Be Careful: Immunity for Lawyers In Court-Appointed Roles Not Absolute

Be Careful: Immunity for Lawyers In Court-Appointed Roles Not Absolute

By Lauren Appel, Esq.

For lawyers and other professionals who frequently serve in quasi-judicial or court-appointed roles, the familiar mantra “no good deed goes unpunished” may have a particularly personal meaning. Fortunately, quasi-judicial appointees can often take comfort knowing their difficult decisions are immune from liability. Two recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decisions demonstrate, however, that appointees should not be lulled into a false sense of security by quasi-judicial immunity. The pair of decisions serves as a reminder to lawyers that such immunity is limited to the court’s specific assignment, and even actions that seem reasonable are not protected if they exceed the authority granted.

In R.J.L. v. Mayer, 34 N.E. 3d 780 (Mass. App. Ct. July 24, 2015) (Vuono, Milkey, & Blake, JJ.), the court upheld the trial court’s determination that a lawyer who served as guardian ad litem did not en-joy blanket quasi-judicial immunity, and could be held liable for certain actions taken outside the scope of the appointment. Prior to the guardian’s appointment, the client was serving a sentence for attempting to hire a hit man to murder his estranged wife during their divorce proceedings and set fire to the home of another couple. In the divorce proceedings, the court had ordered the client to transfer ownership of two business entities to his former wife, but permitted him to retain ownership of certain parcels of valuable real estate. When the client failed to make this transfer, his former wife filed a complaint for contempt in probate court.

Upon his determination that the client was incapacitated by reason of mental illness, the judge in the divorce proceedings appointed the guardian ad litem “during the pendency of the Complaint for Con-tempt.” The court later amended the guardian’s appointment to include “any and all proceedings pending before this Court until a determination is made by this Court that he is no longer incompetent to proceed on his own behalf.” Another lawyer represented the client in the contempt proceedings, while the guardian ad litem testified on the client’s behalf.

Months later, the client’s ex-wife filed a second complaint for contempt. The court’s record contained little information about the ac-tions the guardian ad litem had taken with respect to the second action. The record showed, however, that the guardian accepted service for the second contempt complaint and visited the client at his correctional facility, where he identified himself as the client’s attorney. The guardian also informed client’s counsel from the first contempt case that his services were no longer needed.

The judge ultimately found the client to be in contempt of the divorce judgment and ordered him to divest title of not only the two original business entities, but also the real estate parcels he was initially permitted to keep for himself. As a result of this loss, the client’s daughter brought an action against the guardian on the client’s behalf.

The guardian moved for summary judgment on the basis that his status as a guardian granted him immunity. The court held, however, that his status as a guardian ad litem alone was not enough.

Instead, the court found that, even if the guardian had fulfilled his duties in the first contempt matter, the guardian had failed to meet his burden to prove his actions were within the scope of his assignment in the second case, from which the daughter’s case arose.

In another recent case, Manson v. Hubbard, 34 N.E.3d 780 (Mass. App. Ct. July 27, 2015) (Berry, Vuono, & Ruvin, JJ.), the Appeals Court ruled that an attorney serving in dual roles for one family as a parenting coordinator and a non-court-appointed trustee did not enjoy immunity for actions taken in her trustee role. Like Mayer, this matter also involved a divorce proceeding, in which the lawyer was named as a parenting coordinator for the couple’s two sons. For reasons not apparent from the record, the lawyer was also named trustee of trust funds for each of the sons. The funds were to be used “only to pay for postsecondary education expenses of the children or to pay for unanticipated emergencies.” An unanticipated emergency unfortunately befell the family in 2007, when the two sons were involved in a serious car accident in which they both suffered severe injuries. The trustee released the trust funds to the parents, in compliance with what she believed was a directive from a special master’s report.

In 2014, the two sons brought suit against the lawyer for misdelivering funds that should have been reserved for their college education. Although the trial court concluded she was a court-appointed trustee entitled to immunity, the appeals court strongly disagreed and held the two sons could pursue their action, concluding there was “no Massachusetts case . . . in which the courts have applied the doctrine of quasi judicial immunity to the actions of a non-court-appointed trustee.” Notably, the court found the lawyer’s role as parenting coordinator irrelevant, stating that, as trustee, she “was not appointed by the court to act as trustee or as custodian of the [trust] accounts and was not providing expert services to the court.”

These two cases highlight the potential pitfalls professionals who serve in court-appointed roles can encounter when they are unclear about the scope of their duties. The best practices for quasi-judicial appointees to avoid liability are to clarify fiduciary roles from the out-set of the assignment and stay within the parameters explicitly set by the court. In situations similar to Manson where a lawyer holds multiple roles with respect to the same client, attorneys should clearly define those roles both with the client and the court.