Probation department entitled to quasi-judicial immunity on estate’s negligence claim, COA rules

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The Marion Superior Court Probation Department is entitled to immunity against the negligence claim brought by the estate of a man who was killed by a juvenile on probation, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

The case involves S.A., a juvenile who, in February 2014, was given a suspended commitment to the Department of Correction for committing acts that would be auto theft and resisting law enforcement if committed by an adult. S.A. was placed on probation and home confinement, among other terms.

But in the first month of his probation, S.A. was in noncompliance at least 15 times. His probation officer was supposed to file a notice with the juvenile court after the third violation, but the officer failed to do so.

Instead, in March 2014, the Marion Superior Court Probation Department filed a modification petition requesting a hearing, although it didn’t explicitly request a change in S.A.’s placement.

The hearing was scheduled for April 7, 2014. On April 1, S.A. shot and killed Nathan Trapuzzano in an apparent robbery.

Trapuzzano’s estate sued multiple county parties, including the probation department, for negligence. All defendants were dismissed except for the probation department, which moved for summary judgment partially on the basis of immunity.

A special judge in Marion Superior Court denied the summary judgment motion, finding genuine issues of material fact existed that might negate immunity, including quasi-judicial immunity.

But in a reversal on interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals determined quasi-judicial immunity applies.

The appellate court looked to Thornton v. Pietrzak, 120 N.E.3d 1139 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), which held that “in filing the notice of probation violation, [the probation officers] were ‘performing [a task] so integral or intertwined with the judicial process’ that they should be ‘considered an arm of the judicial officer who is immune.’”

“We find little to distinguish the actions at issue here from the actions at issue in Thornton,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote in Marion Superior Court Probation Department v. Cheryl Trapuzzano and Jennifer Trapuzzano, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Nathan Trapuzzano, Deceased, 23A-CT-61.

The COA also cited Mendenhall v. City of Indianapolis, 717 N.E.2d 1218 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans. denied, and H.B. v. Indiana-Elkhart Div. of Fam. & Child., 713 N.E.2d 300 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans. denied, in reversing the denial of summary judgment.

“Finally, we note that the trial court focused on what it described as genuine issues of material fact as to whether the probation officer intentionally withheld vital information,” Tavitas wrote. “Quasi-judicial immunity, like judicial immunity, is ‘absolute.’

“… Regardless of whether the probation officer’s conduct was intentional or negligent, quasi-judicial immunity applies,” she wrote. “Because the Probation Department has immunity from the Estate’s claims, we need not address the parties’ other arguments.

“Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred by denying the Probation Department’s motion for summary judgment.”

The case was remanded.

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