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Rickey Coleman v. Earl Dunlap

August 22, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 10 C 2388--James F. Holderman, Chief Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterbrook, Chief Judge.


Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and BAUER and WOOD, Circuit Judges.

Rickey Coleman was fired from the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in 2007. Coleman was told that his position had been eliminated because of budget cuts; he contends that his politics were the real cause for his discharge and a later decision not to rehire him. Most adverse actions based on a public employee's speech violate the first amendment, and no one contends that Coleman's job is in the category for which politics is a legitimate consideration. See Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976); Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980); Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990).

Coleman seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against a number of people, including Earl Dunlap, the Transi- tional Administrator of the Center. He also invokes the Shakman consent decrees, which allow parties aggrieved by certain kinds of patronage in Cook County to seek redress through civil contempt proceedings. See, e.g., O'Sullivan v. Chicago, 396 F.3d 843 (7th Cir. 2005); Shanahan v. Chicago, 82 F.3d 776 (7th Cir. 1996).

Dunlap filed a motion to dismiss, asserting among other things that absolute immunity shields him from Coleman's claims. The district judge dismissed the claim under §1983, ruling that Dunlap is a federal rather than a state actor, but declined to dismiss the Shakman claim. The court held that Dunlap is not protected by absolute immunity. 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66543 (N.D. Ill. June 22, 2011). Dunlap filed this interlocutory appeal on the immunity question; the rest of the judge's rulings are not before us. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1291. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985).

In 2002 the Juvenile Detention Center and a group of inmates settled a case that we call the "2002 Litigation." The district court retained jurisdiction over implementa- tion of the settlement--which the parties to both the 2002 Litigation and this case treat as a consent de- cree--and in 2007 appointed Dunlap as the Transitional Administrator of the Center. Although the 2002 Litiga- tion concerned prison conditions, the 2007 order gave Dunlap plenary authority to "oversee, supervise, and direct all management, administrative, financial, contrac- tual, personnel, security, housing, custodial, purchasing, maintenance, technology, health services, mental health services, food and laundry service, recreational, educa- tional, and programmatic functions relating to the op- eration of the [Center] consistent with the au- thority vested in the position of Superintendent of the [Center]". Doe v. Cook County, No. 99 C 3945 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 14, 2007). The order also stated that Dunlap would be immune from suit for any action he took as Administrator. It originally provided for "absolute im- munity from liability"; on Dunlap's motion the language was amended to read: "[Dunlap] and his staff shall have the status of officers and agents of this Court and as such shall be vested with the same immunities as vest with this Court."

In response to Coleman's suit, Dunlap asserted that the language in the 2007 order provided him with absolute immunity and that he also is entitled to "quasi- judicial immunity" because he had exercised authority granted to him by a court. The district judge rejected both lines of argument, holding that Dunlap's decisions were administrative rather than judicial (or "quasi" judicial). 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66543 at *9-23. Even if Dunlap could have relied on the broader pre-amend- ment immunity language, he would have fared no better; judges do not have the authority to grant immunity for unlawful acts. See Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914, 922-23 (1984).

The doctrine of absolute immunity protects the integrity of the judicial process by ensuring that timorous judges can act on their best view of the merits, rather than trying to limit harassment by disappointed litigants. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 225 (1988). Immunity also allows all judges to conserve (for the benefit of other litigants) time that otherwise would be spent dealing with those harassing suits. Parties who, although not judges, engage in adjudication (such as private arbitrators or administrative tribunals) or execute the orders of judges (such as police officers executing a bench warrant, or a party executing a judicially- ordered sale) also enjoy absolute immunity. See Snyder v. Nolen, 380 F.3d 279, 286-87 (7th Cir. 2004).

Dunlap believes that, had the district judge in the 2002 Litigation maintained direct control of the Center and approved Coleman's firing, the judge would have been entitled to immunity. Dunlap argues that he should be entitled to absolute immunity as well because he was acting in the judge's stead.

In support of his position Dunlap invokes cases where federal judges "[found] it necessary to administer a business, or a school district, or an entire prison system to effectively remedy a wrong." Holloway v. Walker, 765 F.2d 517, 525 (5th Cir. 1985) (a judge who took control of an oil business is absolutely immune). Dunlap asserts that no one has questioned the im- munity of judges when exercising managerial authority and that this case is the same (except for the fact that Dunlap is not a judge).

Unfortunately for Dunlap, one body has questioned this line of cases: the Supreme Court of the United States. In Forrester a judge fired a probation officer. The officer sued, alleging that the judge had engaged in seX discrimination; the judge responded by asserting absolute immunity. The Court held that judges have immunity only for the decisions they make as ad- judicators, not the decisions they make as admin- istrators; firing someone is an administrative act, so the judge was not protected by absolute immunity. 484 U.S. at 229-30.

Forrester involved a judge's administration of his court, rather than a judge's administration of some other institution. Dunlap contends that Forrester does not apply to administrative acts taken "in connection with a case". But Forrester is not as narrow as Dunlap contends; we must "draw the line between truly judicial acts, for which immunity is appropriate, and acts that simply happen to have been done by judges". Id. at 227. Dunlap concedes that none of his duties is judicial in nature and that employment decisions are not "adjudication". What's more, the question whether a complaining party had "dealt with the judge [or his agent] in his judicial capacity" was important even before Forrester. See Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 362 (1978). Dunlap concedes that the decisions about which Coleman complains were not made by anyone acting in a judicial capacity. This means that he is not entitled to absolute immunity.

Suppose the judge had maintained control of the 2002 Litigation rather than appointing Dunlap as a sub- stitute warden. The judge would not have issued an order firing Coleman. The 2002 Litigation concerned conditions encountered by prisoners, not who filled which position in the prison's bureaucracy. Dunlap therefore cannot say that he was just doing something that the judge might have done. It is conceivable that a judge could have determined that employees' qualifica- tions affect inmates' conditions of confinement and issued an order that employees must meet some require- ment such as having a college degree, completing a certain level of training, or achieving a certain score on a test. Had Dunlap proceeded to fire any employees who failed to meet a requirement in such an order, he would be entitled to immunity unless a reasonable person would have recognized that the order was in- valid. See Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 345-46 (1986). Thus if a judge had set a political test for employment as a prison guard or clerk, an administrator implementing that order would be liable, because the Supreme Court held more than a generation ago that no public official can use politics to hire and fire workers ...

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