The Utah Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a libel suit against Primary Children's Medical Center and two of its social workers, saying letters containing child sexual abuse allegations were not protected by statutory privilege.
The lawsuit had been dismissed by 3rd District Judge James S. Sawaya, who ruled that all three of the allegedly libelous letters were entitled to qualified immunity under Utah's child abuse reporting laws.The suit was filed by Jalene Ortez Allen and Lynn Allen. They are the mother and stepfather of a boy whose father is Raymond Ortez. Ortez alleged that the boy had been sexually abused during a 1984 visit at his mother's home.
Ortez took his son, then 3 years old, to Primary Children's Medical Center, which found no physical evidence of abuse. But the hospital filed a report of possible sexual abuse with the Murray City Police Department and referred the case to its outpatient psychiatric clinic.
Primary Children's social worker Lucinda Rasmussen interviewed the boy and concluded he had been abused. At the father's request, Rasmussen sent a letter to the mayor of Murray detailing her conclusions and specifically stating that the boy's mother and stepfather had sexually abused the child.
Two years later, in 1987, Ortez again became concerned. Rasmussen saw the boy and again concluded he had been abused by his mother and stepfather.
In May 1987, the boy's mother filed a petition for modification of her custody and visitation rights. Rasmussen, at the father's request, sent letters to his attorney, Rulon R. Price, and to Sandra N. Peuler, the domestic relations commissioner handling the mother's petition, detailing her conclusions.
The letters, which had not been requested by the recipients, "stated quite conclusively" that Jalene and Lynn Allen had abused the boy, Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman wrote in his 11-page opinion.
The Allens filed suit two weeks later, alleging libel and naming Ortez, his wife, Sheila Ortez, Rasmussen, her supervisor Karen Platis and the medical center.
When Sawaya dismissed the case on a defense motion for summary judgment, the Allens appealed.
Writing for a unanimous court, Zimmerman rejected the defendants' claim that Rasmussen's letter to the Murray mayor constituted a "report" to a law enforcement agency. Under the law, such reports are immune from libel action.