State-Agent Immunity - DHR Investigation - Mandamus Review of Interlocutory Order Involving Immunity - Ex Parte Yolanda Terry
Ex parte Yolanda Terry, [Ms. 1160087, May 5, 2017] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2017). In a decision authored by Justice Bolin (Stuart, C.J., and Parker, Shaw, Main, Wise, and Bryan, JJ. concur, and Murdock, J., concurs in the result), the Court issues a writ of mandamus directing the circuit court to vacate its order denying defendant social worker’s motion for summary judgment and to enter summary judgment in her favor. This is a wrongful-death case in which an elderly woman died as a result of blunt force trauma to her abdomen. Decedent Collins lived with her daughter Foster who was her legal guardian.
A few days before decedent’s death, the Department of Human Resources (DHR) had received a complaint that Collins was being abused by Foster. On October 6, 2011, the defendant, Terry, a DHR social worker, went to the decedent’s residence and was informed by Foster that neither she nor Collins had eaten breakfast and were not dressed and that the social worker should return the following day.
The following day, the social worker returned to the home and conducted an interview of Collins in the presence of her legal guardian, Foster. Although DHR policy called for an interview with the person alleged to be abused from the alleged abuser, no such separate interview was conducted. Terry testified in her judgment, Collins was not oriented to person, place, or time. Two days following the in-home visit, Collins died as a result of blunt force trauma to her abdomen.
After extensive discovery, the social worker moved for summary judgment on the ground of state-agent immunity. The circuit court denied the motion, concluding there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the social worker had acted beyond her authority by failing to comply with specific DHR policies and procedures in regard to investigations of adults in need of protection. In reversing, the Supreme Court concluded the expert for the plaintiff had not provided substantial evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact concerning the social worker’s compliance with DHR policies and procedures. The Court reasoned the policies left the social worker a measure of discretion in regard to calling law enforcement to complete an unannounced home inspection and on whether to conduct a separate interview of an elderly person with dementia. The Court summarized its holding as follows:
Based on the foregoing, we conclude that Washington failed to meet his burden of presenting substantial evidence, through his expert, that Terry acted beyond her authority by failing to discharge her duties, i.e., investigating the report that Collins was being abused, pursuant to DHR policy and procedures, because Terry complied with DHR policy and procedures concerning unannounced investigative visits, the need for involving law enforcement, private interviews of clients, inspections of the affected areas of a client’s body, and inspections of the entire home.