Ex Parte Smith, Alabama Supreme Court, September 4, 2020
Under the Alabama Code, agents of the Department of Human Resources (“DHR”) enjoy a kind of immunity for their actions. The law says that an agent “shall not be liable for any civil damages as a result of his acts or omissions in rendering assistance or care to any person.” Ala. Code 38-9-11. For DHR employees to receive this immunity, they must act in “good faith” while exercising their duties.
The question then becomes, what does it mean for DHR employees to act in good faith?
In September of 2020, the Supreme Court of Alabama addressed this issue in, Ex pare Smith. That case concerned an adult woman, Leeann, who was in the care of the DHR through Alabama Adult Protective Services. She suffered physical, mental, and emotional conditions that were worsened by brain surgery in 2013. Leeann was placed in an unlicensed boarding home, Magnolia Place in 2014 where she remained until mid-March of 2016. In late March of 2016, she was transferred to a licensed boarding home, Leviticus Place, where she remained until her body was located in Birmingham just a month later.
Leeann’s brother, David, sued several DHR employees. He alleged that they had acted in bad faith or had caused Leeann’s death by negligently placing her in a boarding home where she did not receive adequate care and supervision. The DHR employees all asked for summary judgement in their favor. They argued that David could not prove that they had caused Leeann’s death. And, they argued that they had statutory immunity under § 38-9-11. They said that they had acted in good faith when investigating Leeann’s physical, mental, and fiscal situation and, subsequently, placing her in the boarding home.
The trial court did not grant the DHR employees request for immunity. They appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama. That Court determined that they should have been immune because they were acting in “good faith.” That is, they complied with the State law and DHR’s internal policies.
During the appeal, it became clear that DHR had very specific policies that its employees had to follow for placement of an adult under its protection. They had to consider the financial status of the ward and the ward’s ability to manage their own hygiene, move without assistance, and reliably take their own medication. In this case, Leeann’s health had increased significantly since the last time her brother saw her. DHR employees had personally observed her ability to care for her own hygiene, her ability to taker her medication, and her ability to move freely. Based on their observations, they determined that she qualified for placement at the boarding home. Additionally, the DHR workers consulted with Leeann’s personal physician. He also agreed that she met the requirements for placement at a boarding home. Thus, it was not until after the DHR workers had made observations and obtained a concurring opinion from Leann’s physician that they placed her in the boarding home.
The Court held that these steps, the investigation into her personal situation and the following of departmental policies, was enough to show that they had acted in “good faith” under the immunity statute. The employees followed their policies and acted appropriately based on the information that was available to them at that time and were therefore acting in “good faith.”
What can we learn from the Smith case? DHR is not exempt from tragedy and surprise. When someone in DHR’s care is harmed, the injured party will not be able to recover damages if the
DHR employees acted in good faith. In determining what qualifies for good faith, and therefore statutory immunity, the courts will consider both the laws of the State and the department’s internal policies. As long as the employees are not acting with a bad intent and they comply with their own departmental policies, injured persons will not be able to recover from them.
Rebecca S. Smith is in her second year at Jones School of Law in Montgomery, AL. She joined The Adoption Law Firm in August of 2020. She attended undergraduate school at Faulkner University where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with degrees in Legal Studies and Criminal Justice and an emphasis in theology and philosophy.
Rebecca serves as a junior editor on the Faulkner Law Review and as a student mentor through the Deans Fellows Program. She has made Dean’s List every semester she has been in school and was a nominee of the 2020 “Most Outstanding 1L” award.
Rebecca recently completed an article on the use of Attorney Ad Litems in adoption proceedings while in law school and completed an article on the Sovereignty of man while she was in undergraduate.
Rebecca has a passion for serving people and loves any opportunity to minister to children.