August 14, 2019

Intent Irrelevant to Question of Judicial Immunity to Defamation Action; Freeman v. Thompson

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

It is not often when an attorney sues a judicial officer. And attorneys who sue judicial officers for defamation are even less common. In this case, the attorney learned that judicial immunity generally protects judicial officers from these kinds of claims.

Freeman is an attorney in Lafayette, and Magistrate Thompson is a magistrate in the Tippecanoe Superior Court. In May 2017, Magistrate Thompson informed law enforcement officers inside the Tippecanoe County Courthouse that Freeman was carrying a firearm inside the courthouse in violation of state and municipal codes.

Freeman filed a complaint, alleging that this statement was defamation per se and sought compensatory and punitive damages. He asserted that Magistrate Thompson’s statement was retaliation for a public records request and a discussion of a recent Indiana Supreme Court decision. Magistrate Thompson moved to dismiss, arguing that her report to law enforcement officers was a judicial act for which she was immune. The trial court agreed and dismissed Freeman’s claim.

The question on appeal was whether Magistrate Thompson’s statement constituted a judicial act. In order to resolve this question, the Court used a ‘functional” approach, i.e., “whether it is a function normally performed by a judge, and to the expectations of the parties.” And the Court had “no hesitation” finding judicial action in this case.

[I]t is beyond dispute that our trial judges have “considerable discretion in matters of maintaining order and security for the courtroom . . . .” As to the second factor, a magistrate or other member of the judiciary who makes an in-courthouse report of a security concern is dealing with others from her position as a member of the judiciary. And, as to the third factor, Magistrate Thompson’s report plainly involved the exercise of her discretion in maintaining security and was not a mere ministerial act.

Freeman’s argument that Magistrate Thompson’s intent should matter, and the fact that she was retaliating should pierce through her immunity claim. The Court disagreed.

Freeman’s assertions go to Magistrate Thompson’s intent, not to whether she was acting in her judicial capacity. Because we have determined that Magistrate Thompson’s report to law enforcement was a judicial act, her intent is immaterial. We have long recognized that “judicial immunity is granted even when judges act maliciously or corruptly.”

Litigants should think really long and really hard before filing a lawsuit claiming that anything a judge says in a courthouse is defamatory.

Lesson:

  1. Judicial officers are immune from suit on all actions that are normally functions performed by a judge.
  2. A judicial officer who reports a security issue to law enforcement in the courthouse is performing a judicial function.
  3. A judicial officer’s subjective intent when making a judicial function has no relevance to the question of whether judicial immunity applies