Official Immunity and A Good Result

By Jack Fleming, VBM Attorney

Article written January 5, 2024

The doctrine of official immunity protects public officials who are sued in their individual capacities from liability for acts of negligence committed during the course of their official duties for the performance of discretionary acts. Sovereign immunity, on the other hand, protects public officials when they are sued in their official capacities for negligence (except in certain circumstances – negligent operation of a motor vehicle, dangerous conditions of property, see RSMo. § 537.600). The determination as to what constitutes a “discretionary act” has changed quite a bit over the past decades. Official immunity, until recently, had become a confusing, watered-down doctrine because of inconsistent opinions from circuit and appellate courts across the state. The purpose behind official immunity had become lost. At its core, official immunity was meant to allow public officials to make judgments affecting the public safety and welfare without the fear of personal liability. This is because the interest of the public would suffer if public officials were worried about getting sued for every act or decision made while doing their jobs. See State ex rel. Alsup v. Kanatzar, 588 S.W.3d 187, 190–91 (Mo. 2019).

Recently, however, the Missouri Supreme Court has taken back the reins and has started to return official immunity to its roots – protecting the discretionary actions and decisions of public officials. The most recent official immunity decision of the Missouri Supreme Court illustrates how the Court is going to great lengths to clarify and reaffirm the doctrine of official immunity.

In State ex rel. Morales v. Alessi, No. SC 100069, 2023 WL 8790017 (Mo. Dec. 19, 2023), a patient (Ronald Scheer) at the St. Louis Developmental Disabilities Treatment Center in St. Charles (the “Center”) died after he slid down in his wheelchair and was hung by a pelvic harness that was meant to hold him upright. The legal guardian for Mr. Scheer filed a wrongful death action against the Center and several of its staff members for negligence. The circuit court denied the staff members’ motion to dismiss, which argued that the staff members were entitled to official immunity. The court of appeals denied the staff members’ writ of prohibition. But the Missouri Supreme Court granted the staff members’ writ of prohibition and dismissed the case because the Court held the staff members were entitled to official immunity.

Although quite troubling and unsettling, the facts of the case are important to understand the scope of official immunity granted by the Missouri Supreme Court. Mr. Scheer was non-verbal, could not walk, and was completely dependent on others for his care. The Center, which was operated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, was required by federal and state law to have an individual support plan (“ISP”) for each patient that contained orders from doctors and others regarding the patients’ care. Mr. Scheer’s ISP required staff to provide 24-hour supervision, check on Mr. Scheer every 30 minutes, and reposition Mr. Scheer every two hours, among other things. Mr. Scheer had a history of sliding down in his wheelchair, so his wheelchair was fitted with a lap seatbelt and pelvic harness, so Mr. Scheer’s ISP also required staff to make sure that the seatbelt and harness were secure at all times.

On June 29, 2020, a staff member at the Center – Jayla Ruiz-Morales – placed Mr. Scheer in his wheelchair and secured his seatbelt. However, Ms. Morales failed to secure the pelvic harness, as was required by Mr. Scheer’s ISP. Throughout the day, other staff members failed to make sure the pelvic harness was secure. Tragically, Mr. Scheer was found dead in his room after being alone for over two hours. The cause of death was hanging after Mr. Scheer slid down his wheelchair and was hung by the pelvic harness that was not secured, as was required by his ISP.

Mr. Scheer’s legal guardian (“Plaintiff”) argued the staff members were not entitled to official immunity because they were required to follow the tasks in Mr. Scheer’s ISP – make sure his lap seatbelt and pelvic harness were secure at all times. Plaintiff argued these were “ministerial duties” that were not protected by the doctrine of official immunity because they did not require discretion.

The Missouri Supreme Court began its discussion of official immunity by emphasizing that the category of ministerial acts “is a narrow one.” The Court stated that if there is any room for variation in when and how a particular task can be done, then, that task is not ministerial. The issue for the Court to decide in this case was whether the duties required by Mr. Scheer’s ISP were discretionary or ministerial. The Court stated that the “central inquiry is not whether the law confers a duty to act but, instead, whether the public official retains any discretion in completing the act…” The Court further clarified that ministerial duties are “rubber stamp” duties. The Court held that when even slight discretion exists, the duty is not ministerial. The Court found that all the tasks in the ISP required discretion – how to reposition Mr. Scheer, which sections of the ISP to focus on, and how to secure the pelvic harness. The Court stated that ministerial tasks “are either completed as required by law or not completed…[and] [t]asks that can be completed partially or through different methods are not ministerial.” So, the Court ultimately held the staff members were entitled to official immunity because their tasks in complying (or not complying) with Mr. Scheer’s ISP were
discretionary.

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Morales, most actions of public officials should be protected by official immunity. Ministerial tasks – “rubber stamp” tasks that can be done only one way – are now the rare exception to official immunity. Our office recently settled a case that followed a similar procedural path as the Morales case. Our office represented a county snowplow driver who crashed into another driver after allegedly failing to yield. The other driver was killed in the accident. In that case, the plaintiff’s attorneys argued that violating the traffic laws – yielding to oncoming traffic – was a ministerial duty. We argued that driving a large, commercial snowplow during an active snowstorm required a great deal of discretion and, therefore, the county snowplow driver should be protected by official immunity. Unfortunately, the circuit court and appellate court disagreed. However, after filing a writ of prohibition with the Missouri Supreme Court, they granted our preliminary writ. Immediately thereafter the circuit court judge reversed his prior ruling and dismissed the county snowplow driver from the case because, as the Missouri Supreme Court indicated, he was entitled to official immunity. Although the Missouri Supreme Court did not issue an opinion in our case, I think our arguments were fresh in the Supreme Court judges’ minds when they ruled in the Morales case. How circuit and appellate courts in Missouri rule in light of the recent Morales decision will be interesting to follow.

If you have any questions regarding official immunity and the other immunities protecting public officials, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office at 573-777-4488 or email me at Jack.Fleming@vbmlaw.com.

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