designed to protect children by encouraging reporting, rather than to enable lawsuits, and that the common law imposes no duty on this record. The trial court granted summary judgment for DCS.

         A divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed. Doe v. Ind. Dep't of Child Servs., 53 N.E.3d 613 (Ind.Ct.App. 2016). The majority declined to address whether Section 2 implied a right of action-finding instead that DCS owed the Does a common-law "private duty" based on the hotline worker's "promise" of confidentiality. Id. at 616-17 (citing Mullin v. Mun. City of S. Bend, 639 N.E.2d 278, 284-85 (Ind. 1994)). Chief Judge Vaidik dissented, believing that Section 2 implied no right of action because its thrust was encouraging reporting, not enabling lawsuits, and that the common-law claim failed as well because the private-duty test applied only to emergency-dispatch situations. Id. at 618-21 (Vaidik, C.J., dissenting).

         We granted DCS's petition to transfer, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals decision. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

         Standard of Review

         We review summary judgment de novo, affirming only when the designated evidence reveals no genuine issue of material fact and entitles the moving party-here, DCS-to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C); Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1003 (Ind. 2014).

         At issue are two legal questions that we also address de novo. First, does Section 2, which prohibits DCS from identifying reporters, create a private right of action? Howard Reg'l Health Sys. v. Gordon, 952 N.E.2d 182, 185 (Ind. 2011) (reviewing the existence of a private right of action as a matter of law). Second, if not, does the common law nevertheless impose an actionable duty on DCS for telling John that his report was "confidential"? Rogers v. Martin, 63 N.E.3d 316, 320 (Ind. 2016) (reviewing the existence of a common-law duty, absent genuine issues of material fact, as a matter of law).

         Discussion and Decision

         To prevail on their negligence claims, the Does must prove that DCS (1) owed them a duty, (2) breached that duty, and (3) proximately caused their injuries. Rogers, 63 N.E.3d at 321. Here, the parties dispute only the first element: whether DCS owed a duty of confidentiality under Section 2 and, if not, whether it owed one under the common law. Though DCS's disclosure was irresponsible, it cannot trigger civil liability under either theory.

         I. Section 2 Provides No Private Right of Action.

         The parties agree that Section 2 does not expressly provide a private right of action; they dispute only whether it implies one. This is purely a question of legislative intent, not judicial preference: did the General Assembly intend Section 2 to create a right of action, despite not saying so expressly? See Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286-87 (2001). We have "long been reluctant" to infer this unwritten intent, since the legislature often[1] creates rights of action using clear language. See F.D. v. Ind. Dep't of Child Servs., 1 N.E.3d 131, 143-44 (Ind. 2013) (Rush, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). This reluctance to invade the legislature's purview has developed into a two-part rule: we usually will not infer a private right of action when the statute (1) primarily protects the public at large and (2) contains an independent enforcement mechanism. See, e.g., Gordon, 952 N.E.2d at 187 (citing Estate of Cullop v. State, 821 N.E.2d 403 (Ind.Ct.App. 2005)); LTV Steel Co. v. Griffin, 730 N.E.2d 1251, 1260 (Ind. 2000). We address each part in turn.

         A. The statute's mission is to protect children, not reporters.

         When a statute is designed mainly for public benefit, it implies no right of action; incidental benefits to a private party make no difference. See Sprunger v. Egli, 44 N.E.3d 690, 693-94 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015); C.T. v. Gammon, 928 N.E.2d 847, 853-54 (Ind.Ct.App. 2010); Whinery v. Roberson, 819 N.E.2d 465, 475 (Ind.Ct.App. 2004), trans. dismissed; Borne ex rel. Borne v. Nw. Allen Cty. Sch. Corp., 532 N.E.2d 1196, 1203 (Ind.Ct.App. 1989), trans. denied. In Borne, for example, a child-abuse victim sued an elementary-school principal for breaching his statutory duty to report abuse. 532 N.E.2d at 1202. Though that statutory duty would have undeniably benefited the particular child-abuse victim, the Court of Appeals refused to infer a private right of action since the statute's "primary thrust" was helping children in general. Id. at 1203.

         The statute here has the same "primary thrust" as the statute in Borne. Indeed, they are both part of the "Reporting and Investigation of Child Abuse and Neglect" scheme, which declares five purposes all revolving around helping children in general:

(1) encourage effective reporting of suspected or known incidents of child abuse or neglect;
(2) provide effective child services to quickly investigate reports of child ...

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