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Statements To Probate Court Were Privileged, Tort Lawsuit Dismissed

Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The defendants in this tort case were properly granted summary disposition, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled, because they were governmental employees who were entitled to quasi-judicial immunity regarding the statements they had made to the probate court.

In Forton v St. Clair County Public Guardian, et al. (Docket No. 354825), the defendants took steps to protect a ward of the court against the plaintiff’s alleged sexual abuse. Those protective measures included: 1) requesting the removal of the ward’s legal guardian (the plaintiff’s wife), 2) seeking a personal protection order (PPO) to prevent the plaintiff from having contact with the ward of the court, 3) referring the matter for investigation and 4) seeking the appointment of individuals to act for the court ward’s benefit.

After an investigation into the plaintiff’s alleged conduct resulted in no criminal charges, the plaintiff filed this lawsuit. He claimed: 1) intentional infliction of emotional distress, 2) malicious prosecution, 3) abuse of process, 4) negligent infliction of emotional distress, 5) concert of action and 6) civil conspiracy. The St. Clair County Circuit Court summarily dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit under MCR 2.116(C)(7), ruling the defendants were governmental employees entitled to quasi-judicial immunity and, therefore, the statements they had made to the probate court were privileged.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in a published opinion.

“Defendants were entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because their statements, made during the course of judicial proceedings, are absolutely privileged,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “The statements were relevant, material, or pertinent to the issue being tried, the need for a suitable legal guardian to supervise and protect the court ward. The fact that recorded evidence did not exist to support defendants’ statements did not abrogate the privilege; rather, the privilege must be liberally construed to allow participants in judicial proceedings to be free to express themselves without fear of retaliation.”

Background

The plaintiff, Leonard Forton, claimed that when he met NK, the two bonded and so he let NK live in a trailer on his property. In May 2016, the plaintiff’s wife, Lynne Forton, petitioned the St. Clair County Probate Court to become NK’s guardian. It was alleged that NK was legally incapacitated as a result of mental illness and chronic intoxication. The probate court granted the guardianship petition, finding that NK was totally incapacitated, and appointed the plaintiff as NK’s full guardian. The probate court also appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent NK. Subsequently, the probate court ordered NK to “make arrangements” to live at defendant Vision Quest, a residential treatment facility for substance abuse “until further order of the court.”

Meanwhile, defendant Ann Marie Daniels-Hillman was an employee of defendant St. Clair County Community Mental Health, and defendant Amanda Seals was an employee of the defendant St. Clair County Public Guardian. When Daniels-Hillman and Seals were informed that NK was telling residents at the Vision Quest facility that she was being sexually abused by her legal guardian’s husband (the plaintiff), they took various measures to protect NK. Daniels-Hillman also filed a “Notification of Noncompliance” with the probate court, emphasizing that NK was not complying with her court-ordered substance abuse treatment. “Thus, in the course of fulfilling their responsibilities to protect the court ward, defendants prepared documents and made statements before the probate court.”

An emergency guardianship hearing was held. Afterward, the probate court removed Forton as guardian, appointed the Public Guardian as NK’s temporary guardian and ordered “no contact” between NK and the plaintiff (or his wife) outside the presence of either facility staff or a representative of the Public Guardian. A criminal investigation took place, but no charges were filed against the plaintiff.

The plaintiff then filed this tort action against the defendants in the St. Clair County Circuit Court. The defendants moved for summary disposition, claiming immunity barred the suit. The trial court granted summary disposition for the defendants under MCR 2.116(C)(7).

The plaintiff appealed.

Quasi-Judicial Immunity

On appeal, the plaintiff argued the trial court wrongly granted summary disposition to defendants Daniels-Hillman and Seals.

“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals said. Summary disposition is proper under MCR 2.116(C)(7) when the moving party is entitled to “immunity granted by law,” the Court of Appeals observed. “When reviewing a motion for summary disposition premised on immunity, this Court examines the affidavits, depositions, admissions and other documentary evidence to determine whether the moving party is entitled to immunity as a matter of law.”

According to the Court of Appeals, “quasi-judicial immunity” applied in the present case. Citing Denhof v Challa, 311 Mich App 499 (2015), the appeals court explained that quasi-judicial immunity is an “extension of” absolute judicial immunity to non-judicial officers. “The doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity as developed by the common law has at least two somewhat distinct branches. … [O]ne branch focuses on the nature of the job-related duties, roles, or functions of the person claiming immunity, and one branch focuses on the fact that the person claiming immunity made statements or submissions in an underlying judicial proceeding.”

Next, the Court of Appeals examined the statutory purpose and legal effect of guardianships, citing MCL 700.5306(1) and pointing out that guardianships are “a mechanism that the Legislature intended to protect the interests of incapacitated wards, i.e., ‘a means of providing continuing care and supervision of the incapacitated individual[.]’”

Here, defendants Seals and Daniels-Hillman “fulfilled their roles” to act in the interests of NK, an incapacitated individual, the Court of Appeals emphasized. “Indeed, it is undisputed that NK reported to residents and the manager of Vision Quest that she was being sexually exploited by plaintiff. Once this information was relayed to Daniels-Hillman, she took steps to protect NK while an investigation occurred by seeking the removal of Forton, NK’s guardian, and the report of abuse caused Seals to become involved. Additionally, Forton’s ability to serve as NK’s guardian was questioned in light of her own recent medical issues and the fact that plaintiff provided transportation and other assistance to NK during NK’s hospitalizations. Thus, all of the claims asserted by plaintiff against Seals and Daniels-Hillman regarded either their testimony or statements made in the guardianship proceedings or actions that they took, while acting as an ‘arm’ of the court, to safeguard the interests of the legally incapacitated ward, NK. Such actions were an integral part of the guardianship proceedings.”

Therefore, “the trial court did not err by holding that both Seals and Daniels-Hillman were absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity, and thus were entitled to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7),” the Court of Appeals stated. “The trial court properly granted summary disposition in favor of defendants.”

The Court of Appeals continued by finding the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint. “Because summary disposition was granted under MCR 2.116(C)(7) on the basis of immunity granted by law, plaintiff was not entitled to amend his complaint pursuant to MCR 2.116(I)(5). … Further, the probate court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to allow plaintiff to amend his complaint because amendment was futile. …  The proposed minor amendments merely added additional allegations concerning testimony that Seals and Daniels-Hillman offered in the probate proceedings or actions that they took, while acting as an ‘arm’ of the court, to safeguard NK’s interests.”

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