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N.W.M. v. Langenbach, 2024 Pa. LEXIS 793, 2024 WL 2788173 (S. Ct. May 31, 2024) (Wecht, J.).

Immunity from civil liability is an “exceptional protection.” When courts extend such protection, they displace remedies otherwise available at law, a step not lightly taken. Here, we consider whether to extend absolute, quasi-judicial immunity in tort to attorneys appointed as guardians ad litem (“GAL”) to represent children in juvenile dependency proceedings. In such proceedings, GALs represent the best interests of children, and, absent any conflict of interest, the legal interests of those children as well. GALs in juvenile dependency cases serve an important and unique role. That role consists of legal advocacy, not adjudication, and, as such, confers no quasi-judicial immunity on GALs. We hold as well that our Superior Court, as an intermediate appellate tribunal, is authorized to address such claims when squarely presented. We affirm the intermediate panel’s order, which reversed the trial court’s decision, a decision that had relied on assertions of quasi-judicial immunity. We remand to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

While malpractice cases against GALs may be rare, the emotional nature of the issues at stake in family court may nonetheless pose a risk of malpractice litigation by distraught parents. Nevertheless, GALs have been abiding by their statutory and ethical duties to act independently, and have done so without any guarantee of immunity. Furthermore, the nebulous continuum of a child’s best interests is exactly what will make it difficult for most plaintiffs to prove that a GAL failed “to exercise ordinary skill and knowledge” or that “such negligence was the proximate cause of damage to the plaintiff.”

Juvenile dependency GALs fulfill a public need by providing a voice for society’s most vulnerable. A dependency GAL is a lawyer with professional responsibilities to the client pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct. It is counterintuitive to insist that eliminating the possibility of malpractice suits is the way to incentivize proper representation of a child. Like adults, children deserve competent representation, as well as recourse if they do not receive it.

GALs in juvenile dependency cases serve to protect the child by advocating for the child’s best interests and non-conflicting legal interests. Although dependency GALs serve a unique role that differs from that of other attorneys, they do not operate as an arm of the court. GALs do not differ in kind from attorneys providing other court-appointed legal services to fulfill a public need. All appointed attorneys have ethical obligations to their clients. Based upon their function, we decline to provide categorical and absolute quasi-judicial immunity to GALs in juvenile dependency cases. Furthermore, we conclude that the Superior Court is authorized to address novel as well as routine legal issues, and cases involving “policy” considerations as well as those of a more pedestrian nature. As always, this Court sits to review intermediate tribunals’ decisions according to well-established rules and procedures. That is no cause for abstention by the lower courts in the meantime. We affirm the Superior Court’s order reversing the trial court, and we remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Chief Justice Todd and Justices Donohue, Dougherty, Mundy and Brobson join the opinion.

Justice Brobson files a concurring opinion.

CONCUR by: Brobson.