Leah Coleman v. Sonia Martinez (084489) (Camden County & Statewide)


SYLLABUS This syllabus is not part of the Court’s opinion. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Court. In the interest of brevity, portions of an opinion may not have been summarized. Leah Coleman v. Sonia Martinez (A-3-20) (084489) Argued February 2, 2021– Decided July 15, 2021 SOLOMON, J., writing for the Court. The Court considers whether, under the facts of this case, plaintiff Leah Coleman, the victim of a violent assault by social worker Sonia Martinez’s patient, may bring a negligence claim against Martinez. Martinez’s patient T.E. suffered two violent episodes prior to her treatment with Martinez. In 2007, T.E. attacked her or her mother’s landlord — punching, biting, and stabbing him before chasing him with a knife. In 2011, T.E. attacked a friend, throwing hot oil, stabbing her, and hitting her with a frying pan. Just over a year after the second incident, officers responded to reports of T.E. standing in the middle of the street, screaming and clutching one of her children. According to police, T.E. claimed that aliens were after her. She also reported auditory hallucinations commanding self-harm. Officers transported T.E. to the hospital, at which point the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) removed her five children. DCPP’s contract with Hispanic Family Center (HFC) occasioned T.E.’s referral to Martinez, a mental-health therapist at HFC. Martinez conducted a risk assessment of T.E. in October 2013, finding her to be low risk, with “[n]o history of violence.” Martinez acknowledged at deposition that this designation was inappropriate. In November 2013, a psychiatrist at HFC instructed that T.E. be immediately scheduled with him upon “decompensation.” In a separate assessment later in November 2013, T.E. stated that her goal was to regain custody of her children, an objective she repeated throughout her treatment at HFC. As is reflected in Martinez’s progress notes, she met with T.E. regularly over the next year. Three notes from April, July, and August 2014, respectively, are of particular relevance: (1) T.E. was observed talking to herself during a counseling group, and she got up and yelled, “I just saw Jesus”; (2) Martinez observed T.E. “appear[ing] to be responding to outside stimuli,” but T.E. “[v]ehemently denied ‘hearing voices,’” became upset that “others [were] ‘lying’ about her (regarding ‘hearing voices’),” and was concerned that those alleged lies could prevent her from regaining custody of her children; (3) Martinez observed that T.E. seemed “distracted and was engaged [i]n discussion [and] that she appeared to be ‘hearing or trying to listen to something.’” 1 Coleman worked for DCPP and was tasked with ensuring the welfare of T.E.’s children. In a letter to Coleman dated October 1, 2014, Martinez stated that T.E. had been compliant during her sessions and with her medication and was ready and able to begin having unsupervised visits with her children with the goal of reunification. At her deposition, Martinez acknowledged the inaccuracy of representing that T.E. …

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