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Brittner v. Lanzilotta

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

March 12, 2019

LONNY BRITTNER, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
MARY ANN LANZILOTTA, Defendant/Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CV 2017-094921 The Honorable David K. Udall, Judge

          Lonny Brittner, Chandler Plaintiff/Appellant

          Renaud Cook Drury Mesaros PA, Phoenix By Michael D. Wolver, Karl J. Gruse, Steven G. Mesaros Counsel for Defendant/Appellee

          Judge Jennifer B. Campbell delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Paul J. McMurdie and Judge Randall M. Howe joined.

          OPINION

          CAMPBELL, Judge

         ¶1 Lonny Brittner appeals the superior court's dismissal of his amended complaint. Because Dr. Mary Ann Lanzilotta is entitled to judicial immunity as the court-appointed therapeutic interventionist ("TI") in Brittner's family court matter, we affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Brittner filed a civil action against Lanzilotta for intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of power, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract after she resigned from her role as a court-appointed TI in his dissolution matter. In that proceeding, Brittner sought joint legal decision-making and equal parenting time of his children. The family court appointed Dr. Daniel Christiano as a custody evaluator. Christiano recommended the family see a TI. The parties provided the family court with a stipulated agreement to appoint Lanzilotta, and the court appointed her. Pursuant to the order, Lanzilotta was appointed to rehabilitate relationships between Brittner and the minor children, establish "rules for [the] exchange of [the] children in order to enhance safety and health in the family," make referrals for therapy as necessary, and facilitate conflict resolution.[1] In his amended complaint, Brittner acknowledged that Lanzilotta was appointed by court order and that the court relied on Lanzilotta's recommendations in issuing its final decree.[2]

         ¶3 Lanzilotta moved to dismiss the complaint under Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing she was entitled to judicial immunity as a court-appointed TI. The court dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Brittner timely appealed from the resulting final judgment. See

         DISCUSSION

         ¶4 We review the dismissal of a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) de novo. Coleman v. City of Mesa, 230 Ariz. 352, 355, ¶ 7 (2012). "When adjudicating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, Arizona courts look only to the pleading itself and consider the well-pled factual allegations contained therein." Cullen v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 218 Ariz. 417, 419, ¶ 7 (2008). We also "assume the truth of the well-pled factual allegations and indulge all reasonable inferences therefrom." Id. We will affirm the dismissal if, as a matter of law, the plaintiff is not "entitled to relief under any interpretation of the facts susceptible of proof." Fed. Sec. Life Ins. Co. v. State Dep't of Ins., 191 Ariz. 222, 224, ¶ 4 (1998).

         ¶5 Brittner argues Lanzilotta is not entitled to judicial immunity because she was hired to provide therapeutic services to the parties, and not as an expert to assist the court, relying in part on Paul E. v. Courtney F., 244 Ariz. 46, 56-57, ¶ 32 (App. 2018) (review granted in part Nov. 20, 2018). Brittner, however, admits that Lanzilotta was appointed by the court. He also acknowledges the court relied on Lanzilotta's recommendations when making the final custody determination.

         ¶6 Judicial immunity protects judges from civil liability for judicial acts performed in the exercise of their judicial functions. In re Alexander, 232 Ariz. 1, 11, ¶ 41 (2013). "Judicial immunity protects a non-judicial officer performing a function pursuant to a court directive related to the judicial process." Lavit v. Superior Court, 173 Ariz. 96, 99 (App. 1992) (citing Acevedo ex rel Acevedo v. Pima Cty. Adult Prob. Dep 't, 142 Ariz. 319, 321 (1984)). Absolute judicial immunity has been extended to "certain other court officials who perform functions integral to the judicial process," including court-appointed psychologists and psychiatrists who assist the court. Id. (citing Acevedo, 142 Ariz. at 321). The existence of judicial immunity is a question of law we review de novo. Widoff v. Wiens, 202 Ariz. 383, 385-86, ¶ 8 (App. 2002). Whether absolute immunity protects a nonjudicial officer hinges on "the nature of the function performed, not on the identity of the actor." Lavit, 173 Ariz. at 99.

         ¶7 Here, the court appointed Lanzilotta to provide therapeutic services and to give recommendations to the family court regarding "rules for [the] exchange of [the] children in order to enhance safety and health in the family" and referrals for therapy, which the court ultimately relied on in issuing its final order. Therapeutic services in this matter are incidental to the court's purpose-Lanzilotta was appointed to provide the court information and make recommendations to assist in a custody determination. To formulate her expert opinion, therapeutic sessions were necessary to gather and evaluate the family ...


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