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Dellenbach v. Letsinger

decided: November 14, 1989.

HERBERT DELLENBACH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JAMES LETSINGER, PAUL BUCHANAN, JANET ROBERTS BLUE, MARIANNA NOVAK AND DEBRA BANACH, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. H 87-339--James T. Moody, Judge.

Flaum, Easterbrook, and Ripple, Circuit Judges.

Author: Ripple

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

This case is before us on appeal from the district court's judgment dismissing the complaint. The plaintiff-appellant, Herbert Dellenbach, brought suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleged that the five defendants -- two state judges, a court commissioner, and two court reporters -- had violated his right to due process by interfering with the appeal of his criminal conviction. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss on the ground that Mr. Dellenbach's claims were barred by the doctrine of judicial immunity. For the following reasons, we affirm.

I.

Background

On June 2, 1987, Mr. Dellenbach filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the defendants had violated his constitutionally protected due process rights by interfering with his right to appeal his criminal state-court conviction. The defendants named in this suit were Judge James Letsinger of the Superior Court of Lake County, Indiana; Judge Paul Buchanan, Chief Judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals; Ms. Janet Roberts Blue, a Commissioner on the Indiana Court of Appeals; and Ms. Marianna Novak and Ms. Debra Banach, both of whom are court reporters for the Superior Court of Lake County.

A. Facts

Mr. Dellenbach was charged in an Indiana state court with various offenses relating to an alleged scheme to defraud consumers in the purchase of heating systems. Mr. Dellenbach's trial was consolidated with the trial of his son, Randall Dellenbach (Randall), who was represented by separate counsel. Judge Letsinger of the Superior Court of Lake County presided over the trial. A jury found Mr. Dellenbach guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit theft, four counts of attempted theft, two counts of theft, and one count of corrupt business influence.*fn1 The Dellenbachs took separate appeals.

Before Mr. Dellenbach filed his appeal, Randall's attorney had purchased a copy of the consolidated trial transcript for the purpose of preparing Randall's case. Mr. Dellenbach then filed his appeal and moved to consolidate Randall's case with his own pursuant to Rule 5(B) of the Indiana Rules of Appellate Procedure.*fn2 This motion was granted by Chief Judge Buchanan.

Mr. Dellenbach alleges that the defendants "conspired together with each other to compel the Plaintiff to obtain and pay for unneeded and unnecessary 'transcripts' as a pre-condition for the consolidated appeal of Herbert Dellenbach and Randall Dellenbach to be heard by the Indiana Court of Appeals in Indianapolis[,] Indiana." R. 2 (Allegation 1) (emphasis removed). Mr. Dellenbach alleges that, while the consolidated appeal was pending, Judge Letsinger telephoned Judge Buchanan, Chief Judge of the Indiana Court of Appeals, and "ordered [him] to refuse to hear Herbert Dellenbach[']s appeal until Herbert Dellenbach paid $1200.00 for 'transcripts' of the [consolidated] trial." Id. (emphasis removed). In response to this call, Chief Judge Buchanan allegedly instructed Ms. Blue, a Court Commissioner, to contact Mr. Dellenbach's counsel and inform him that "his client's appeal could not proceed until a consolidated transcript was purchased." Appellant's Br. at 5. On Chief Judge Buchanan's instructions, Ms. Blue relayed the message to Mr. Dellenbach's counsel. The required $1200 subsequently was paid to the Lake County court reporters, Ms. Novak and Ms. Banach. Ms. Novak, in turn, informed Judge Letsinger of the payment. Judge Letsinger then allegedly informed Chief Judge Buchanan that the transcript fee had been paid and that Mr. Dellenbach's appeal could proceed.*fn3 Mr. Dellenbach contends that this transcript was unnecessary because Randall already had obtained a transcript and only one such record was necessary for their consolidated appeal.

B. District Court Opinion

In his complaint, Mr. Dellenbach alleged that the defendants had deprived him of his constitutional rights under the fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments by conspiring to delay his criminal appeal in the state court. He further alleged that Judge Letsinger had refused to hear testimony at trial regarding "threats to the lives of Herbert Dellenbach and his son, Randall Dellenbach."*fn4 R. 2 (Allegation 1). Because of these actions, Mr. Dellenbach submitted that he and his son were unable to get a full and fair hearing.

The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss on the ground that Mr. Dellenbach's claims were barred by the doctrine of judicial immunity. In analyzing the claims against Judge Letsinger and Chief Judge Buchanan, the court relied upon our decision in Eades v. Sterlinske, 810 F.2d 723, 725-26 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 847, 108 S. Ct. 143, 98 L. Ed. 2d 99 (1987), and invoked the "well-established doctrine of immunity" that recognizes that "judges are not subject to personal liability for judicial acts performed within their jurisdiction." Dellenbach v. Letsinger, No. H 87-339, order at 2 (N.D.Ind. Nov. 2, 1987) [hereinafter Order] (citing Wilkes v. Dinsman, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 89, 12 L. Ed. 618 (1849)). "Immunity totally insulates judges from liability for actions taken within their judicial capacity, even if the judge acts maliciously or corruptly." Order at 2-3 (citing Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331, 98 S. Ct. 1099 (1978)). The district court noted that, "in adjudicating controversies between parties, judges must be free to render decisions without fear of personal liability for those decisions." Id. at 3 (citing Stump, 435 U.S. at 364). In its discussion of the commissioner and the two court reporters' entitlement to immunity, the district court emphasized that "the decision of whether and when to hear an appeal is a discretionary and judicial act for purposes of immunity; in addition, the ...


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