Dale Matthew Leuthard, by his guardian, Shirley Ann Leuthard, Appellant, vs. City of Morris, Respondent, Stevens County, Defendant.

This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C7-96-2360

Dale Matthew Leuthard,

by his guardian, Shirley Ann Leuthard,

Appellant,

vs.

City of Morris,

Respondent,

Stevens County,

Defendant.

Filed June 10, 1997

Affirmed

Crippen, Judge

Stevens County District Court

File No. C49513

Lisa K. Morley, John C. Goetz, Schwebel, Goetz, Sieben & Moskal, P.A., 5120 IDS Center, Minneapolis, MN 55402-2246 (for Appellant)

Pierre N. Regnier, Joseph E. Flynn, Jardine, Logan & O'Brien P.L.L.P., 2100 Piper Jaffray Plaza, 444 Cedar Street, St. Paul, MN 55101-2160 (for Respondent)

Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Peterson, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N

CRIPPEN, Judge

Appellant disputes the trial court's entry of summary judgment dismissing his negligence suit against respondent City of Morris. The trial court held that the city vicariously enjoyed the official immunity of the police officer alleged to have been negligent. We affirm.

FACTS

In May 1992, appellant called his estranged wife and told her that he was going to shoot himself. This information was relayed to City of Morris police officer Ross Tiegs, who located appellant. Tiegs knew that appellant had actually attempted suicide some years earlier. Confronted by Tiegs, appellant admitted calling his wife, but he convinced Tiegs that he was not going to kill himself, telling Tiegs that he had threatened suicide only to agitate his wife. Tiegs took no further action and appellant did not attempt suicide.

In June 1992, Tiegs was informed by police dispatch of a report that appellant had violated a domestic abuse protective order by contacting his wife. Tiegs subsequently arrested appellant and transported him to Stevens County Law Enforcement Center. Tiegs did not believe that appellant was suicidal when he transferred custody of appellant over to jail personnel. Tiegs testified that if he had believed appellant was suicidal, he would have considered it his duty as an arresting officer to have communicated this belief, as well as his background knowledge. Pursuant to standard booking policy, appellant's belt and shoes were removed. Shortly after being confined to his cell, appellant attempted suicide by hanging and suffered permanent brain injury as a result.

Appellant sued Stevens County and the City of Morris, and both defendants moved for summary judgment. Judgment was granted for the city on the grounds of official immunity. Appellant subsequently settled his claims against the county and now appeals the court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the city.

D E C I S I O N

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellant, we must determine whether the trial court faced any genuine issues of material fact or misapplied the law. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993); State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990).

1. Official Immunity

The policy behind official immunity is to protect public officials from "the fear of personal liability that might deter independent action and impair effective performance of their duties." Elwood v. County of Rice, 423 N.W.2d 671, 678 (Minn. 1988). Accordingly, absent a public official's willful or malicious wrong, the official is not liable for damages to an individual arising from an official's exercise of duties that "call for the exercise of judgment or discretion." Id. at 677 (quoting Susla v. State, 311 Minn. 166, 175, 247 N.W.2d 907, 912 (1976)); cf. Terwilliger v. Hennepin County, 561 N.W.2d 909, 913-14 (Minn. 1997) (recognizing unprotected judgments for mental health professionals who are implementing established public policy to provide treatment services).

Official immunity does not protect government officials from liability stemming from the performance of "mere ministerial tasks." S.L.D. v. Kranz, 498 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. App. 1993). An official's duty has been described as ministerial when it is "absolute, certain, and imperative, involving merely the execution of a specific duty arising from fixed and designated facts." Johnson v. State, 553 N.W.2d 40, 46 (Minn. 1996) (citing Cook v. Trovatten, 200 Minn. 221, 224, 274 N.W. 165, 167 (1937)).

Appellant alleges that Officer Tiegs was negligent for his failure to communicate to the jail personnel his knowledge of appellant's past suicide attempt and suicide threat. This communication, appellant urges, would have enabled jail personnel to properly evaluate appellant's condition and determine whether to take additional precautionary measures. In granting Tiegs official immunity, the trial court reasoned:

The focus here is not upon whether Officer Tiegs made a correct analysis of the Plaintiff's condition. Hindsight would dictate that he did not. Rather, the focus is on whether Officer Tiegs had to use judgment in deciding how to proceed. Clearly, in this case he had to weigh a number of factors before arriving at a decision that the Plaintiff either was not suicidal or did not pose a significant threat to himself. If the Court were to substitute its judgment for that of Officer Tiegs, it could have the very type of chilling effect upon his ability to react in the performance of his duties that the doctrine of official immunity is designed to prevent.

Relying on S.L.D.v. Kranz, 498 N.W.2d 47 (Minn. App. 1993), appellant asserts that communicating this information did not involve the exercise of discretion, but instead was a purely ministerial duty. In S.L.D., plaintiff father called a social worker at a county agency and communicated information that he felt evidenced neglect of his daughters. Id. at 49. The social worker failed to convey all of the information relayed by the father to a supervisor and the agency's child abuse assessment worker. Id. Based on the incomplete information, the child abuse assessment worker determined that the father's call did not constitute a report of neglect and took no further action. Id. Had she received all of the information communicated by the father, the assessment worker stated that she would have deemed the report to be one that stated the occurrence of neglect. Id. The court reasoned that although the decision-making by the county employees was a discretionary function protected by official immunity, the communication of information to enable that decision was ministerial. Id. at 54.

Officer Tiegs's choice of action falls outside the scope of the ministerial function observed in S.L.D. It is best examined by considering the duty of the reporting individuals in the two cases. In S.L.D., the duty of the social worker was to accept information and communicate it in its entirety to a supervisor and the assessment worker so that they could determine whether there was a case of neglect. Id. at 54. No judgment was required of the social worker in carrying out this task.

The situation is different here. There was no established practice for arresting officers to relay background information to jail authorities. The duty of the arresting officer, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to appellant, was to report important and known information regarding the arrestee. The duty was not ministerial because there is no evidence to show that it was "absolute, certain, and imperative, involving merely the execution of a specific duty arising from fixed and designated facts." Johnson, 553 N.W.2d at 46. As the trial court found, Officer Tiegs necessarily exercised judgment in determining how to assess appellant's condition and whether it was important to relay his knowledge of appellant's past suicide attempt and suicide threat. Based on his training and experience, Tiegs determined in the exercise of his discretion that appellant was not a suicide risk and therefore decided not to convey his knowledge of appellant's past suicide attempt and threat.

We are further persuaded by Killen v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 706, 547 N.W.2d 113 (Minn. App. 1996), review denied (Minn. Aug. 6, 1996). In Killen, plaintiff alleged that a school guidance counselor was negligent for failing to inform a student's parents that the student was contemplating suicide. Id. at 117. This court affirmed the trial court's summary judgment on the ground that official immunity protected the counselor's decision not to notify the student's parents immediately about her suicidal statements. Id. The court reasoned that the issue was not whether communication by the counselor might have helped prevent the student's death, but whether the counselor's decision was discretionary or ministerial. Id. The court determined that the counselor's decision of whether to inform the student's parents immediately was one that required the "exercise of significant, independent judgment and discretion" and the counselor's decision was protected by the doctrine of official immunity. Id. Similarly, official immunity protects Tiegs's decision against communicating information about appellant's background that the officer had determined not to be important.

2. Vicarious Official Immunity

Next, we must determine whether to apply the arresting officer's official immunity to respondent. In Pletan v. Gaines, the Minnesota Supreme Court indicated that it may be appropriate to deny vicarious official immunity in some situations. 494 N.W.2d 38, 42 (Minn. 1992). The court noted that, "[i]n the final analysis, whether to extend official immunity to the governmental employer is a policy question." Id. The court recognized that the conduct of an immunized police officer would have to be reviewed if the officer's municipal employer was exposed to liability for the officer's actions. Id. at 42-43. This review would, in effect, defeat the purpose of official immunity: to shield an officer's exercise of independent judgment from civil adjudication.

Appellant claims that after Pletan the "extension of official immunity to the official's governmental employer has been virtually automatic." After careful consideration, we conclude that Tiegs's official immunity must extend to respondent. Otherwise, the necessary review of Tiegs' decision not to communicate information he deemed unimportant would "chill" any similar discretionary decisions of an arresting officer. It would legislate, in effect, a strict regimen of background investigations and reports accompanying the delivery of prisoners for detention. The doctrine of vicarious official immunity removes from the courts this determination of police policy.

3. Domestic Abuse Act Immunity and the Issues of Duty and Causation

Respondent filed its own notice of review, asking us to determine whether (a) it is entitled to immunity pursuant to the Domestic Abuse Act, Minn. Stat. § 518B.01, subd. 14(b) (1996), and (b) appellant has satisfied his burden of alleging duty and causation with respect to respondent's alleged negligence. We need not address these issues in light of our determination that respondent is entitled to vicarious official immunity.

Affirmed.