Thursday, May 30, 2019
The Sixth Circuit this week ruled that a state judge enjoys absolute immunity from a lawsuit stemming from the judge's role in a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of its civil rights.
The case, HLV, LLC v. Van Buren County, arose when HLV filed a collection action against another corporation, ELC Leasing, in state court, Judge Hamre presiding. The parties came to an agreement, and Judge Hamre signed off. But then things went south. For one, HLV tried to inspect ELC assets (pursuant to the agreement), but ELC physically resisted--an encounter that ultimately drew the police (but no arrests). For another, Judge Hamre issued a series of questionable motions-rulings that undermined the agreement to HLV's detriment.
At one point, Judge Hamre hosted a status conference, with HLV attorneys calling in, but ELC attorneys attending in person. After the conference ended, Judge Hamre and ELC attorneys discussed the case, and Judge Hamre told the attorneys that ELC wouldn't have to comply with the parties' agreement (among other things).
But unbeknownst to Judge Hamre and the ELC attorneys, an HLV attorney was still on the line, and transcribed the entire conversation.
HLV attorneys moved to disqualify Judge Hamre and the ELC attorneys. Soon after, they received a call from a police officer who said that the county prosecutor issued warrants for their arrest for the earlier confrontation.
HLV sued the whole lot of them (Judge Hamre, the prosecutor, the ELC attorneys) for civil rights violations and conspiracy, among other things. The district court dismissed the case against Judge Hamre, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The court ruled that Judge Hamre was absolutely immune from suit under the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. It also ruled that he didn't fall into either one of the exceptions, because his actions were "truly judicial" (and not nonjudicial) and because the court had jurisdiction (and there was no "absence of jurisdiction"). It didn't matter that Judge Hamre's decisions exceeded jurisdiction, or that they were legally wrong. That's the point of absolute judicial immunity. As the court explained:
Immunizing judges from civil liability helps prevent [judicial timidity out of fear of liability, which would "detract from independent and impartial adjudication"] by allowing judges to "exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequence." But there is a cost: one incidental effect of judicial immunity is that judges who have abused their position may escape civil liability.
Judge Hamre ultimate recused himself (but only because he might be called as a witness in the criminal case against the HLV attorneys) and retired.