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State v. LeFebvre

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 7, 2019

Danielle LeFebvre.

          Providence County Superior Court P2/12-1420A Netti C. Vogel Associate Justice

          For State: Lauren S. Zurier Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Angela M. Yingling Office of the Public Defender

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Francis X. Flaherty, Associate Justice

         The defendant, Danielle LeFebvre, appeals from a judgment of conviction after a jury found her guilty of first degree child abuse, in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-9-5.3. The trial justice sentenced the defendant to twenty years' imprisonment, with eighteen years to serve and the balance suspended, with probation. Before this Court, the defendant argues that the trial justice erred by requiring Sheila Russell, a licensed clinical social worker, to testify about statements the defendant made to her while seeking mental-health treatment. The defendant claims that her communications with Russell were privileged pursuant to the Confidentiality of Health Care Information Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 37.3 of title 5 (CHCIA). A threshold, and ultimately dispositive, issue is whether any privilege arising from that statute is abrogated by G.L. 1956 § 40-11-11, which nullifies "[t]he privileged quality of communication between * * * any professional person and his or her patient or client * * * in situations involving known or suspected child abuse or neglect and [the privileged quality of communications] shall not constitute grounds for * * * failure to give or accept evidence in any judicial proceeding relating to child abuse or neglect." After thoroughly reviewing the record, and carefully considering the arguments of the parties, we affirm the judgment of conviction.


         Facts and Travel

         In the fall of 2011, defendant lived in her mother's apartment with her infant son, James, who was born on September 3, 2011.[1] This was a difficult time for her. She and her mother, JoAnn LeFebvre, had a tense relationship; defendant was averaging only two to five hours of sleep at night, and baby James had become frustratingly fussy.[2] James's father was absent from the baby's life, and, although JoAnn would occasionally babysit, the burden of child care fell mostly on defendant. Life was stressful for defendant, and the impact of that stress appears to have affected her relationship with her son. According to JoAnn, defendant was experiencing difficulty bonding with James. JoAnn did not observe the kind of playfulness and affection that one would expect from a new mother, and she observed that defendant was "aggressive" with the baby and would sometimes yell to vent her pent-up frustrations.[3]

         On October 19, 2011, defendant arrived at the emergency room of Hasbro Children's Hospital with James, then almost seven weeks old. The defendant told the attending physician that the day before, she had been sitting on the edge of her bed with James cradled against her shoulder, trying to lull him to sleep for a quick nap, when she herself fell asleep. She testified that she woke up sometime later to find James crying on the floor by the bed, where he had fallen while she slept. As she was consoling him, defendant claimed, she noticed that his head was red, but she did not feel anything out of the ordinary when she checked the back of his head, and he calmed down to take a bottle. The defendant then brought James to her grandmother's home for an overnight visit.

         The next morning, defendant returned to work for the first time since she had gone on maternity leave. While she was at work, she received two phone calls from her grandmother, who had noticed that James was not acting normally. The defendant left work an hour early to check on James, and she knew something was wrong as soon as she saw him. After returning to her apartment to pack a diaper bag, she brought James to the emergency room. The defendant told the attending physician that her grandmother had reported that James appeared listless, was not eating, had rapid eye movements, and that his limbs were twitching. A head CT scan and a skeletal survey of James's body revealed a fractured skull, bleeding in and around his brain, and two fractured ribs, which, based on how much they had healed, may have occurred as late as the very afternoon James was admitted to the hospital. Hospital staff, concerned that James's injuries might be the result of abuse, referred James's case to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). The defendant was later charged by criminal information with one count of first degree child abuse, in violation of § 11-9-5.3(b)(1).

         The attending physician later testified that she did not believe that any of the baby's injuries were consistent with the type of short fall that had been described by defendant. To the contrary, the attending physician testified that James's rib fractures could not have been caused by a fall from a bed, but rather were more consistent with someone squeezing or compressing the infant's chest. The doctor further opined that James's head injuries were consistent with abusive head trauma, also known as "Shaken Baby Syndrome."[4]

         Before trial, defendant's counsel, in connection with plea negotiations, provided the state with medical records from mental health treatment that defendant had sought at Butler Hospital in the days following James's injuries. Included in those records were the intake notes of Sheila Russell, a licensed clinical social worker who had conducted an initial psychiatric evaluation of defendant. That evaluation said, in pertinent part, that "[defendant] doesn[']t remember what she did or on h[o]w many occasions, but has enough 'fuzzy recollection' to know she did indeed cause the harm. [R]emembers feeling 'enraged' at the baby and 'throwing him on the bed just to get away from him.'" After the trial justice granted the state's motion in limine to use those records against defendant at trial, the state served a subpoena duces tecum on Butler Hospital to produce copies of Russell's records and to require her testimony. Over the hospital's strenuous objection, the trial justice denied Butler's motion to quash the subpoena, and she also required Russell to testify about her notes during the state's rebuttal case.[5]

         Before this Court, defendant argues that the trial justice erred when she required Sheila Russell to testify about disclosures defendant made to her during the intake interview, because, defendant contends, her conversation with Russell was privileged as a "confidential health care communication[]" under § 5-37.3-6. The defendant further argues that § 40-11-11 abrogates that privilege only in certain Family Court proceedings but does not do so in criminal cases.


         Standard of Review

         "[W]e review questions of statutory interpretation de novo." State v. Hazard, 68 A.3d 479, 485 (R.I. 2013) (quoting Campbell v. State, 56 A.3d 448, 454 (R.I. 2012)). "In matters of statutory interpretation our ultimate goal is to give effect to the purpose of the act as intended by the Legislature." Id. (quoting Alessi v. Bowen Court Condominium, 44 A.3d 736, 740 (R.I. 2012)). "[W]hen [the] statute expresses a clear and unambiguous meaning, the task of interpretation is at an end and this [C]ourt will apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the words set forth in the statute." State v. Marsich, 10 A.3d 435, 440 (R.I. 2010) (quoting State v. Smith, 766 A.2d 913, 924 (R.I. 2001)). "[T]he Legislature is presumed to have intended each word or provision of a statute to express a significant meaning, and the [C]ourt ...

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