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Simmons v. Fabian: 1983 - damages immunity not injunctive immunity; Commissioner of Corrections not judicial officer

STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
A06-2308
Lillian Virginia Simmons,
Appellant,
vs.
Joan Fabian, Commissioner of Corrections,
in her Official and Individual Capacities,
Respondent.
Filed December 31, 2007
Reversed and remanded
Wright, Judge
Ramsey County District Court
File No. C6-06-2445
Bradford Colbert, Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners, 875 Summit Avenue, Room
254, St. Paul, MN 55105 (for appellant)
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Kelly S. Kemp, Assistant Attorney General, 1100
Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Willis, Judge; and Wright,
Judge.
S Y L L A B U S
1. Absolute quasi-judicial immunity from damages does not bar injunctive
relief in actions under 42 U.S.C. 1983.
2. The commissioner of corrections is not a judicial officer within the
meaning of 42 U.S.C. 1983, as amended by the Federal Courts Improvement Act of
1996.
2
O P I N I O N
WRIGHT, Judge
Appellant challenges an order dismissing her complaint, arguing that the district
court erred by ruling that respondent was entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity
from her 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim seeking injunctive relief. We reverse and remand.
FACTS
Appellant Lillian Simmons is currently serving an indeterminate life sentence
based on a 1989 conviction of first-degree felony murder, a violation of Minn. Stat.
609.185(3) (1988).1 Under the law in effect when she was convicted, Simmons was
eligible for parole after serving 17 years of her sentence. See Minn. Stat. 244.05, subd.
4 (1988). Respondent Joan Fabian is the Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections, the
executive-branch official ultimately responsible for parole decisions in the state.
In March 2003, the commissioner met with an advisory panel to review
Simmonss file and establish a projected release date. Although Simmons was eligible
for parole in October 2006, the commissioner continued review of her file until 2010.
She explained her decision in a letter to Simmons:
As you may know, no life-sentenced inmate now gets out at
their minimum parole eligibility date, since the purposeful
taking-of-a-life requires more than minimum accountability
time. Even if an inmates prison discipline record is perfectly
clean, which yours is not, and they have done everything they
can to prepare themselves for release, which you have been
1 The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and remanded on another issue
in Dunn v. State, 486 N.W.2d 428 (Minn. 1992). See also Dunn v. State, 499 N.W.2d 37
(Minn. 1993) (affirming appeal following remand); Dunn v. State, 578 N.W.2d 351
(Minn. 1998) (affirming summary denial of third petition for postconviction relief).
Since that time, appellant has legally changed her surname to Simmons.
3
striving to do, there will still be [a] number of years beyond
their minimum to serve before release is considered.
Simmons brought an action against the commissioner in both her official and individual
capacities under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that this decision effectively denied Simmons
a formal parole hearing in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment because it was based on an indiscriminate, blanket policy rather than a
complete review of her file.2 Simmons sought injunctive relief compelling the
commissioner to hold a new hearing in which the commissioner would be required to
[e]xercise her discretion in a fair manner . . . including review[ing] and consider[ing]
[Simmonss] entire case file and all expert reports contained therein. Simmons also
sought a declaratory judgment that the commissioner violated Simmonss constitutional
rights, along with attorney fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. 1988.
The commissioner moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that, as the
commissioner of corrections, she is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity in her
parole decision-making capacity. The district court granted the commissioners motion,
and this appeal followed.
ISSUE
Is the commissioner of corrections entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity
from lawsuits for injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983, as amended by the Federal
Courts Improvement Act of 1996, based on allegedly unconstitutional decision-making in
that capacity?
2 Simmons also claimed that the commissioners decision violated the Ex Post Facto
Clause. The district court dismissed this claim for failure to establish an ex post facto
violation. Simmons does not challenge this ruling on appeal.
4
ANALYSIS
Title 42 U.S.C. 1983 provides a cause of action against a state official who,
acting under color of law, deprives a person of a federal constitutional or statutory right.
Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 163-64, 112 S. Ct. 1827, 1831-32 (1992). We note at the
outset that whether an official is entitled to immunity in a state court proceeding alleging
a violation of section 1983 is governed by federal, not state, immunity doctrine. Finch v.
Wemlinger, 310 N.W.2d 66, 70 (Minn. 1981). And whether a public official is entitled to
absolute immunity under federal law presents a question of law, which we review de
novo. Johnson v. State, 553 N.W.2d 40, 45 (Minn. 1996); Elwood v. Rice County, 423
N.W.2d 671, 675 (Minn. 1988). In doing so, we analyze this question independent of the
merits of the underlying action. Johnson, 553 N.W.2d at 45; Elwood, 423 N.W.2d at
675. An official claiming immunity bears the burden of establishing entitlement to it.
Finch, 310 N.W.2d at 70.
The commissioner asserts that she is entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity
because her official decision-making functions in the parole process are essentially
adjudicatory in nature and are integral to the judicial sentencing function. Had this
lawsuit been an action for damages, we would agree. See Figg v. Russell, 433 F.3d 593,
598 (8th Cir. 2006) (holding that parole-board members are absolutely immune from
damages based on quasi-judicial function). But Simmons is seeking an injunction, and
immunity from damages does not ordinarily bar equitable relief as well. Wood v.
Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 314 n.6, 95 S. Ct. 992, 997 n.6 (1975).
5
Whether the commissioner of corrections is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity in
an action for injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. 1983, as amended by the Federal Courts
Improvement Act of 1996 (FCIA) is an issue of first impression in Minnesota. Before
1996, it was clear that even sitting judges were not immune from lawsuits for injunctive
relief under section 1983. See Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 540, 104 S. Ct. 1970, 1980
(1984) (holding that judicial immunity from damages did not extend to equitable relief).
The FCIA, however, substantially restricted the availability of injunctive relief against a
judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officers judicial capacity. Federal
Courts Improvement Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-317, 309(c), 110 Stat. 3847 (1996)
(codified as amended in 42 U.S.C. 1983 (2000)). Because section 1983 does not define
the term judicial officer, it is disputable whether this new restriction on the granting of
injunctive relief against judicial officers was meant to extend to other officials whose
entitlement to absolute immunity from damages had been recognized in light of their
roles in judicial proceedings. Hili v. Sciarrotta, 140 F.3d 210, 215 (2d Cir. 1998). In
light of the plain language, legislative history, and purpose of section 1983, including the
FCIA, we conclude that section 1983 does not protect the commissioner from lawsuits
seeking injunctive relief.
I.
When Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, it intended to provide a
remedy, to be broadly construed, against all forms of official violation of federally
protected rights. Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 660, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 2020
(1978). To this end, section 1 of the act, which is codified at 42 U.S.C. 1983, created
6
an action designed to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive
individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such
deterrence fails. Wyatt, 504 U.S. at 161, 112 S. Ct. at 1830. And although the language
of this section permits a plaintiff to sue every person who deprives the plaintiff of a
federal right under color of law, section 1983 also must be construed in light of the
common-law background against which it was enacted. See City of Monterey v. Del
Monte Dunes at Monterey, Ltd., 526 U.S. 687, 709, 119 S. Ct. 1624, 1638 (1999). This
includes common-law immunity defenses. Id. at 728, 119 S. Ct. 1648.
The various common-law doctrines of official immunity embody a recognition
that [s]pecial problems arise . . . when government officials are exposed to liability for
damages. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 223, 108 S. Ct. 538, 542 (1988). For
example, the threat of liability can create perverse incentives that operate to inhibit
officials in the proper performance of their duties. Id. If those who may be adversely
affected by a government officials decisions can sue that official, the threat of personal
financial loss may induce government officials to act with an excess of caution or
otherwise to skew their decisions in ways that result in less than full fidelity to the
objective and independent criteria that ought to guide their conduct. Id.
Yet there is an undeniable tension between ensuring that an official is free to
fearlessly serve the public and granting a license to disregard the consequences of the
officials actions. Id. at 223-24, 108 S. Ct. at 542. After all, a governing principle of our
constitutional democracy is that [a]ll the officers of the government from the highest to
the lowest, are creatures of the law, and are bound to obey it. Butz v. Economou, 438
7
U.S. 478, 506, 98 S. Ct. 2894, 2910 (1978) (quotation omitted). Although the primary
purpose of immunity is to protect the publics interest in fearless decision-making by its
officials, the fear of personal liability for wrongful conduct encourages officials to carry
out their duties in a lawful and appropriate manner[.] Forrester, 484 U.S. at 223, 108 S.
Ct. at 542. Therefore, the law has been cautious in recognizing claims that government
officials should be free of the obligation to answer for their actions in court. Id. at 223-
24, 108 S. Ct. at 542.
This tension factors not only into our analysis of whether to extend immunity, but
also into the nature of the immunity the law is willing to extend. The United States
Supreme Court has recognized two levels of immunity in section 1983 claims. Buckley v.
Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 268, 113 S. Ct. 2606, 2613 (1993). Qualified immunity, the
most common variety, protects officials so long as their conduct does not violate clearly
established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have
known. Id. By focusing on the objective reasonableness of an officials conduct, as
measured by reference to clearly established law, the test for qualified immunity is
intended both to avoid excessively disrupting government functioning and to deter
unlawful conduct. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818-19, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 2738-39
(1982). And in most cases, qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the
plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S.
478, 494-95, 111 S. Ct. 1934, 1944 (1991) (quotation omitted).
In contrast, absolute immunity always protects an officials acts from personal
liability from damages, even if the official should have known that the acts clearly
8
violated the plaintiffs rights. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 419 n.13, 96 S. Ct.
984, 989 n.13 (1976) (noting that absolute immunity automatically defeats a suit at the
outset, so long as the officials actions were within the scope of the immunity). Unlike
qualified immunity, which focuses on the reasonableness of the act that allegedly violated
the plaintiffs rights, absolute immunity focuses on the nature of the governmental
function that the official was performing. Burns, 500 U.S. at 486, 111 S. Ct. at 1939.
Absolute immunity reflects a recognition that the particularly sensitive nature of
performing certain duties makes it better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by
dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of
retaliation. Id. (quotation omitted).
The Supreme Court has been quite sparing in recognizing entitlement to
absolute immunity and typically refuses to extend it any further than its justification
would warrant. Id. at 487, 111 S. Ct. at 1939 (quotations omitted). Therefore, qualified,
not absolute, immunity is presumed to be sufficient protection for most government
officials; the strong medicine of absolute immunity is justified only when the mere
possibility of liability poses a very great danger to officials performing their duties
effectively. Forrester, 484 U.S. at 230, 108 S. Ct. at 545 (quoting Forrester v. White,
792 F.2d 647, 660 (7th Cir. 1986) (Posner, J., dissenting)).
Absolute judicial immunity from damages is one of the most solidly established
immunities in the common law. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54, 87 S. Ct. 1213,
1217 (1967); see also Pulliam, 466 U.S. at 530-36, 104 S. Ct. at 1974-78 (discussing
historical development of doctrine). The judicial function is particularly vulnerable to the
9
threat of litigation. A judges errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have
to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation. Pierson, 386 U.S. at
554, 87 S. Ct. at 1218. To promote the public interest in an impartial judiciary free to
engage in principled and fearless decisionmaking, the federal common law developed a
rule that protects judges from liability for damages resulting from their judicial acts. Id.
However, because the threat of injunctive relief raises different concerns from
those justifying immunity from damages awards, there is little support in the common
law for a rule of judicial immunity that prevents injunctive relief against a judge.
Pulliam, 466 U.S. at 540, 104 S. Ct. at 1980. Whereas liability for damages would
require a judge to pay, an injunction forces a judge to act. The threat of injunctive relief
does not create perverse incentives for a judge to decide a case in a way that will avoid
risking pecuniary consequences. See Forrester, 484 U.S. at 223, 108 S. Ct. at 542
(noting fear of monetary damages as primary threat to officials discretion justifying
immunity). Moreover, the built-in limitations on the availability of equitable relief
already severely curtail the risk that judges will be harassed and their independence
compromised by the threat of having to defend themselves against suits by disgruntled
litigants. Pulliam, 466 U.S. at 537-38, 104 S. Ct. at 1978-79. Indeed, before obtaining
equitable relief against any defendant, a litigant must establish both the absence of an
adequate remedy at law and a serious risk of irreparable harm. Id. at 537, 104 S. Ct. at
1978. For these reasons, the Pulliam Court held that common-law absolute judicial
immunity did not preclude injunctive relief or attorney fees awards under section 1983.
Id. at 541-42, 104 S. Ct. at 1981.
10
The above analysis is equally applicable to quasi-judicial immunity, which is
derived from common-law judicial immunity and applies to government officials who
perform functions closely associated with the judicial process. Cleavinger v. Saxner,
474 U.S. 193, 200, 106 S. Ct. 496, 500 (1985); see Imbler, 424 U.S. at 423, 96 S. Ct. at
991 (noting same concerns underlying common-law basis for immunity). Because
absolute immunity should not be extended any further than its justification would
warrant, the law takes a functional approach to determine whether the nature of the
responsibilities of the individual official creates one of those exceptional situations
where . . . absolute immunity is essential for the conduct of the public business[.]
Burns, 500 U.S. at 486-87, 111 S. Ct. at 1939 (quotation omitted); Cleavinger, 474 U.S.
at 201, 106 S. Ct. at 500-01 (quotations omitted).3 The Supreme Court has recognized
that absolute quasi-judicial immunity from damages awards is warranted for federal
hearing examiners, administrative law judges, witnesses, grand jurors, and prosecutors.
Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 200, 202, 106 S. Ct. at 500, 501.
Just as the federal common law did not immunize judges against injunctive relief,
it also did not immunize quasi-judicial officials against such relief. For example,
although prosecutors are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity against damages
3 Some factors to consider in determining whether absolute quasi-judicial immunity from
damages awards is warranted include (1) the severity of the threat of liability on the
officials ability to perform the functions without harassment or intimidation; (2) whether
there are already safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a method
of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (3) the degree to which the official is insulated
from political influence; (4) the importance of precedent to the officials decisionmaking;
(5) the adversary nature of the process; and (6) the correctability of the officials
error on appeal. Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 202, 106 S. Ct. at 501 (citing Butz, 438 U.S. at
512, 98 S. Ct. at 2913).
11
claims, they are not immune from, and in fact have historically been subject to, actions
for injunctive relief to prevent the enforcement of unconstitutional criminal laws. See
Supreme Court of Virginia v. Consumers Union of U.S., Inc., 446 U.S. 719, 736-37, 100
S. Ct. 1967, 1977 (1980) (observing that prosecutors are natural targets for lawsuits
enjoining them from bringing criminal charges on constitutional grounds). Such an
injunction does not interfere with a prosecutors general discretion because the prosecutor
is simply prohibited from doing an act which [the prosecutor] had no legal right to do.
Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 159, 28 S. Ct. 441, 453 (1908).
Prior to 1996, federal common law is clear as to the lack of absolute judicial or
quasi-judicial immunity from claims for injunctive relief under section 1983. Thus,
even assuming, without deciding, that the commissioner is entitled to absolute quasijudicial
immunity from damages claims, see Figg, 433 F.3d at 598, she nevertheless is
subject to claims for injunctive relief unless she falls within the class of judicial
officers granted absolute immunity by the FCIA. Without addressing the scope of the
FCIA, the district court held that the commissioner was entitled to absolute immunity
from both damages, which were not sought, and injunctive relief. To the extent that the
district courts decision reflects a conclusion that absolute quasi-judicial immunity from
injunctive relief under section 1983 is available without the benefit of the FCIA, that
decision is without legal support.4
4 Minnesota law may provide a basis for quasi-judicial immunity from injunctive relief
on state-law claims. See, e.g., Tindell v. Rogosheske, 428 N.W.2d 386, 387 (Minn. 1988)
(guardians ad litem). But section 1983 immunity doctrine does not govern state
immunity doctrine nor does state immunity law govern section 1983 immunity doctrine.
Elwood, 423 N.W.2d at 677.
12
II.
In 1996, Congress responded to the Pulliam Courts holding that federal commonlaw
judicial immunity did not bar awarding injunctive relief or attorney fees against a
judicial officer acting in her judicial capacity by enacting the FCIA. S. Rep. 104-366, at
36-37 (1996). The FCIA placed a substantial restriction on the availability of equitable
relief under section 1983 claims against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in
such officers judicial capacity. Pub. L. No. 104-317, 309(c), 110 Stat. 3847. We now
must decide whether the restriction enacted in the FCIA protects the commissioner by
granting immunity from claims seeking injunctive relief. Although section 1983
continues to permit a suit in equity against [e]very person who deprives another of a
federal right under color of law, after the enactment of the FCIA, section 1983 now also
provides:
[I]n any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or
omission taken in such officers judicial capacity, injunctive
relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was
violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.
According to the Senate Judiciary Committee Report, this new language was intended to
restore[ ] the doctrine of judicial immunity to the status it occupied prior to the Supreme
Courts decision in [Pulliam], which the committee concluded broke with 400 years of
common-law tradition and weakened judicial immunity protections. S. Rep. 104-366, at
36.
There is very little caselaw addressing the issue before uswhether the new
restriction on granting injunctive relief against judicial officers extends to other
13
officials who are entitled to absolute immunity from damages because of their role in
judicial proceedings. See Hili, 140 F.3d at 215 (noting uncertainty on issue). And we
acknowledge that the scant caselaw that exists reaches a conclusion contrary to ours. In
Montero v. Travis, for example, the Second Circuit applied the FCIA to protect the New
York parole-board commissioner from injunctive relief. 171 F.3d 757, 761 (1999). The
plaintiff in Montero was arrested for allegedly violating a condition of his parole four
days after his release. Id. at 759. As a result of the parole violation, the commissioner
resentenced the plaintiff to six years in prison. Id. The plaintiff brought a section 1983
action alleging that the commissioner violated his due-process rights by presiding over
the parole-revocation hearing despite preexisting bias. Id. The relief sought by the
plaintiff included both damages and an injunction prohibiting the commissioner from
retaliating against him for filing suit. Id. The Montero court summarily concluded that
[a]bsolute immunity bars not only [the plaintiffs section] 1983 claim for damages but
also his claim for injunctive relief against parole officials when they serve a quasiadjudicative
function in deciding whether to grant, deny or revoke parole. Id. at 761
(citing Pub. L. No. 104-317, 309(c), 110 Stat. 3847).
In Roth v. King, the District of Columbia Circuit applied the FCIA and found
public-defender administrators immune from injunctive relief when selecting courtappointed
attorneys in juvenile-delinquency cases. 449 F.3d 1272, 1286-87 (D.C. Cir.
2006). The administrators were statutorily required to both assist the court in
determining the financial eligibility for appointed representation and establish and
coordinate the operation of an adequate system of private attorneys to represent [indigent]
14
persons. Id. at 1287 (quotation omitted). A group of lawyers brought a section 1983
action against, among others, administrators in a family-law division of the District of
Columbia public defenders office. Id. at 1276. The plaintiffs alleged that changes in the
system for appointing attorneys in delinquency cases deprived them of their property
right to receive paid Family Court appointments without due process and sought to
enjoin the administrators from enforcing the new system of appointment. Id. at 1278.
The Roth court held that the administrators were entitled to absolute immunity from
injunctive relief based on their statutory role in the appointment process. Id. at 1287.
The court reasoned that section 1983 as amended by the FCIA explicitly immunizes
judicial officers against suits for injunctive relief, and that [i]t is well established that
judicial immunity extends to other officers of government whose duties are related to the
judicial process. Id. at 1286-87 (quotation omitted). The Roth court concluded that
[t]here is also no reason to believe that the [FCIA] is restricted to judges. Id. at 1287.
We respectfully disagree.5 Indeed, our application of United States Supreme Court
precedent construing section 1983 and our analysis of the legislative history of the FCIA
provide ample reasons to conclude that immunity from injunctive relief enacted in the
FCIA is indeed restricted to judges.
The interpretive approach taken by Montero and Roth is inconsistent with the
applicable Supreme Court precedent construing section 1983. It is axiomatic that we
5 Although the opinions of these federal courts are persuasive and should be afforded
due deference, we are bound only by decisions of the Minnesota Supreme Court and the
United States Supreme Court, even when interpreting federal statutes. Citizens for a
Balanced City v. Plymouth Congregational Church, 672 N.W.2d 13, 20 (Minn. App.
2003).
15
must construe section 1983 generously to further its primary purpose of provid[ing] a
remedy . . . against all forms of official violation of federally protected rights. Monell,
436 U.S. at 700-01, 98 S. Ct. at 2041 (noting primary purpose to provide remedy against
state officials); Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 639, 100 S. Ct. 1920, 1923 (1980)
(noting that section 1983 should be broadly construed as remedial statute). Even when
the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages, immunity for state officers is the exception,
not the rule. See Gomez, 446 U.S. at 639, 100 S. Ct. at 1923 (describing willingness to
extend immunity under certain limited circumstances). We must presume that, by
using the broad language of section 1983 to reach every state official, Congress
affirmatively intended to abrogate every state officials immunity unless a particular
immunity is so well-settled and compatible with Congresss goals in enacting section
1983 that Congress can be presumed to have thought otherwise. Cf. id. (unwilling to
infer congressional intention to abrogate immunities that were both well established at
common law and compatible with purposes of Civil Rights Act); Owen v. City of
Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 635-36, 100 S. Ct. 1398, 1408 (1980) (noting that
expansive sweep of the statutory language was intentional); Gomez, 446 U.S. at 639,
100 S. Ct. at 1923.
There is no indication that Congress intended the FCIA to undermine its original
goal for the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Congress did not purport to change the fact that
section 1983 is a remedial statute specifically designed to provide plaintiffs with a broad
remedy against state officials who violate their federal rights. The language of the FCIA
restricting the availability of this remedy in any action [for injunctive relief] brought
16
against a judicial officer, therefore, must be interpreted narrowly. See District of
Columbia v. Carter, 409 U.S. 418, 432-33, 93 S. Ct. 602, 610 (1973) (quotation omitted)
(discussing construction of section 1983). We are not at liberty to seek ingenious
analytical instruments to avoid giving a congressional enactment the broad scope its
language and origins may require. Id. Without a reason to conclude that the FCIA
affirmatively intended the term judicial officer to restrict the availability of injunctive
relief beyond official members of the judiciary, we decline to recast this [amended]
statute to expand its application beyond the limited reach Congress gave it. See id.
(quotation omitted).
Furthermore, our review of the legislative history establishes that Congress did not
even consider the possibility that it would be amending section 1983 to restrict the
availability of injunctive relief against quasi-judicial officers. Section 309 of the FCIA
followed a number of virtually identical bills that never reached a final vote. See S. Rep.
104-366, at 36 (listing previous versions). Congress first addressed the subject matter in
1985, when it conducted hearings on the immunity issues raised by Pulliam. Judicial
Immunity Restoration Act, S. Rep. 102-224, at 2 (1991). The Senate Subcommittee on
the Constitution produced a bill that would have given judges personal immunity from
attorney-fee awards under 42 U.S.C. 1988, but it was never considered by the Senate
Judiciary Committee. Id. at 2-3. It was not until three years later that the Senate
Judiciary Committee actually considered a bill that prohibited damages or injunctive
relief against a judicial officer for action taken in a judicial capacity. Id. at 3. This bill,
however, was never considered by the full Senate. Id. The 1989 and later versions
17
contained substantially the same text as the one finally enacted in 1996. Id. at 3-4.
Whether in the language of these bills, the accompanying committee reports, or the
introductory remarks on the floor, the history of the legislation that ultimately was
enacted in 1996 is entirely consistent in at least three important respects.
First, it is clear that Congress was specifically addressing the Supreme Courts
decision in Pulliam when it amended section 1983. S. Rep. 104-366, at 37 (referring to
language in FCIA as designed specifically [to] address the statutes at issue in Pulliam).
And language substantially identical to this legislation is to restore judicial immunity to
its pre-Pulliam status can be found in nearly every iteration of the bill. See, e.g., S. Rep.
104-366, at 36 (FCIA); 141 Cong. Rec. S11324-01 (1995) (Judicial Immunity
Restoration Act); S. Rep. 102-224, at 1-2 (1991) (Judicial Immunity Restoration Act); S.
Rep. 101-465, at 1 (1990) (Judicial Immunity Restoration Act); 135 Cong. Rec. S2630-
01, at S2705 (1989) (judicial immunity bill); 134 Cong. Rec. S3802-01 (1988) (Joint
Resolution of Virginia Legislature to Senate Committee on the Judiciary); 131 Cong.
Rec. E304-02 (extended remarks of sponsor).
Furthermore, this legislation was originally introduced because Congress was
concerned that Pulliams holding that judicial immunity did not bar attorney fees under
42 U.S.C. 1988 would have the same impact on traditional judicial independence as
awarding damages. See, e.g., 134 Cong. Rec. S3802-01 (1988) (Joint Resolution of
Virginia Legislature to Senate Committee on the Judiciary) (supporting legislation
prohibiting award of attorneys fees against judges arising out of actions for injunctive
relief because the consequences of such liability on the independence of state judicial
18
decisions cannot but exert an intimidating influence on the free and unbiased functioning
of even the most courageous judge). Indeed, the earliest proposed legislation traceable
to section 309 of the FCIA specifically avoided any restrictions on injunctive relief; and
Congress did not address injunctive relief until three years later. 6 131 Cong. Rec. E304-
02 (1985); S. Rep. 102-224, at 3. According to the report accompanying the 1991
version, Pulliam created a critical problem for the independence of the judiciary if a
plaintiff can collect section 1988 attorney fees after successfully getting injunctive relief
under section 1983, mak[ing] judges personally liable for court costs and large attorney
fee awards that are tantamount to direct money damages and thereby encourag[ing]
harassing litigation. S. Rep. 102-224, at 7. Likewise, the FCIA specifically refers to the
effect Pulliam has on individual judges:
Even when [frivolous suits for injunctive relief] are routinely
dismissed, the very process of defending against those actions
6 As the sponsor explains:
My proposed legislation . . . does not prohibit the
seeking of injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. [] 1983 against
judges, even though Justice Powell argued [in his dissent in
Pulliam] that the doctrine of judicial immunity should extend
to such actions. Nor on the other hand does it codify that
portion of the majority opinion, preferring rather to permit
subsequent Court construction on the extent of judicial
immunity.
My bill simply prohibits the award of attorneys fees
against judges growing out of actions for injunctive relief. As
Justice Powell noted in Pulliam, there is no difference
between monetary damages against a judge and making him
personally liable for a plaintiffs attorneys fees. The latter is
the same as the former in its effect and would make even the
most conscientious judge reticent about making the difficult
decisions necessary to discharge his responsibilities.
131 Cong. Rec. E304-02 (1988) (remarks of Sen. Gekas).
19
is vexatious and subjects judges to undue expense. More
importantly, the risk to judges of burdensome litigation
creates a chilling effect that threatens judicial independence
and may impair the day-to-day decisions of the judiciary in
close or controversial cases.
S. Rep. 104-366, at 37.
Second, Congress restricted injunctive relief against judicial officers because it
was concerned that dissatisfied state-court litigants would erode traditional principles of
comity by using section 1983 to collaterally attack unfavorable judgments in federal
court. By introducing the first bill equivalent to the FCIA, the sponsors specifically
referred to the problem the legislation was addressing by restricting injunctive relief
against judicial officers in section 1983 actions. Senator Hefflin, who introduced the
1989 bill, explained:
In addition to the chilling effect of [attorney-fee awards] on
judicial independence, my colleagues in the judicial branch
are concerned that this decision will create a new class of
Federal litigation against State decisions. State court
plaintiffs are placed, in effect, in a position of appealing to the
Federal courts to enjoin State court action when they should
be in State courts appealing through the State judicial system.
This encroachment on the doctrine of federalism destroys
comity between the two separate but equal judicial systems.
State judges cannot act effectively if their decisions, no
matter how closely they are made in keeping with State law,
are subject to immediate challenge in the Federal courts.
135 Cong. Rec. S2630-01, at S2705. Similarly, Senator Gorton described the amendment
as essential to fulfill the historic function of judicial immunity to protect the
independence of State and Federal courts, and preserve judicial Federalism. Id.
20
Third, there is absolutely no reference to quasi-judicial officers anywhere in the
legislative history.7 Rather, judicial officer is used interchangeably with judge,
justice, and magistrate. See, e.g., S. Rep. 104-366, at 37 (parenthetically describing
judicial officers as justices, judges and magistrates); 134 Cong. Rec. S3802-01
(disapproving of principle that state judicial officers, from magistrate to supreme court
justice, even when clearly acting within their jurisdiction, may be subjected to liability
for costs and attorneys fees as a result of what is perceived to be their failure to interpret
the law correctly). Indeed, the 1991 report specifically discusses the legislations
focus as being unique to those who preside over litigation:
It is redundant to say that judges are in the business of
judging. But it helps to emphasize that judges are required,
more so than most other public officials, to make on a daily
basis judgments that directly affect our most precious rights
7 The closest reference to quasi-judicial officers comes in the report accompanying the
1991 version in discussing the financial hardships that attorney-fee awards place on state
judicial officers:
Even where the State has ultimately paid the fees
imposed by these cases, the fact remains that each case that
joins a judge places an open-ended financial threat against the
judge for making an honest judicial decision for which a
governmental unit may not be liable. While such a case is
pending, the judge might be unable to buy a house or gain
credit for purchase of a car. Such circumstances have a direct
impact on the lives of judges. Moreover, only 20 States
protect judges against fee awards by some kind of
indemnification or tort claims statute and some of these
statutes are limited in their coverage. Only 10 States cover all
State employees including court administrators. Therefore,
judicial officials in at least 30 States could be found
personally liable for fee awards unless their legislatures acted
to protect them.
S. Rep. 102-224, at 9 (emphasis added). At most, this shows that Congress considered
the financial impact that amending section 1988 might have on court administrators
judicial-branch employees, even if not actual judges.
21
as individuals. Virtually every case, whether a civil dispute
or a criminal prosecution, results in judgments favoring one
party over another. These judgments often affect large groups
or classes of people other than the litigants directly involved.
It follows that judges are at the center of controversy
and high emotions in their daily work, but must make
dispassionate and objective evaluations of the facts plus
reasoned applications of the law if there is to be a just and fair
result. A typical judge makes thousands of controversial
decisions over the course of even a brief career on the bench.
Many of these decisions involve difficult factual and legal
determinations, often involving unsettled questions of law or
settled questions that can change on appeal. Judicial
immunity, therefore, is not for the protection of the judge but
for the protection and integrity of the judicial process. It is
essential to the rule of law.
S. Rep. 102-224, at 8 (emphasis added). Even the opponents of amending section 1983
did not contemplate that the new language would restrict injunctive relief against anyone
other than judges:
Th[e] proposed limitation would operate to deprive the
Federal courts of a vital tool for protecting constitutional
rights. Perhaps this intrusion upon the capacity of Federal
courts to remedy constitutional violations might be justified if
it could be shown that Federal courts were continually
overstepping their bounds and fashioning broad injunctions
that interfered with the operation of the State judiciary. Yet
no such showing has been made. In the absence of any
evidence of widespread abuse in the granting of declaratory
and injunctive relief by Federal courts in civil rights actions
against State judges, there is no justification for [this] drastic
restriction.
Id. at 14 (emphasis added). And finally, the report accompanying the FCIA describes
Congresss specific intent in amending section 1983 to bar a Federal judge from
granting injunctive relief against a State judge, unless declaratory relief is unavailable or
the State judge violated a declaratory decree. S. Rep. 104-366, at 37.
22
In sum, the legislative history demonstrates that Congress did not even consider
the issue of quasi-judicial officers when it amended section 1983, much less affirmatively
intend to restrict the availability of injunctive relief against them. And we are unwilling
to infer from this legislative silence that Congress intended to abrogate the availability of
injunctive relief against a state official when entitlement to such protection is neither
well established at common law nor compatible with the purposes of the Civil Rights
Act. See Gomez, 446 U.S. at 639, 100 S. Ct. at 1923 (quotation omitted).
The commissioners immunity from injunctive relief is not well established at
common law. Rather, the well established rule is that immunity from damages does not
ordinarily bar equitable relief as well. Wood, 420 U.S. at 314 n.6, 95 S. Ct. at 997 n.6.
Indeed, although prosecutors have enjoyed absolute quasi-judicial immunity from
damages since the early 20th century, they also have been subject to injunctive relief
since that time period. Compare Imbler, 424 U.S. at 421-22, 96 S. Ct. at 990-91 (citing
Yaselli v. Goff, 12 F.2d 396 (2d Cir. 1926) (granting federal prosecutor absolute quasijudicial
immunity from damages), affd, 275 U.S. 503, 48 S. Ct. 155 (1927) (per
curiam)), with Young, 209 U.S. at 159, 28 S. Ct. at 453 (enjoining state attorney general).
Certain immunities were so well established in 1871, when [section] 1983 was enacted,
that we presume that Congress would have specifically so provided had it wished to
abolish them. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 268, 113 S. Ct. at 2613 (quotation omitted).
Conversely, the availability of injunctive relief against quasi-judicial officials, despite
absolute immunity from damages, is so well established that we presume Congress would
23
have expressly abrogated the availability of injunctive relief against quasi-judicial
officials had it intended to do so.
D E C I S I O N
Because extending to the commissioner quasi-judicial immunity from injunctive
relief in actions under 42 U.S.C. 1983, as amended by the Federal Courts Improvement
Act of 1996 (FCIA), would be inconsistent with (1) the plain language of the statute and
the United States Supreme Courts broad construction of section 1983, (2) the legislative
history of the FCIA, and (3) the purpose of section 1983, the district court erred by
dismissing Simmonss complaint on this ground.
Reversed and remanded.
 

 
 
 

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