Child Custody Dispute Not Part Of Corrections Officer’s Job Duties

Phillip Simpson and Emily Bonniwell are corrections officers in the Dakota County, Minnesota Sheriff’s Office. They became romantically involved and conceived a child born in 2009. The relationship ended and Bonniwell began dating a man she met while he was a jail inmate.

Bonniwell and Simpson began a child-custody dispute in 2010. In it, Simpson sought to prevent the former inmate from having contact with their son. He submitted to the district court an affidavit describing the inmate’s criminal history and mental health records. Simpson also allegedly told Bonniwell’s mother that the ex-inmate was on lithium and was bipolar. He also allegedly telephoned the ex-inmate’s probation officer and left a message to report that the ex-inmate had consumed alcohol in violation of a probation condition.

The former inmate sued Simpson and Dakota County for violating his privacy rights under the Minnesota Health Records Act and for defamation arising out of Simpson’s statement to the child’s grandmother. When the County refused to defend Simpson, he challenged the County’s decision through the court system.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the County’s position. The Court reasoned that “Simpson’s affidavit was submitted outside of his work hours and did not arise from his assigned duties. It related only to his personal child-custody dispute. We recognize that the record suggests that acquiring confidential medical information may have been part of a correctional officer’s duties. But the ex-inmate’s complaint does not suggest any wrongdoing in nor allege any liability for Simpson’s acquiring of the information; he alleges that Simpson is liable only for improperly disclosing that information during his child-custody proceedings.

“Simpson’s telling the child’s grandmother about the ex-inmate also occurred outside his job duties. It happened at the grandmother’s house and away from the workplace. And although Simpson’s telling the probation officer about his drinking alcohol might in theory be a sort of law-enforcement-information-sharing duty, in fact it was not related to Simpson’s job duties for two reasons. First, the individual was no longer an inmate; the record does not indicate that it is part of Simpson’s job duties to monitor the conduct of former inmates. Simpson does not explain, and we cannot imagine, how a corrections officer’s normal duties would tend to expose him to a former inmate’s conditions of release or to his post-incarceration alleged probation violations. Probation officers monitor offenders after release or as an alternative to incarceration, but corrections officers generally monitor offenders only during their incarceration. Second, nothing in the record suggests that County corrections officers are expected to make misconduct reports to probation officers whether or not the inmate has been released.”

Simpson v. Backstrom, 2011 WL 2119375 (Minn. App. 2011).