Today we discuss the defense of absolute immunity to a Section 1983 lawsuit alleging a violation of constitutional rights.
We previously wrote here about the defense of qualified immunity. To recap, most government employees are immune from such a lawsuit unless the plaintiff proves that:
- The government employee violated a constitutional right of the plaintiff; and
- The constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged misconduct by the government employee.
Absolute immunity is available to certain government employees.
As the name implies, “absolute immunity” means just that – – a complete immunity from a lawsuit alleging a violation of constitutional rights.
The persons who most often raise absolute immunity are judges and prosecutors. But, others in government who perform tasks similar to those performed by judges and prosecutors may also be immune from suit.
For example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has applied absolute immunity to a state nursing regulatory board and its members who performed quasi-judicial functions.
Immunity from suit, not just liability.
The United States Supreme Court has emphasized that the defense of absolute immunity means immunity from a lawsuit, not just from liability.
“The essence of absolute immunity is its possessor’s entitlement not to have to answer for his conduct in a civil damages action.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525 (1985). Thus, immunity is a threshold question, to be resolved as early in the proceedings as possible.
What are the limits on absolute immunity?
Judicial officers are entitled to absolute immunity from claims for damages arising out of acts performed in the exercise of their judicial functions. Graves v. Hampton, 1 F.3d 315, 317 (5th Cir. 1993).
A judge’s acts are judicial in nature if they are “normally performed by a judge” and the parties affected “dealt with the judge in his judicial capacity.”
Thus, as long as the judge is performing “judge-like” acts, she is immune from suit regardless of how wrongfully she acted. Indeed, a judge can invoke absolute immunity even when she is accused of ruling a certain way as the result of a bribe.
Judicial immunity can be overcome only by showing that the actions complained of were nonjudicial in nature or by showing that the actions were taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.
So, for example, a state judge’s dismissal of a subordinate court employee is not a judicial act entitled to absolute immunity.
Prosecutors enjoy the same protection.
Criminal prosecutors also enjoy absolute immunity from claims for damages asserted under Section 1983 for actions taken in the presentation of the state’s case.
Acts undertaken by the prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings or for trial, and which occur in the course of his role as an advocate for the State, are entitled to the protections of absolute immunity.
This broad immunity applies even if the prosecutor is accused of knowingly using perjured testimony. Likewise, “a conspiracy between judge and prosecutor to predetermine the outcome of a judicial proceeding, while clearly improper, nevertheless does not pierce the immunity extended to judges and prosecutors.” Ashelman v. Pope, 793 F.2d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 1986) (en banc).
The exceptions described above for judges will also apply to prosecutors. For example, a prosecutor accused of falsifying a death certificate and covering up a murder were held to be actions performed outside the role of a prosecutor.
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