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Supreme Court finds Official Immunity—Narrows Ministerial Duties—in State Facility Death

by | Mar 6, 2024 | Firm News |

The Supreme Court of Missouri, in a 6-0 ruling handed down on December 19, 2023, held that official immunity protects employees of a state-run facility when the tasks employees are asked to complete involve any form of discretion because a duty is not considered ministerial when even a small amount of discretion exists.

Ronald Scheer was a resident at the St. Louis Developmental Disabilities Treatment Center-St. Charles Habilitation Center from 1974 until his death in June 2020. The Center is a state-run medical facility, operated by the Missouri Department of Mental Health. The Center, as required by state and federal law, developed and maintained an individual support plan (“ISP”) for Mr. Scheer. Included in the ISP were orders to provide Mr. Scheer with 24-hour supervision, reposition Mr. Scheer every two hours, and secure Mr. Scheer in his wheelchair with a seatbelt and pelvic harness. On June 29, 2020, employees of the Center removed Mr. Scheer from his bed, placed him in his wheelchair with his seatbelt secured, but failed to secure his pelvic harness. Mr. Scheer remained in his room, unattended, seated in his wheelchair without his pelvic harness secured. Later that evening, the Center’s staff found Mr. Scheer in his room unresponsive and determined that Mr. Scheer slide down in his wheelchair and choked on his seatbelt. Mr. Scheer was later pronounced dead.

Mr. Scheer’s legal guardian sued the Center and several of its employees, alleging claims of wrongful death based on medical malpractice and negligence. The employees filed a motion to dismiss claiming official immunity. The St. Charles County Circuit Court granted the Center’s motion to dismiss, but allowed the suit to proceed against the Center’s employees. The employees then sought a writ of prohibition from the Court of Appeals, seeking to bar the Circuit Court from taking further action. The Court of Appeals denied the writ, and the employees subsequently sought a writ from the Supreme Court of Missouri.

The primary issue before the Supreme Court of Missouri was whether the tasks imposed upon the employees by the ISP were ministerial duties under the law, therefore removing the employees from the protection of official immunity.

Official immunity is a legal doctrine that protects certain government officials from being held personally liable for actions taken during the scope of their employment. However, official immunity does not protect government officers when such officers fail to perform a ministerial duty required by law. The scope of what constitutes a ministerial duty is narrow. For a duty to be “ministerial,” the Supreme Court reasoned that the central question to the analysis turns on “whether there is any room whatsoever for variation in when and how a particular task can be done.”  If the duty involved permits any variation, then the duty is not ministerial and thus official immunity likely applies.

The plaintiff argued the duties under Mr. Scheer’s ISP were ministerial in nature because the ISP was required by state and federal law and, therefore, the duties within the ISP imposed a legal mandate on the Center’s employees. As argued by the plaintiff, the failure to fasten Mr. Scheer’s seatbelt and pelvic harness while he was in the wheelchair was a failure to perform a legally mandated ministerial duty. In rebutting this argument, the Court concluded that when presented with a ministerial duty, the central inquiry is “not whether the law confers a duty to act but, instead, whether the public official retains any discretion in completing an act.” The Supreme Court reasoned that when discretion exists, even in the slightest bit, the duty is not ministerial. Ministerial duties, on the other hand, are duties that cannot be partially completed or completed through different methods. They are duties required by law that are either completed or not, and leave no room for discretion. The Court therefore held that because the Center’s employees had discretion in how to perform certain tasks in Mr. Scheer’s ISP, the duties within the ISP were not ministerial. Therefore, official immunity applied.

The case is State ex rel. Ruiz-Morales v. Alessi, SC100069.