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State v. James-Buhl

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

April 19, 2018


          FAIRHURST, C.J.

         Tanya Desiree James-Buhl, a teacher, was charged with failure to comply with the mandatory reporting law that requires specified professionals to report incidents of child abuse when they have reasonable cause to believe a child has suffered abuse or neglect. RCW 26.44.030(1)(a). James-Buhl received notice of child abuse from her three daughters alleging that they were being touched inappropriately within the home by their stepfather, but she did not make an immediate report. At issue is whether James-Buhl's employment status as a teacher required her to report the alleged abuse of her own children, who are not her students, when the abuse occurred within the home and was perpetrated by another family member. We reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that a teacher's failure to comply with the mandatory reporting duty must have some connection to his or her professional identity.


         A. Factual background

         James-Buhl is a public school teacher who lives with her three daughters. Her daughters are not her students, nor have they ever been. At all times relevant to the facts of this case, James-Buhl was married to Joshua Hodges, the girls' stepfather. In May 2015, one of James-Buhl's daughters told her pastor that Hodges had been touching her and the pastor referred the matter to Child Protective Services. The Pierce County Sheriffs Department began investigating the allegations, and, based on its investigation, all three of James-Buhl's daughters told their mother about Hodges' alleged abuse as early as January 2015. All of the alleged abuse occurred at James-Buhl's home.

         The State charged James-Buhl with three counts of failure to comply with the mandatory reporting law applicable to her as "professional school personnel." RCW 26.44.030(1)(a). The State alleged that James-Buhl knowingly failed to report child abuse on or between January 1 and May 20, 2015. But the State did not allege that James-Buhl's daughters were her students or enrolled in the school where she taught.

         B. Procedural history

         James-Buhl filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) did not apply to her in this case because her daughters were not her students and because she learned about the alleged abuse in her parental role while in her home, not as a teacher. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the charges.

         The State appealed the dismissal.[1] The Court of Appeals reversed based on its interpretation of the plain language of RCW 26.44.030(1)(a). The Court of Appeals first explained that RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) does not include a course of employment limitation because there are express limitations in subsections (1)(b), (1)(c), and (1)(e), which "clearly shows that the legislature did not intend to include such a limitation for subsection (1)(a)." State v. James-Buhl, 198 Wn.App. 288, 298, 393 P.3d 817 (2017). The court held that "the mandatory reporting duty for the professionals identified applies in all circumstances ... mean[ing] that a teacher can be subject to prosecution for failing to report suspected child abuse based on information obtained at home, on vacation, or anywhere else." Id. at 300-01. James-Buhl petitioned for review, which this court granted. State v. James-Buhl, 189 Wn.2d 1008, 402 P.3d 829 (2017).

         II. ISSUE

         Does RCW 26.44.030(1)(a) apply to teachers when their own children, who are not their students, report abuse by another family member perpetrated within the home?

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of review

         The dismissal was based on the trial court's statutory interpretation, which is a question of law reviewed de novo. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC,146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002) (citing State v. Breazeale,144 Wn.2d 829, 837, 31 P.3d 1155 (2001); State v. JM,144 Wn.2d 472, 480, 28 P.3d 720 (2001)). Statutory interpretation begins with the statute's plain meaning. Lake v. Woodcreek Homeowners Ass'n,169 Wn.2d 516, 526-27, 243 P.3d 1283 (2010). Plain meaning is "discerned from the ordinary meaning of the language at issue, the context of the statute in which that provision is found, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole." State v. Engel,166 Wn.2d 572, 578, 210 P.3d 1007 (2009). When ascertaining the plain meaning of the statute, we "must not add words where the legislature has chosen not to include them, " and we must "construe statutes such that all of the language is given effect." Rest. Dev., Inc. v. Cananwill, Inc.,150 Wn.2d 674, 682, 80 P.3d 598 (2003). If the plain language is unambiguous, the court must give it effect. State v. Armendariz,160 Wn.2d 106, 110, 156 P.3d 201 (2007). However, if the statute remains susceptible to multiple meanings, it is appropriate for the court to resort to aids to ...

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