Illinois Capitol, seen from steps of Illinois Supreme Court, Springfield | Jonathan Bilyk
SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Supreme Court ruled a woman cannot sue the court-appointed guardian ad litem she alleges did not protect her assets when she was a minor, allowing her mother to spend $80,000 of the child's money. In its opinion, the court included a plea to the General Assembly to clarify the meaning of guardian ad litem and ensure it is used consistently across statutes.
Writing for the court, Justice Rita B. Garman said guardians ad litem who make recommendations to the court on a child’s best interests are protected by immunity from lawsuits, because they act through the courts.
“Although no Illinois court has specifically considered whether this position merits quasi-judicial immunity, other state supreme courts have granted immunity to actors who fulfill a comparable function,” Garman wrote. “Federal appellate courts have found that guardians ad litem are immune when their function is to report to the court on a child’s best interests.”
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman | Illinoiscourts.gov
In its analysis, the court weighed the role courts intend a guardian ad litem to fill.
The unanimous decision centered on the case of plaintiff Alexis Nichols, was injured as a child and received a $600,000 settlement. The court appointed her mother, Jelanda Miller, as her guardian to administer her estate, and appointed attorney David Fahrenkamp as Nichols' guardian ad litem.
When she reached adulthood, Nichols sued her mother for spending nearly $80,000 of the settlement on herself. She won her lawsuit, but the court ruled her mother was not liable for the entire amount taken because the purchases were approved by a guardian ad litem. Nichols then sued Fahrenkamp, alleging he was supposed to advocate for her and protect her assets.
The Supreme Court disagreed. In its analysis, the court explained that the role of a guardian ad litem has evolved over the history of the state, and where these court-appointed guardians may once have been expected to be a child’s voice in court, they operate now in an advisory capacity.
“Most Illinois cases in the 21st Century that involve a guardian ad litem treat that guardian ad litem as a reporter or a witness and not as an advocate,” Garman wrote.
As the “eyes and ears of the court,” Garman wrote, guardians ad litem are protected from civil liability for actions taken in their court-appointed role. This common-law immunity originated to protect judges from liability for their actions on the bench and has been expanded to protect other court actors, such as trial witnesses.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court chided the original trial court for not clearly stating what role it expected Fahrenkamp to take. Fahrenkamp characterized his function based on the definition of guardian ad litem in the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, while Nichols relied on definitions within the Probate Act. Because the phrase is used differently in each statute, the court included a comment urging the legislature to decide upon a single definition and make sure all statutes that mention guardians ad litem use it consistently.
“While the meaning of ‘guardian ad litem’ in the Marriage Act has changed, Article XI of the Probate Act has maintained its 1979 framework,” the court wrote. “Notably, the General Assembly has amended other sections of the Probate Act to reflect the newer usage of the phrase ‘guardian ad litem.’”
The court pointed to the precedents on which the two sides relied as evidence that Nichols was relying on an outdated definition. Her case relied on a 90-year-old South Carolina case and a 130-year-old Illinois case, while Fahrenkamp cited an 11-year-old Illinois case that specifically defined the role of a guardian ad litem as “not to advocate for what the ward wants but, instead, to make a recommendation to the court as to what is in the ward’s best interests.” This role, as an investigator and witness, grants guardians ad litem quasi-judicial immunity, the court wrote.