Can You Sue the Court-Appointed Psychologist in a Child Custody Proceeding?

Our preview of the September term of the Illinois Supreme Court continues with Cooney v. Rossiter [pdf].

Cooney occurs at the intersection of res judicata and class action work: if a putative class action goes down in flames on the merits before class certification, is the putative class representative's individual claim barred too?

Plaintiff Deborah was awarded custody of her two children in her divorce. In 2001, plaintiff's ex-husband filed for a change of custody. She sought appointment of a psychological evaluator in order to provide recommendations about the best interests of her children. The trial court appointed defendant, pursuant to Section 5/605 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/605). The defendant concluded that plaintiff Deborah and her parents (the co-plaintiffs) suffered from Munchausen's by Proxy Syndrome, and opined that their treatment of the child Christopher was child abuse. The plaintiffs allege that the trial court granted the ex-husband's petition for a change of custody based on the defendant's report, which the defendant allegedly intended to injure the plaintiffs. According to the plaintiffs, the defendant deliberately made false statements to an investigator from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and as a result, the DCFS entered a finding against plaintiff Deborah for child abuse.

The plaintiffs filed a federal class action civil rights suit against the defendant. The district court dismissed, holding that the defendants were absolutely immune from liability, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Cooney v. Rossiter, 583 F.3d 967 (7th Cir. 2009). So the plaintiffs sued the defendant in state court.  The state court dismissed based on absolute immunity and res judicata.

The Appellate Court affirmed, holding that res judicata barred the plaintiffs' new suit. Despite the addition of plaintiff's son as a party plaintiff, the first suit was unquestionably a final judgment on the merits. The Federal 1983 suit and the plaintiffs' state court claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress "arose from the same set of operative facts." And although plaintiff Deborah's parents and son were not parties to the Federal action, they were privies to plaintiff Deborah.

So far, so easy. But does it matter that the Federal action was a putative class action? According to plaintiffs, Benton v. Smith requires a categorical answer that res judicata does not apply to individual actions following the failure of a class action. The Appellate Court disagreed, distinguishing Benton's facts and denying that it had adopted such a blanket rule.

In the alternative, the Appellate Court held that the defendant was entitled to absolute immunity. Relying upon the Seventh Circuit's decision in the earlier class action, the Appellate Court found that a Court-appointed psychologist acted under the Court's direction, and was therefore entitled to the same protection from suit by disappointed litigants as the judge herself was: "court-appointed evaluators must be accorded absolute immunity so as to allow them to fulfill their obligations without worry of harassment and intimidation from dissatisfied parents."

Cooney will be argued at the 9:00 am session of the Court on Tuesday, September 18, 2012. Join us back here later today for a preview of the argument in Carr v. Koch.

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