See if you can predict how this case will come out, based on the first sentence of the Third District Court of Appeal's opinion:
This case presents the issue of whether a judicial officer enjoys absolute immunity from civil liability for assaulting and battering a litigant.
If you think the answer is "no" and that the aforementioned "judicial officer" needs to learn that physical force is rarely an acceptable dispute resolution technique, you may advance to the head of the class. Here are the details:
Jerome Regan sued Jennifer Martin in Placer County. (The exact nature of that lawsuit is not revealed in the appellate decision.) Disputes arose during the discovery process, and the judge hearing the case decided that a discovery referee should be appointed to control the process and to make appropriate recommendations to the court concerning those disputes. The court appointed attorney David Price as referee. Price in short order found himself in a personality clash with Regan's attorney, Robert Kingslan. At one point, Price accused Kingslan of having "stolen" certain documents that had been produced at a deposition. In light of that accusation (which he denied), Kingslan concluded that Price was not able to act as a fair and impartial referee and that he would request the court to appoint a replacement. Kingslan prepared a letter notifying Price of that decision, and brought it with him to deliver at the deposition of Jennifer Martin, which was to be held in Price's office. According to the complaint (as summarized by the Court of Appeal), the situation deteriorated rapidly:
At the time of the scheduled deposition, Kingslan and Regan entered Price’s office and hand-delivered the letter to Price in the outer office. Regan and Kingslan stood there for a moment while Price read the one-paragraph letter. Kingslan and Regan then went into the deposition room, where Kingslan handed [Martin's] Attorney Tyrell a copy of the letter. As Kingslan and Regan turned to leave the room, Price appeared, blocking the door. At this point, Kingslan handed Price copies of the documents (belonging to Regan) that Price had previously accused him of stealing. Kingslan and Regan then attempted to leave the room by stepping around Price. Instead of allowing them to leave the room, Price shut the door and blocked it with his body. Kingslan then grabbed the door and forced it partially open, but Price kept exerting force in the opposite direction. Kingslan finally managed to open the door and escape. When Regan attempted to follow Kingslan out of the room, Price slammed the door against Regan’s body, injuring him in the shoulder and neck area, where Regan had had radical cancer surgery.
Regan, who was 63 at the time, filed suit against Price seeking damages for "false imprisonment, assault, battery, negligence and infliction of emotional distress." Price argued that in his capacity as a court-appointed discovery referee he was acting as a "judicial officer" and that he was therefore protected by an absolute immunity from civil liability. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case; the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case to proceed forward on its merits.
The appellate court concurs in two of Price's main premises: Judicial officers, particularly judges, have for centuries enjoyed broad immunity from civil liability for the consequences of their official acts, even when those acts are corrupt or malicious. Moreover, as a court-appointed referee, Price qualified as a "judicial officer" and thus "is cloaked with the same immunity as if he had been a sitting judge." The decisive question, however, is whether Price's actions in the deposition room were "judicial" or "non-judicial" in nature.
Price claims he is protected by absolute judicial immunity because all of the alleged tortious acts in the deposition room were undertaken 'in the course of Price’s exercise of his authority as a judicially appointed referee.' He characterizes his conduct as judicial in nature because its purpose was 'to preserve order in the proceeding -- to prevent a party from leaving a properly noticed deposition he was appointed to referee.' Regan counters that physically assaulting a litigant can never be a judicial function. The law supports Regan’s position, except in extraordinary cases.
After discussing several decisions in which judges who entered into physical confrontations with litigants were held to have stepped beyond their proper "judicial" role, the Court of Appeal finds that Price is not entitled to use his quasi-judicial position as a shield to avoid the consequences of his alleged attack on Regan, which was "not a judicial act under any sensible meaning of the term."
A judge’s robe is not a king’s crown. The object of judicial immunity is to ensure '"that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension [of civil liability]."' [Citation.] It was never intended to protect acts of thuggery against litigants merely because the assailant happens to be a judge.
Amen to that and thank you, your Honor.
The decision in Regan v. Price (August 17, 2005), Case No. C047980, can be accessed at these links in PDF and Word formats. [Note: Links expire approximately 120 days following issuance of the opinions; the opinions should still be accessible thereafter by substituting "archive" for "documents" in the URL.]