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What is the Judgmental Immunity Doctrine?

In certain malpractice or professional negligence cases, attorneys may claim “judgmental immunity.” If proven and applicable, the judgmental immunity doctrine may provide a defense to a plaintiff’s malpractice claims against the attorney.

14B02 Witkin

 

ELEMENTS OF THE JUDGMENTAL IMMUNITY DOCTRINE

The “Judgmental Immunity Doctrine” states that:

(a) Lawyers are not legally required, or expected, to predict the way in which a court will resolve unsettled areas of law; and

(b) Lawyers are not legally liable (under malpractice or negligence theories) for honest errors in judgment relating to unsettled, debatable, or doubtful points of law.

The doctrine applies where the law is “unsettled” or open to debate; for example, on issues where the courts are in conflict or where no clear rule of law has been established.

Attorneys do have an obligation to perform reasonable research and exercise reasonable judgment when representing clients, and those obligations do apply where the relevant law is unsettled or unclear. Also, attorneys should generally explain to clients when the law is unclear or when reasonable research indicates the applicable law is open to debate.

There is no bright-line rule about how much research an attorney must perform in order to claim judgmental immunity. The “reasonable professional” standard is generally a facts and circumstances-based test, which means that each individual case must be evaluated and examined on its merits.

HOW THE JUDGMENTAL IMMUNITY DEFENSE WORKS

Like many other defenses, attorneys bear the burden of proof when claiming judgmental immunity. In order to prevail on his or her claim, the lawyer must prove, to the requisite standard of evidence, that:

(a) The relevant law was unsettled at the time the attorney offered the allegedly negligent or improper advice to the client; and

(b) The attorney performed reasonable research and made a professionally reasonable attempt to ascertain the relevant law and legal principles required to advise or represent the client. In shorter terms: the attorney gave the relevant advice after exercising “informed judgment” in the client’s matter.

The attorney must be able to prove both prongs of the defense in order to prevail, and must satisfy the relevant burden of proof with regard to each one.

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Disclaimer:  THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an article like this one to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options.  You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Legal claims against lawyers are a complicated topic. If you believe you have a claim against an attorney who failed to provide you with competent representation, consult an experienced malpractice lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.

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