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WILLIAMS v. RATH

February 12, 1991

JAMES EARL WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT RATH, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: SHADUR

 MILTON I. SHADUR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 James Earl Williams ("Williams") asks leave to file his pro se Complaint without prepayment of the filing fee. Williams asks for damages under 42 U.S.C. ┬ž 1983 ("Section 1983") against four Illinois Court of Claims judges (collectively the "Judges") as well as against a Court of Claims commissioner and deputy clerk. Williams also seeks an injunction to prevent defendants "from further violating my constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and deprivation of my property without due process of law." This Court finds the Complaint to be without arguable legal merit, and it therefore denies both Williams' motion for leave to file in forma pauperis and this action as well. *fn1"

 Williams alleges that he filed a suit in the Court of Claims (assigned docket number 89-CC-2203 ("89-2203")) to recover money for a stereo receiver and television set allegedly lost by the Illinois Department of Corrections ("Department"). On January 22, 1990 *fn2" the Court of Claims granted judgment to Williams on the issue of liability and referred the determination of damages to Robert Rath ("Rath"), a commissioner before whom Williams had a number of other Court of Claims cases pending. *fn3"

 Later Williams, unhappy with the lack of action in his cases and with Rath's failure to respond to his letter of inquiry, filed a state court mandamus petition to compel Rath to submit his report and findings to the Court of Claims Judges. In response Rath moved to dismiss the mandamus petition. Then on August 1 Williams moved to stay those proceedings, pending a ruling on a motion that he filed simultaneously in the Court of Claims seeking to have his cases reassigned to a commissioner other than Rath. On September 6 the state court granted Williams' motion for a stay of the mandamus action.

 However, Williams did not get a ruling from the Court of Claims on his motion to disqualify Rath. Instead he received notice of a November 2 order in 89-2203 granting summary judgment for respondents and dismissing Williams' claim. In that order the Judges found that Williams had already received fair market value from Department for his stereo receiver and that his claim as to his television set was duplicative of claims in two of his other cases. Williams promptly prepared and tendered for filing the Complaint in this action, charging defendants with conspiring maliciously and fraudulently to dismiss his claim in 89-2203 in retaliation for his filing suit against Rath.

 It is black-letter law that a judge is absolutely immune from damage liability under Section 1983 for acts taken within his or her jurisdiction and performed in his or her judicial capacity ( Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978); Dellenbach v. Letsinger, 889 F.2d 755, 759-60 (7th Cir. 1989)). At first blush it would appear that a simple application of that doctrine would foreclose Williams' damage claim against the Judges. But despite the title that they bear, judges of the Court of Claims are not truly judicial officers. Under the Illinois Constitution the Court of Claims is not a court of law -- instead it is a fact-finding body created by the legislature "to receive and process in an orderly manner claims which might be made against the State" ( Seifert v. Standard Paving Co., 64 Ill. 2d 109, 122, 355 N.E.2d 537, 542 (1976); accord, Rossetti Contracting Co. v. Court of Claims, 109 Ill. 2d 72, 78, 485 N.E.2d 332, 334, 92 Ill. Dec. 521 (1985)).

 But the Judges' lack of membership in the judicial branch of state government does not necessarily strip them of any entitlement to absolute immunity. Absolute judicial immunity is not confined to judges alone. It extends to those "who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process" (see Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 200, 88 L. Ed. 2d 507, 106 S. Ct. 496 (1985)): both prosecutors and witnesses in judicial proceedings, and both administrative law judges and executive hearing officers who perform adjudicatory duties "functionally comparable" to those of a judge ( Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 513-14, 57 L. Ed. 2d 895, 98 S. Ct. 2894 (1978)). Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227, 98 L. Ed. 2d 555, 108 S. Ct. 538 (1988) (emphasis in original) has put the matter succinctly:

 
Immunity is justified and defined by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches.

 Dispute resolution is the paradigmatic judicial act. It is that function that the doctrine of absolute immunity is designed primarily to protect. McMillan v. Svetanoff, 793 F.2d 149, 151 (7th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted) framed the principle in these terms:

 
In order for quasi-judicial officials to be granted absolute immunity, their acts must reflect the essence of judicial decision-making and involve discretion of a judicial nature.

 As Forrester, 484 U.S. at 226-27 noted, the need for absolute immunity to protect those involved in proceedings of an adjudicatory nature is particularly acute because of (1) the inclination of disappointed litigants to sue those who rendered the unfavorable decisions and (2) the consequent adverse effects that such collateral suits might have on the independence of decisionmakers (see also Butz, 438 U.S. at 512). Here the act that underlies Williams' Complaint -- the Judges' dismissal of his claim in 89-2203 -- was clearly an act of a judicial nature qualifying for absolute immunity protection.

 That does not end the analysis, for the adjudicatory nature of the challenged act is not itself enough to confer absolute immunity. Another crucial factor is the existence of procedural safeguards to protect the fairness of the proceedings and the impartiality of the decisionmaker. Butz, 438 U.S. at 512-14 extended absolute immunity to administrative law judges in part because of the extensive procedural protections built into the administrative hearing process. Similarly, the safeguards that are provided to protect prospective parolees from erroneous or arbitrary decisions was one of the factors that our Court of Appeals has relied upon in granting absolute immunity to parole officials who make parole release determinations ( United States ex rel. Powell v. Irving, 684 F.2d 494, 497 (7th Cir. 1982) (" Powell ")). By contrast, the lack of procedural safeguards weighed heavily in the Cleavinger decision (474 U.S. at 206) to accord no more than qualified (rather than absolute) immunity to prison officials who perform the adjudicatory function of determining an inmate's guilt or innocence in a prison disciplinary hearing.

 Before the Court of Claims, the procedural protections accorded to claimants are much closer to those surrounding parole release determinations than to the prison ...


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