Psychologist selected by mother pursuant to court order immune from later HCLA suit.

Court appointed psychologists enjoy immunity in Tennessee. Where a juvenile court ordered that a mother select a new psychologist to replace the existing one in a custody case, the psychologist selected by the mother was entitled to summary judgment based on immunity in a later suit brought by the father based on the psychologist’s treatment of the minor and parents in the underlying custody case.

In Justice v. Hanaway, No. E2022-00447-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. May 15, 2023), plaintiff filed an HCLA case against defendant psychologist based on the psychologist’s treatment and involvement in an underlying child custody case. Plaintiff was the father in the child custody case, and after the first court-appointed psychologist was removed from the case, the juvenile court asked the mother to select a new psychologist. The juvenile court’s order stated: “There will be a transition from the current therapist…to a new therapist to be selected by the Mother. …The parties shall sign releases for the new therapist to speak with [the former therapist.] …Once the transition to the new therapist is made, the therapist shall set out a goal and a plan as to how the therapy shall be conducted.” The mother selected defendant psychologist, who went on to have sessions with the mother, father, and minor and to testify in the custody case. This HCLA claim by the father followed.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant based on his role as a court-appointed psychologist. The trial court found that it was “reasonable from the record to conclude that Defendant was replacing the court-appointed therapist…and would therefore be stepping into [her] shoes and occupying the same status as that which [she] had enjoyed,” and that defendant was “entitled to the same benefit of the doctrine of [judicial]immunity as that which could have been claimed” by the original court-appointed therapist. On appeal, this ruling was affirmed.

In upholding summary judgment, the Court of Appeals looked solely at the interpretation of the juvenile court order stating that a new therapist should be selected. The Court wrote:

In this case, it is abundantly clear from the record and the language of the Juvenile Court’s order that it intended Defendant to ‘step into the shoes of the court appointed therapist…as the new court appointed therapist,’ as held by the trial court. Defendant’s involvement in family therapy was the direct consequence of the Juvenile Court’s order that ‘there will be a transition from the current therapist…to a new therapist to be selected by the Mother.’ The Juvenile Court ordered Mother to find and select a new therapist, which she did. …It appears from the record that it was the Juvenile Court’s exercise of its authority to appoint an expert psychologist to conduct therapy, testify, and to assist the court in the evaluation and assessment of a family in a domestic dispute that precipitated Defendant’s involvement in this case.

(internal citation omitted). Accordingly, the trial court did not err in finding defendant immune from this HCLA suit. Summary judgment was affirmed.

This opinion was released three months after oral arguments in this case.

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