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Nichols v. Fahrenkamp

Supreme Court of Illinois

June 20, 2019

ALEXIS NICHOLS, f/k/a Alexis Brueggeman, Appellee,
v.
DAVID FAHRENKAMP et al., Appellants.

          JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Thomas, Kilbride, Burke, Theis, and Neville concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          GARMAN, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 This appeal asks whether defendant David Fahrenkamp has quasi-judicial immunity from tort liability for his conduct within the scope of his appointment as guardian ad litem for plaintiff Alexis Nichols. We hold that he has such immunity. We reverse the appellate court's decision and affirm the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in defendant's favor.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In 2004 plaintiff Alexis Nichols, formerly known as Alexis Brueggeman, received $600, 000 as part of a settlement for injuries she suffered in a motor vehicle accident. Because Nichols was only 11 years old at the time of the settlement, the probate court appointed her mother, Jelanda Miller, as her guardian to administer her estate. Additionally, the court appointed defendant David Fahrenkamp as guardian ad litem. The court's order stated only that "[t]he court being fully advised in the premises does hereby appoint David Fahrenkamp as Guardian Ad Litem for the minor child, ALEXIS BRUEGGEMAN."

         ¶ 4 In 2012 Nichols sued her mother, claiming that she used $79, 507 of settlement funds for her own benefit rather than for Nichols's. The trial court ruled in Nichols's favor but limited recovery to $16, 365, a 2007 Jeep Compass, and $10, 000 in attorney fees. The court found that Nichols's mother was not liable for the entire $79, 507 when Nichols had a "guardian ad litem who approved the estimates and expenditures."

         ¶ 5 Next Nichols initiated this lawsuit against defendant David Fahrenkamp and his law office, alleging that Fahrenkamp committed legal malpractice when he approved expenditures that were not in Nichols's interests. Nichols alleged that Fahrenkamp acted negligently by failing to adequately monitor and audit her mother's requested expenditures and in failing to report any irregularities to the court. She also claimed that throughout his time as guardian ad litem Fahrenkamp never met with her, consulted with her regarding her mother's expenditures, or even informed her that he had been appointed as her guardian ad litem.

         ¶ 6 First in his motion to dismiss and later in his motion for summary judgment, Fahrenkamp contested these factual allegations. He claimed that he gave Nichols his business card when he was first appointed and that he met with her on three separate occasions during his appointment. Apart from his factual claims, Fahrenkamp also asserted that guardians ad litem have quasi-judicial immunity so he was not liable for any negligence during his appointment.

         ¶ 7 The circuit court of Madison County denied Fahrenkamp's motion to dismiss but granted his motion for summary judgment. After noting that no Illinois case has specifically held that guardians ad litem have quasi-judicial immunity, the circuit court surveyed cases that involved other roles with similar responsibilities. Vlastelica v. Brend, 2011 IL App (1st) 102587, and Cooney v. Rossiter, 583 F.3d 967 (7th Cir. 2009), held that child representatives have immunity, and Heisterkamp v. Pacheco, 2016 IL App (2d) 150229, extended immunity to a court-appointed expert who assisted in a custody evaluation. Based on these cases, the circuit court determined that if Fahrenkamp acted according to the appointing court's directions then he was immune from liability. Because the order appointing Fahrenkamp did not specify additional responsibilities, Fahrenkamp had the limited role of providing recommendations to the court regarding Nichols's best interests. The circuit court concluded that he was immune from liability for his conduct in this capacity, so it granted summary judgment in Fahrenkamp's favor.

         ¶ 8 The appellate court reversed the circuit court's summary judgment order. 2018 IL App (5th) 160316. In Stunz v. Stunz, 131 Ill. 210, 221 (1890), this court described the "duty of the guardian ad litem, when appointed, to examine into the case and determine what the rights of his wards are, and what defense their interest demands, and to make such defense as the exercise of care and prudence will dictate." Based on Stunz, the appellate court concluded that guardians ad litem have a duty to protect their wards' assets and interests. The court determined that defendant Fahrenkamp had "a duty to act as an advocate on behalf of plaintiff." 2018 IL App (5th) 160316, ¶ 14. It added that immunizing guardians ad litem from tort suits would be inconsistent with this duty.

         ¶ 9 The appellate court also rejected Fahrenkamp's reliance on Vlastelica, 2011 IL App (1st) 102587. The appellate court distinguished Vlastelica because that dissolution of marriage case involved opposing parties who might sue or otherwise harass a guardian ad litem out of frustration with the results of the proceedings. Id. ¶ 16. The underlying lawsuit here, however, involved the distribution of assets and only one party. The appellate court characterized the relationship between this guardian ad litem and ward as "equivalent to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary." Id. It found that, outside the antagonistic context created by litigating parents, guardians ad litem do not need protection from unwarranted harassment and do not require quasi-judicial immunity. Id. ¶¶ 16, 18.

         ¶ 10 Justice Goldenhersh dissented. Relying heavily on Vlastelica, the dissent agreed with Fahrenkamp that guardians ad litem do not serve as advocates for their wards but act as agents of the court. Id. ¶ 25 (Goldenhersh, J., dissenting) (citing Vlastelica, 2011 IL App (1st) 102587, ¶¶ 21-23). Because they are "arms of the court," the dissent would find that guardians ad litem are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. Id. The dissent also expressed concern that denying guardians ad litem immunity would discourage attorneys from accepting appointments as guardians ad litem. Id.

         ¶ 11 Fahrenkamp petitioned this court for leave to appeal, and we allowed that petition. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2018).

         ¶ 12 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 13 The appellate court reversed the circuit court's order awarding summary judgment in Fahrenkamp's favor. Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2016). This court reviews a summary judgment order de novo. Forsythe v. Clark USA, Inc., 224 Ill.2d 274, 280 (2007). In reviewing the motion, "this court will construe the record strictly against the movant and liberally in favor of the nonmoving party." Id.

         ¶ 14 The only question on appeal is whether quasi-judicial immunity protects David Fahrenkamp from civil liability for his conduct within the scope of his appointment as Alexis Nichols's guardian ad litem. Quasi-judicial immunity originates in the common-law principle that judges are immune from liability for the acts they perform as part of their judicial duties. See, e.g., Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54 (1967) (explaining that "[f]ew doctrines were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction, as this Court recognized when it adopted the doctrine, in Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335 (1872)"); In re Mason, 33 Ill.2d 53, 57 (1965); In re McGarry, 380 Ill. 359, 365-66 (1942); People ex rel. Chicago Bar Ass'n v. Standidge, 333 Ill. 361, 367 (1928).

         ¶ 15 This common-law immunity extends beyond the judges themselves to protect other actors in the judicial process. Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356, 366-67 (2012); Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 335 (1983) (finding that trial witnesses have immunity for their testimony because "the common law provided absolute immunity from subsequent damages liability for all persons-governmental or otherwise-who were integral parts of the judicial process"); Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 513 (1978) (holding that federal administrative law judges have absolute immunity). In Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193 (1985), the United States Supreme Court applied the "functional test" to determine whether an actor's role is sufficiently connected to the judicial process to merit this absolute immunity. That test considers

"(a) the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (b) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (c) insulation from political influence; (d) the importance of precedent; (e) the adversary nature of the process; and (f) the correctability of error on appeal." Id. at 202 (citing Butz, 438 U.S. at 512).

         ¶ 16 The "functional test" requires the court to look past the title attached to an office or position and look to that position holder's role. Fahrenkamp did not either receive or forfeit immunity simply by acquiring the title "guardian ad litem," especially because American authorities have not always used this phrase consistently. See, e.g., Fox v. Willis, 890 A.2d 726, 732 (Md. 2006) (observing that "there is little uniformity in the case law and statutes of other states with regard to the functions, duties, and immunities of 'guardians ad litem' "). Rather than looking at the title "guardian ad litem" to determine whether Fahrenkamp has quasi-judicial immunity, the court must consider what function he performed. Here, however, the parties do not agree what that function was.

         ¶ 17 Fahrenkamp characterizes the guardian ad litem's function based on the statutory regime created by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (Marriage Act) (750 ILCS 5/101 et seq. (West 2016)). The Marriage Act provides three separate mechanisms for ensuring that courts adequately consider the interests of minors: a child's ...


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