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Elderly Man Can Sue Conservator, Attorney for Nursing Home Stay

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a court-appointed attorney and a conservator involved in an elderly man’s improper conservatorship were not entitled to absolute federal quasi-judicial immunity.

The plaintiff in the case, Daniel Gross, sued after spending 10 months in the locked ward of a Connecticut nursing home while under involuntary conservatorship.

Gross, an octogenarian New York resident, sought treatment in a Waterbury, Connecticut hospital in 2005. While there, a hospital employee filed an application for appointment of a conservator in Waterbury Probate Court. No one knows why.

The probate court appointed Jonathan Newman to represent Gross in the involuntary conservatorship action. Despite the fact that the hearing did not conform to the proper notice procedure, that Gross was not a Connecticut resident, and that Gross appeared to be alert and intelligent at the time of hearing, Newman concluded that there was no legal basis to deny the application.

The probate court named Kathleen Donovan as Gross' conservator. Soon thereafter, Donovan placed Gross in a "locked ward" in Grove Manor Nursing Home, where he stayed until the Connecticut Superior Court granted his habeas petition. (The Superior Court described Gross' conservatorship as a "terrible miscarriage of justice.")

Gross sued Donovan and Newman for civil rights violations. The district court dismissed his claims, reasoning that all three enjoyed quasi-judicial immunity.

In Cleavinger v. Saxner, the Supreme Court referenced six factors for determining whether an actor is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity:

  1. The need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation,
  2. The presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct,
  3. Insulation from political influence
  4. The importance of precedent
  5. The adversary nature of the process, and
  6. The correctability of error on appeal.

Since the immunity analysis raised questions of both state and federal law, the appellate court asked the Connecticut Supreme Court whether the defendants had state quasi-judicial immunity in light of Cleavinger factors.

The state Supreme Court responded that conservators enjoy quasi-judicial immunity when acting with the approval or authorization of the probate court and that court-appointed attorneys for conservatees do not enjoy quasi-judicial immunity.

The Second Circuit concluded that federal quasi-judicial immunity parallels state quasi-judicial immunity, holding that a conservator like Donovan is immune from suit only to the extent that she acted with the authorization or approval of the probate court, while a court-appointed attorney like Newman is not immune at all.

Results in an involuntary conservatorship case like Gross' could vary, even within the Second Circuit. If you're representing a client in a similar case, be prepared for a lengthy process that could require both state and federal court opinions.

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