SHRINKS GRANTED IMMUNITY

The psychologist Okken thought was an independent expert in his divorce, he says, turned out to be a close friend of his ex-wife's attorney. That might explain, he believes, why Lavit recommended that Okken's ex-wife receive primary custody of their son.

"To most people, that would appear to be a relationship," Okken says. "I was outraged."
According to a handbook used by the Maricopa County Superior Court in training sessions for court-appointed psychologists, such experts are supposed to tell clients if they have any "prior and current personal or professional activities, obligations and relationships that might produce a conflict of interests."

Okken says he was never told that Lavit and Richter are friends, and that if he had known, he would have sought another psychologist during his divorce.

Richter and Lavit, while acknowledging that they are acquaintances, both downplay the relationship. Each says he can barely remember if Richter was a witness to Lavit's second marriage.

And each emphatically says that there is nothing about their friendship that affected the outcome of Okken's child-custody negotiations. They say they treated the case with utter professionalism, just as they have many others.

In the realm of child-custody cases, they say, almost all are friends. Only about a dozen psychologists and 50 or 60 lawyers in Phoenix routinely handle child-custody cases, Richter says, and it is inevitable that most know each other.

"Of course I've used Ronn a lot," Richter says. "I knew that whatever the case was, he has a certain philosophy about shared parenting. I like shared parenting. . . . I used Ronn because I felt that I could trust him to come up with what was best for the kids."
Lavit, a quiet 50-year-old, says he is wounded by the suggestion that he would let friendship affect his recommendations in a case, Okken's or any other.

He almost seems befuddled by the question, sitting in his small office, where dispassionate Southwestern art hangs over couches much abused by the legion of parents and children who have passed through, picking and punching at the upholstery.

Speaking with his attorney present, Lavit acknowledges that he and Richter are friends, as are many of the other attorneys with whom he works. "I have relationships with lots of attorneys," Lavit says. "Your professional judgment is not affected by the fact that you know someone."

The world of child-custody determinations is a small one, Lavit agrees. Only a handful of psychologists wants to take on the task of stepping into the crossfire of squabbling parents to render an opinion on what is best for a child.

"When a psychologist does this, they have to make a recommendation," Lavit says. "Someone's always unhappy. That's not your job, to make the parents happy."
Both men reject the idea that there is even an appearance of a conflict between their friendship and the cases they handle.

Okken's dogged pursuit of the cases after the divorce, Richter maintains, proves that Lavit was right in his recommendation. In fact, the attorney says, he was also unhappy with Lavit's recommendation because he felt Okken should be given less time with his son than he received.

"The results of this case were not to my liking," Richter says. "I thought Duane was clearly not appropriate for a shared-parenting agreement."
Lavit dismisses the occasion when Richter was his attorney as minor, something that he scarcely recalls.

"It was a visitation dispute over a Thanksgiving visit," he says. "That's all it was. . . . It was resolved by the two attorneys over the phone very amiably. It was very minor."
Similarly, Lavit says he places little weight on the fact that Richter witnessed his second wedding. "It was a very small wedding," he says. "There were only a couple of people there."

Richter also downplays his social connections with Lavit. "If somebody asked, 'Were you a witness in Ronn's wedding?', I would have to think about it," Richter says. "I would say yes."

But Okken contends that someone--Richter or Lavit--should have told him about their relationship before he agreed to use Lavit in his custody case.

"It came to light as a fluke," Okken says. "The whole thing, this whole issue, is an 'I don't have to tell you' routine."
But so far, Okken has found no one who will listen to his lament.
@rule:

@body:After Okken sued him, Lavit asked Superior Court Judge Edward Rapp to throw out the case. Lavit's attorney, Steve Maseros, argued that Lavit should not be subject to legal action over his recommendations because he served as an appointee of the court while making the custody determination.

Judge Rapp says he thought Lavit should have to answer the charges, and denied the motion. "I felt there was a question of fact as to the issues raised by [Okken]," Rapp says.

After losing in the trial court, Maseros filed a special action asking the state Court of Appeals to block the lawsuit.

Citing the case as "an issue of statewide importance for court-appointed psychologists," the appeals court agreed to consider the matter before the case came to trial.

The Arizona Psychological Association joined in the case, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Lavit's request. Attorney Howard Leibow, representing the association, argued that divorce cases, with their high potential for emotion and drama, are a breeding ground for complaints by disgruntled parents.

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