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Martin v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions II, III

September 26, 2018

MERANDA MARTIN, SUCCESSOR SPECIAL ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF VIRGIL BROWN, JR., DECEASED APPELLANT
v.
DR. LESLIE SMITH APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SEVENTEENTH DIVISION [NO. 60CV-13-4061] HONORABLE MACKIE M. PIERCE, JUDGE

          Bennie O'Neil, for appellant.

          Anderson, Murphy & Hopkins, L.L.P., by: Mark D. Wankum, for appellee.

          KENNETH S. HIXSON, JUDGE

         Appellant Meranda Martin, Successor Special Administratrix of the Estate of Virgil Brown, Jr., Deceased, appeals after the Pulaski County Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of appellee, Dr. Leslie Smith, based on the application of quasi-judicial immunity. Martin's sole point on appeal is that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment and dismissing her complaint against Dr. Smith. We affirm.

         The record reflects that in January 2004, Kenneth McFadden was acquitted of third-degree battery, second offense, against his then girlfriend by reason of mental disease or defect. He was admitted to the Arkansas State Hospital but was released on March 31, 2004, pursuant to a conditional-release order (CRO), pursuant to Act 911 of 1989, codified at Arkansas Code Annotated sections 5-2-310 and 5-2-313 to -315 (Repl. 2013 & Supp. 2017). One of the requirements for a conditional release is that the circuit court order a person to be in charge to, inter alia, monitor the person acquitted and keep the circuit court apprised of that person's compliance with the conditions of his release including, but not limited to, the person's compliance with the court-ordered prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-315(e). The reason for the monitoring and reporting requirement is that the circuit court has continuing jurisdiction over the acquitted person. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-315(e)(3)(C). A circuit court retains the authority to determine whether the person acquitted should be remanded to an appropriate facility on the ground that, in light of his or her failure to comply with the prescribed regimen of medical, psychiatric, or psychological care or treatment, his or her continued release would create a substantial risk of bodily injury to another person or serious damage to property of another person. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-315(e)(3)(C)(ii).

         McFadden's initial conditional release was revoked in October 2006 because of his noncompliance with the terms of the CRO. McFadden was again released pursuant to a CRO entered in September 2007 to live in a residence in Corning, Arkansas, with Mid-South Health Systems as the court-appointed responsible agency. In October 2009, the CRO was modified by agreement, and McFadden was placed in a residence in North Little Rock, Arkansas, with his mother. The Craighead County Circuit Court appointed Gain, Inc. (Gain), [1] as the responsible agency and transferred its continuing jurisdiction to the Pulaski County Circuit Court. Gain's medical director and treating psychiatrist was Dr. Leslie Smith. In July 2010, the circuit court granted Gain's motion to allow McFadden to move from his mother's residence to an apartment in North Little Rock. Then, in March 2011, Gain filed another motion to allow McFadden to move to an apartment in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was granted. McFadden shared this apartment with Virgil Brown and a third roommate. McFadden, Brown, and the third roommate were all patients of Dr. Smith, although McFadden was the only Act 911-CRO participant.

         Dr. Smith evaluated and treated McFadden from 2009 through November 2011. Dr. Smith and other Gain personnel regularly kept the circuit court apprised of McFadden's condition and compliance with the treatment regimen. On November 30, 2011, while under the evaluation and treatment of Dr. Smith, McFadden brutally murdered his roommate, Virgil Brown. Appellant Martin, the authorized representative of Brown's estate, filed a lawsuit against Dr. Smith and others alleging, in relevant part, that Dr. Smith was negligent in his diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of McFadden, which resulted in Brown's death. Dr. Smith subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment alleging he was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because he was acting within the scope of his charge by the circuit court. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Smith, explaining that

Dr. Smith is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity and is immune from suit because his treatment and medical care of Mr. McFadden arose solely from the conditional release order and his treatment and medical care was within the scope of that order. See Chambers v. Stern, 338 Ark. 332. Considering the facts in this case, I find Fleming v. Vest, 2015 Ark.App. 636, to be inapplicable.
I have considered the response of plaintiff and find that plaintiff has not met proof with proof. Plaintiff's arguments do not refute the argument of Dr. Smith that quasi-judicial immunity applies in this case. Dr. Smith is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. The complaint against Dr. Smith is hereby dismissed with prejudice.

         The order contained a proper certificate pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 54(b), explaining the necessity of an immediate appeal, and this interlocutory appeal followed.[2]

         A circuit court may grant summary judgment only when it is apparent that no genuine issues of material fact exist requiring litigation and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Blevins v. Hudson, 2016 Ark. 150, 489 S.W.3d 165. Once the moving party has established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the opposing party must meet proof with proof and demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Id. We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was filed, resolving all doubts and inferences against the moving party. Id. The burden is not on the moving party to demonstrate that every fact is undisputed, but to show that reasonable minds could not differ as to the conclusion to be drawn from them. Id. Summary judgment is also appropriate when the circuit court finds that the allegations, taken as true, fail to state a cause of action. Id. The issue of whether a party is immune from suit in a summary-judgment procedure is purely a question of law, and this court reviews that issue on appeal de novo. Early v. Crockett, 2014 Ark. 278, 436 S.W.3d 141.

         Martin argues that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment to Dr. Smith based on quasi-judicial immunity because the commitment process for McFadden had long been completed, and Dr. Smith was not an integral part of the judicial process. Martin devotes a portion of her brief to a discussion of the merits of her underlying action. However, that is not before us.[3] Martin further discusses several cases from other jurisdictions in which quasi-judicial immunity has not been granted under similar circumstances. Martin additionally argues that public-policy considerations do not weigh in favor of granting a psychiatrist quasi-judicial immunity under these circumstances. However, Martin's reliance on jurisprudence from other jurisdictions and her argument regarding public-policy considerations is unpersuasive when our supreme court has already addressed these issues, and we are bound by our supreme court precedent and lack the authority to reach a contrary result. See Ferguson v. Ferguson, 2009 Ark.App. 549, at 9, 334 S.W.3d 425, 430.

         The seminal case in Arkansas regarding the granting of quasi-judicial immunity to a psychiatrist is Chambers v. Stern, 338 Ark. 332, 994 S.W.2d 463 (1999) (Chambers I). Chambers I was a divorce and child-custody case. The circuit court ordered Dr. Stern to evaluate and treat the parties and their children. Id. Four years later, Dr. Stern was still treating the family members. Id. The father filed a lawsuit against Dr. Stern for alleged malpractice that was committed "during the therapy or 'treatment' phase with the family members." Id. at 334, 994 S.W.2d at 464. Dr. Stern sought a dismissal, which the circuit court granted, on the basis that he was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because he was acting within the scope of the circuit court's order. Id. The case was appealed to our supreme court. The Chambers I court held that "a court-appointed physician is entitled to judicial immunity so long as he was serving an integral part of the judicial process by carrying out and acting within the scope of a court's order." Chambers I, 338 Ark. at 338, 994 S.W.2d at 466 (emphasis added). Our supreme court noted that public-policy considerations compelled it "to extend judicial immunity to court-appointed therapists. Psychologists and other experts would be reluctant to accept appointments if they were subject to personal liability for actions taken in their official capacities." Id. at 338, 994 S.W.2d at 466.[4]

         Therefore, the issue before us is whether Dr. Smith, at the time of any alleged negligence or malpractice herein, was serving an integral part of the judicial process by carrying out and acting within the scope of a court's order. If the answer is "yes," then Dr. Smith is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. An Act 911 conditional release cannot be ordered without a person being appointed "to be in charge" to monitor the person acquitted as set forth in the statutory scheme discussed above. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-2-315. The appointment of the person in charge is clearly an integral part of the CRO-release process. Here, it is clear that Dr. Smith was serving an integral part of the judicial process by carrying out and acting within the scope of a court's order. Gain was appointed by the circuit court as the responsible agency for the acquitted person, Kenneth McFadden, pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 5-2-315(e). Dr. Smith was the medical director and treating psychiatrist for Gain. The records indicate that Dr. Smith had been treating and monitoring McFadden pursuant to the CRO from 2009 up to, and including, the date of Virgil Brown's murder. Further, Gain and Dr. Smith were keeping the circuit court apprised of McFadden's condition and compliance. Thus, under Chambers I, Dr. Smith was serving an integral part of the judicial process by carrying out and acting within the scope of a court's order and is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity.

         Martin also argues that Dr. Smith is not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity because Dr. Smith was not specifically named in the CRO-only Gain was specifically named. She therefore argues that the facts of this case are identical to those in Fleming v. Vest, 2015 Ark.App. 636, 475 S.W.3d 576. We, however, find the facts of Vest to be distinguishable.

         Vest, interestingly enough, is an Act 911 conditional-release case. In Vest, a CRO was filed by the circuit court, and the person acquitted, as in our case, subsequently murdered a victim. Id. The deceased's estate filed a lawsuit against Dr. Vest. Id. Dr. Vest moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging that he was entitled to quasi-judicial immunity as set forth in Chambers I. Id. The circuit court agreed and dismissed Dr. Vest. Id. On appeal to our court, we reversed the granting of quasi-judicial immunity, holding that "[t]he court [conditional-release] orders never identify [the treating psychiatrist], and he confirmed in his deposition that he never communicated with the circuit court." Vest, 2015 Ark.App. 636, at 9, 475 S.W.3d at 582. Of particular import, however, is that our Vest court did not hold that quasi-judicial immunity did not apply to Act 911 CROs; rather, our court held that there was no evidence that Dr. Vest was identified as the treating psychiatrist. Id.

         Apparently in Vest, the psychiatrist did not communicate at all with the court as contemplated by the conditional-release statutory scheme. In contrast here, although "Gain, Inc.," was identified as the "responsible agency" in the CRO, it is uncontradicted that Dr. Smith was the medical director of Gain and was also McFadden's treating psychiatrist. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Dr. Smith clearly communicated with the court directly in two letters concerning McFadden's mental and medical condition and his compliance with the court-ordered regimen; Dr. Smith was copied on five other letters to the court, which indicated that Dr. Smith was the treating "GAIN Psychiatrist." One of the letters written by Dr. Smith to the circuit court explained that McFadden had become more psychiatrically unstable and that his schedule had been modified to five days a week. The other letter described McFadden's ostensible violent actions of kicking in his roommate's door. The two letters written by Dr. Smith and the five letters written to the circuit court on which Dr. Smith was copied show that, unlike the psychiatrist in Vest, Dr. Smith was not a stranger to the court, that the circuit court was aware that Dr. Smith was the treating psychiatrist, and that Dr. Smith had been communicating with the court pursuant to the circuit court's CRO. As such, Vest is distinguishable, and appellant's reliance thereon is misplaced. Thus, the summary-judgment order granting quasi-judicial immunity to Dr. Smith is hereby affirmed.

         Affirmed.

          Gladwin, Klappenbach, Murphy, ...


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