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J.H. v. Williamson County

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

December 14, 2016

J.H., by next friend BETTY HARRIS
v.
WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE, et al.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALETA A. TRAUGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the court is Plaintiff's Motion for Review of Magistrate's Order (Docket No. 84). Defendants have filed a Response (Docket No. 93), and Plaintiff has filed a Reply (Docket No. 99). Plaintiff seeks review of the Magistrate Judge's Order (Docket No. 81), which granted Defendant Williamson County's Motion for Appointment of a Guardian Ad Litem for the minor Plaintiff, J.H., and appointed attorney Matt Potempa to serve in that role.

         Pursuant to Rule 72(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court may reverse or modify the ruling of the Magistrate Judge only if it is clearly erroneous or contrary to law. For the reasons set forth below, the court finds that the ruling of the Magistrate Judge is neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law, and the Order of the Magistrate Judge is AFFIRMED.

         This action was filed by Betty Harris as next friend/mother of J.H., a minor. The Complaint alleges that, while being housed in the Williamson County Juvenile Detention Center, J.H. was sexually assaulted by an employee of Williamson County. The Complaint also alleges that J.H. was unlawfully placed in solitary confinement.

         Defendant Williamson County has asserted that a potential conflict of interest exists between J.H. and his next friend/mother, Betty Harris. Defendant argues that the appointment of an independent guardian ad litem is appropriate because certain damages sought in this action are personal to Ms. Harris and not recoverable by J.H., thereby creating a conflict of interest. Defendant also claims that J.H. was never informed of a settlement offer made by Williamson County, demonstrating further the need for a guardian ad litem to represent J.H.'s interests. On the other hand, Plaintiff argues that Ms. Harris, as next friend and mother of J.H., is protecting the best interests of the child and that no further representation for J.H. is needed.

         Rule 17 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides:

A minor or incompetent person who does not have a duly appointed representative may sue by a next friend or by a guardian ad litem. The court must appoint a guardian ad litem - or issue another appropriate order - to protect a minor or incompetent person who is unrepresented in an action.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c). The decision to appoint a guardian ad litem rests within the sound discretion of the district court. M.F. v. Malott, 2012 WL 1950274 at * 4 (S.D. Ohio May 30, 2012).[1]

         The parties do not dispute that J.H. does not have a “duly appointed representative” under Tennessee law.[2] Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 17.03 makes clear that a next friend is distinct from a duly appointed representative. Even if Ms. Harris were a duly appointed representative in this case, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem where the interests of the appointed representative conflict with, or are antagonistic to, the minor person. M.F., 2012 WL 1950274 at * 4; 6A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller and Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1570 (3d ed. April 2016 Update).

         Here, although she is not a party to the lawsuit, Betty Harris has claimed damages personal to her and not recoverable by J.H. For example, in her interrogatory answers, Ms. Harris stated that she was claiming damages for lost business revenues, home foreclosure, property tax penalties, and moving costs and eviction. In deposition testimony, she expressed an expectation of recovering losses personal to her. Ms. Harris's potential conflict and financial interest in the outcome of this litigation make the Magistrate Judge's Order appointing a guardian ad litem appropriate and neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law.

         Defendant points out that J.H. testified that no one had informed him that a settlement offer had been made or the value of that offer. Plaintiff's counsel insists that Defendant is using this argument to force disclosure of attorney-client privileged communications. This deposition testimony of J.H., however, was not objected to by counsel, and there is no evidence that his statement opens the door to disclosure of privileged information. In any event, any failure to inform J.H. about settlement discussions is not the only reason a guardian ad litem is needed in this case.

         Plaintiff contends that appointing a guardian ad litem would subvert the role of Plaintiff's attorney in this case. To the contrary, appointing a guardian ad litem allows Plaintiff's counsel to continue to represent both J.H. and his mother in spite of the potential conflicts in their interests. The duties of a lawyer for a party and the duties of a guardian ad litem are different. McCaslin v. Radcliff, 168 F.R.D. 249, 256 (Neb. 1996); Keisling v. Keisling, 196 S.W. 3d. 703, 729 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). A guardian ad litem is not appointed to serve as counsel, but to act for the minor, with authority to engage counsel, file suit, and to prosecute, control and direct the litigation. Noe v. True, 507 F.2d 9, 11-12 (6th Cir. 1974). The purpose of the guardian ad litem is to protect the interests of the minor or incompetent person with full responsibility to assist the court to secure a just, speedy and inexpensive determination of the action. Id.[3]

         Plaintiff also argues that appointing a guardian ad litem is contrary to the interests of justice because of J.H.'s fragile mental health condition. The Magistrate Judge expressly considered this factor and found no reason to doubt that the appointed guardian ad litem will be mindful of J.H.'s circumstances. Plaintiff has submitted an Affidavit (Docket No. 84-4) from one of J.H.'s mental health treating providers, Glynn Dilbeck, who states that assigning a guardian ad litem for J.H. would create an unacceptable and intolerable risk of safety and psychological setback for J.H.[4]

         To the contrary, as noted, the guardian ad litem's sole purpose is to protect the interests of the child. There is no evidence before this court that the guardian ad litem will not be mindful of J.H.'s circumstances or will not use sound discretion in developing a relationship with J.H., including working with those with whom J.H. has already established trust. As the Magistrate Judge stated, the court also expects J.H.'s next ...


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