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State v. James-Buhl

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

March 21, 2017

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Appellant,
v.
TANYA DESIREE JAMES-BUHL, Respondent.

          MAXA, A.C.J.

         The issue in this case is whether a teacher's mandatory duty under RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) to report to authorities when he or she has reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect applies to information obtained outside the course of his or her employment as a teacher.

         The State charged Tanya James-Buhl, a junior high school teacher, with three counts of failure to comply with the mandatory reporting law for not reporting to law enforcement that her daughters had disclosed that their stepfather had touched them inappropriately. The trial court dismissed the charges, ruling that RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) requires teachers to report suspected child abuse only when they obtain information regarding child abuse in the course of their employment. The trial court ruled that RCW 26.44.030(1)(d), which requires adults residing with children to report only when they have reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered "severe abuse" as defined in that subsection, determined James-Buhl's obligation to report information she obtained about her own children outside of her course of employment.

         We hold that the plain language of RCW 26.44.030(1)(a), considered in the context of other subsections in the statute that contain explicit course of employment limitations, does not limit a teacher's mandatory reporting duty to information about child abuse obtained in the course of employment. We also decline to consider James-Buhl's argument that she did not have reasonable cause to believe her daughters had been abused, which is the prerequisite for a mandatory reporting duty. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's dismissal of the charges against James-Buhl and remand for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         James-Buhl is a junior high school teacher. She was married to Joshua Hodges, who was the stepfather of James-Buhl's daughters, MEB, MMB, and KB.[1]

         In late May 2015, MEB's youth pastor made a report to Child Protective Services that MEB had told James-Buhl that Hodges had been touching her inappropriately. The youth pastor stated that James-Buhl had not reported the abuse, but that she was "handling things in the house." Clerk's Papers at 1.

         Law enforcement investigated and interviewed the three girls. MEB described how Hodges had touched her inappropriately. She also said she had told James-Buhl about the abuse in early January, but nothing had changed. MMB said that Hodges had touched her and that she had told James-Buhl about it. And KB said that Hodges had touched her once every two to three weeks and that she had told James-Buhl about it four or five months before the August 2015 forensic interview.

         The State charged James-Buhl with three counts of failure to comply with the mandatory reporting law, RCW 26.44.030(1)(a), for not reporting suspected child abuse to law enforcement or the Department of Social and Health Services when her daughters disclosed that Hodges had touched them inappropriately. The State did not allege that MEB, MMB, and KB were James-Buhl's students or enrolled in the school where James-Buhl taught.

         James-Buhl moved to dismiss the charges with prejudice, arguing that RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) did not apply because her daughters were not her students and that she learned about the alleged abuse in her capacity as their mother and not as a teacher. James-Buhl argued that she was subject to the different standards of reporting provided in RCW 26.44.030(1)(d), which applies to adults who live with children. James-Buhl did not argue in the trial court that even if RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) applied, dismissal was appropriate because she did not have reasonable cause to believe that the children had been abused.

         The trial court agreed with James-Buhl that RCW 26.44.030(1)(d) applied instead of RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) because James-Buhl did not have a teacher relationship with MEB, MMB, and KB. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the charges against James-Buhl with prejudice.

         The State appeals.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Course of Employment Limitation for Mandatory Reporting

         The State argues that the trial court erred by interpreting RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) to include an implied course of employment limitation. The State asserts that the plain statutory language requires mandatory reporters to report suspected child abuse in all circumstances when there is reasonable cause.[2] We agree.

         1. Principles of Statutory Interpretation

         Statutory interpretation is a matter of law that we review de novo. State v. Evans, 177 Wn.2d 186, 191, 298 P.3d 724 (2013). The primary goal of statutory interpretation is to determine and give effect to the legislature's intent. State v. Larson, 184 Wn.2d 843, 848, 365 P.3d 740 (2015). To determine legislative intent, we first look to the plain language of the statute. Id. We consider the language of the provision in question, the context of the statute in which the provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. Id.

         If the plain meaning of a statute is unambiguous, we must apply that plain meaning as an expression of legislative intent. Id. We will not add language to an unambiguous statute even if we believe that the legislature intended something else but failed to express it adequately. State v. Chester, 133 Wn.2d 15, 21, 940 P.2d 1374 (1997).

         A statute is ambiguous when it is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation. Evans, 177 Wn.2d at 192-93. When a statute is ambiguous, we first attempt to resolve any ambiguity and determine the legislature's intent by considering principles of statutory construction, legislative history, and relevant case law. State v. Reeves, 184 Wn.App. 154, 158, 336 P.3d 105 (2014). If these indications of legislative intent are insufficient to resolve the ambiguity, we must apply the rule of lenity and construe the statute in favor of the defendant. Id. at 158-59.

         2. Language of RCW 26.44.030(1)

         RCW 26.44.030(1) identifies certain people who have a mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse and defines the scope of that duty.[3] The statute contains several subsections that address different groups of people who have reporting responsibilities. RCW 26.44.080 provides that anyone who is required by RCW 26.44.030 to report abuse, "and who knowingly fails to make, or fails to cause to be made, such report, shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor."

         a. RCW 26.44.030(1)(a)

         RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) imposes a duty to report on numerous types of people who regularly ...


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