Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Stevens v. U.S. Attorney General

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

December 15, 2017

JACQUELINE STEVENS, Plaintiff - Appellant,
U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, JUAN OSUNA, Director, Executive Office of Immigration Review, in his official capacity, FRAN MOONEY, Assistant Director for the Office of Management Programs, Executive Office of Immigration Review in her individual and official capacity, MARYBETH KELLER, Assistant Chief Immigration Judge, Executive Office of Immigration Review, in her individual and official capacity, GARY SMITH, Assistant Chief Immigration Judge, Executive Office of Immigration Review, in his individual and official capacity, et al., Defendants - Appellees, INSPECTOR DOE, Federal Protective Services, et al., Defendants.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:12-cv-01352-ODE

          Before JULIE CARNES and EDMONDSON, Circuit Judges, and WILLIAMS, [*] District Judge.

          EDMONDSON, Circuit Judge

         Plaintiff Jacqueline Stevens appeals the dismissal of claims she filed pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 91 S.Ct. 1999 (1971). Briefly stated, Plaintiff contends that her constitutional rights were violated when she was denied access to hearings at the Atlanta Immigration Court. Plaintiff seeks monetary damages, as well as injunctive and declaratory relief. We affirm the district court's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a journalist and a university professor of political science. Her area of study focuses on the due process rights of those persons involved in deportation proceedings and on the conduct of Immigration Judges within the Executive Office of Immigration Review ("EOIR").[1] Before the occurrences underlying this civil action, Plaintiff had published criticisms of deportation proceedings in general and of Immigration Judge William Cassidy's performance in particular.

         This civil action arises from two dates on which Plaintiff sought to attend immigration hearings at the Atlanta Immigration Court.[2] On 7 October 2009, Plaintiff wished to attend three hearings listed on Judge Cassidy's afternoon docket. One of the hearings was rescheduled at the request of respondent's lawyer. Judge Cassidy then closed to the public the remaining two hearings. Because Plaintiff was no party, family member, or attorney-of-record for the respondents in those cases, she was not permitted to observe the hearings.

         On 19 April 2010, Plaintiff returned to the Atlanta Immigration Court and did observe morning hearings held before Judge Cassidy. The docket listed one additional hearing scheduled before Judge Cassidy for that afternoon. Judge Cassidy closed that hearing to the public and, accordingly, asked Plaintiff to leave the courtroom. In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged she was asked to leave the courtroom "shortly after 3 p.m." Plaintiff asked Judge Cassidy for a "legal reason" for his request and referred him to 8 C.F.R. § 1003.27, which deals with the public's access to immigration hearings. When Judge Cassidy repeated his request that Plaintiff leave his courtroom, Plaintiff asked whether the respondent had requested a closed hearing. Judge Cassidy replied "no" and that the respondent was proceeding pro se. Judge Cassidy then told Plaintiff that he could order security guards to remove her. In response, Plaintiff asked Judge Cassidy again for "a legal reason for closing the hearing." Judge Cassidy said "no, " told Plaintiff to remain in the courtroom, and that he would return with the pertinent regulation. Judge Cassidy then left the courtroom. Plaintiff alleges her verbal exchange with Judge Cassidy lasted about 90 seconds and occurred in "normal conversational tones." Plaintiff -- concerned that Judge Cassidy had returned to his chambers to order guards to remove her physically from the courtroom -- told Judge Cassidy's assistant that she would be waiting in the Immigration Court lobby in the event the respondent requested her presence as an observer.

         Plaintiff moved to the Immigration Court lobby, where she complained to "an EOIR court staff member about Defendant Cassidy's unlawful actions" in closing the courtroom. Plaintiff then began documenting the incident in her notebook. Between 3:15 and 3:20 p.m., three building security guards[3] entered the lobby area. One of the officers asked Plaintiff to leave the building; and after a brief verbal exchange, the guards escorted Plaintiff outside. The parties dispute whether Plaintiff was removed from the building on Judge Cassidy's orders. According to Plaintiff, she overheard one guard tell another guard that Judge Cassidy wanted her out of the building.[4]

         Plaintiff filed this civil action in district court. In pertinent part, Plaintiff purported to raise these claims:[5] (1) a Bivens claim for damages against Judge Cassidy in his individual capacity; (2) a claim for injunctive relief against all defendants, including Judge Cassidy; (3) Bivens claims for damages against Fran Mooney, Assistant Director of the EOIR's Office of Management Programs, in her individual capacity; and (4) a claim for declaratory judgment.

         The district court dismissed Plaintiff's Bivens claim against Judge Cassidy in his individual capacity on grounds that Judge Cassidy was entitled to absolute judicial immunity. The district court also concluded that Judge Cassidy was entitled to judicial immunity from Plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief. About Plaintiff's claims for injunctive relief against the remaining defendants, the district court dismissed those claims for lack of standing. The district court also dismissed for failure to state a claim Plaintiff's Bivens claims against Mooney. The district court then declined to exercise jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claim for declaratory relief.


         Whether an official is entitled to absolute immunity is a question of law that we review de novo. Mikko v. City of Atlanta, 857 F.3d 1136, 1142 (11th Cir. 2017). We also review de novo the district court's dismissal for failure to state a claim, accepting as true the factual allegations in the complaint and construing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cnty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012). We review a district court's decision not to exercise jurisdiction over a claim for declaratory judgment under an abuse-of-discretion standard. Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 289-90 (1995).


         A. Absolute Judicial Immunity

         1. Immigration Judges

         "Few doctrines were more solidly established at common law than the immunity of judges from liability for damages for acts committed within their judicial jurisdiction." Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 199 (1985). The immunity applies even when the judge's conduct "was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority . . . ." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57 (1978).

         This absolute immunity is intended "for the benefit of the public, whose interest it is that the judges should be at liberty to exercise their functions with independence and without fear of consequences." Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967). A judge has a duty to decide all cases brought before him, including those cases that are controversial and that may "arouse the most intense feelings in the litigants." Id. A judge's "errors may be corrected on appeal, but he should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation charging malice or corruption. Imposing such a burden on judges would contribute not to principled and fearless decision-making but to intimidation." Id.; see also Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 226-27 (1988) ("If judges were personally liable for erroneous decisions, the resulting avalanche of suits, most of them frivolous but vexatious, would provide powerful incentives for judges to avoid rendering decisions likely to provoke such suits. The resulting timidity would be hard to detect or control, and it would manifestly detract from independent and impartial adjudication." (citation omitted)).

         Absolute immunity is not reserved for Article III judges only. "Absolute immunity flows not from rank or title or 'location within the Government, ' but from the nature of the responsibilities of the individual official." Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 201 (citation omitted). The Supreme Court has thus applied a "functional approach" in determining whether an official is entitled to absolute immunity. Id.; Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512-13 (1978). Factors to consider in deciding whether to apply absolute immunity to a particular person include these elements:

(a) the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (b) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for private damages actions as a means of controlling unconstitutional conduct; (c) insulation from political influence; (d) the importance of precedent; (e) the adversary nature of the process; and (f) the correctability of error on appeal.

Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 202 (citing Butz, 438 U.S. at 512).

         In the light of these considerations -- as well as the public policy underlying the doctrine -- absolute immunity has been extended to state court judges, Pierson, 386 U.S. 547, administrative law judges and federal hearing examiners, Butz, 438 U.S. at 514, federal and state prosecutors, Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976); Yaselli v. Goff, 275 U.S. 503 (1927), aff'g 12 F.2d 396 (2d Cir. 1926), grand jurors, see Imbler, 424 U.S. at 423 n.20, and to witnesses testifying in judicial proceedings, Briscoe v. Lahue, 460 U.S. 325 (1983).

         In considering whether the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity extends properly to Immigration Judges, we are guided by the Supreme Court's decisions in Butz and in Cleavinger. We first recognize that -- as with judges of general jurisdiction and with administrative law judges -- Immigration Judges are tasked with resolving cases that "are every bit as fractious as those which come to court." See Butz, 438 U.S. at 513. That immigration proceedings are adversarial in nature and often involve controversial issues of extreme significance to those persons involved underscores the importance of preserving the Immigration Judge's independence. Cf. Stump, 435 U.S. at 364 ("The fact that the issue before the judge is a controversial one is all the more reason that he should be able to act without fear of suit.").

         We also see an Immigration Judge's role in immigration proceedings as sufficiently "functionally comparable" to that of a judge. Immigration Judges possess many of the same powers as a trial judge. These powers include the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, to administer oaths, to receive and rule on evidence, to question parties and witnesses, to issue sanctions, to make credibility determinations, and to render decisions. See 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(1), (c); 8 C.F.R. §§ 1003.10(b), 1003.35.

         In addition, the structure of immigration proceedings contains many safeguards -- similar (although not always identical) to those discussed in Butz in the context of administrative hearings[6] -- that tend to reduce the risk of unchecked unconstitutional conduct by Immigration Judges. Immigration Judges are professional hearing officers. In deciding cases before them, Immigration Judges are required to exercise "independent judgment and discretion" and to resolve issues in an "impartial manner." 8 C.F.R. § 1003.10(a), (b). Immigration Judges are also bound both by agency precedent, 8 C.F.R. § 1003.1(g), and by precedent established by the federal appellate courts. Parties to an immigration hearing may be represented by counsel, 8 C.F.R. § 1003.16, may present documentary evidence and witness testimony, 8 C.F.R. §§ 1003.31, 1003.34, 1003.35, and are entitled to written notice of the Immigration Judge's decision which "shall" include reasons for the decision, 8 C.F.R. §§ 1003.37, 1240.12(a), 1240.13(a). Parties may also seek review of the Immigration Judge's decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA") and, if necessary, by the federal courts. See 8 U.S.C. § 1252; 8 C.F.R. § 1003.38.[7]

         That immigration proceedings do not contain safeguards identical to those safeguards identified by the Supreme Court in Butz is not outcome determinative here. The Supreme Court's opinion in Cleavinger demonstrates that Butz does not wholly define the limits of judicial-immunity availability. In determining whether members of a prison discipline committee were entitled to absolute immunity, the Supreme Court compared the procedural safeguards available under the prison's disciplinary policy to those discussed in Butz. Cleavinger, 474 U.S. at 203-06. Although the Supreme Court concluded ultimately that the prison policy's procedural safeguards were insufficient to warrant absolute immunity, no individual safeguard or combination -- or lack thereof -- was strictly determinative. See id.

         That having been said, we find it instructive that many of the safeguards pointed out as absent in Cleavinger are present here. For instance, the Supreme Court in Cleavinger cared about the lack of these procedural safeguards: (1) that prisoners subject to the prison's disciplinary policy were "afforded neither a lawyer nor an independent nonstaff representative;" (2) that prisoners had "no right to compel the attendance of witnesses or to cross-examine;" (3) that prisoners had "no right to discovery;" (4) that "[t]here was no cognizable burden of proof;" (5) that "[n]o verbatim transcript was afforded;" and (6) that "[i]nformation presented often was hearsay or self-serving." Id. at 206.

         Aliens in deportation proceedings, however, have a right to representation by a lawyer, the right to examine evidence against them, and the right to cross-examine witnesses. 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(4)(A), (B). The immigration court is also required to maintain a complete record -- including a "verbatim" recording -- of all testimony and evidence presented at the hearing. 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(4)(C); 8 C.F.R. § 1240.9. In addition, immigration proceedings are governed by a statutorily-proscribed burden of proof. 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c).

         The Supreme Court in Cleavinger also expressed concern that the members of the disciplinary committee lacked independence. 474 U.S. at 203-04, 206. The Supreme Court specially noticed that the committee members were "not professional hearing officers." Id. at 204. And, because the committee members remained employees of the Bureau of Prisons, "they [were] direct subordinates of the warden who reviews their decision." Id. The committee members were often responsible for resolving disputes -- including making credibility determinations --between the inmate over whom they sat in judgment and the fellow employee who had lodged the disciplinary charge. Id. The committee members were "thus under obvious pressure to resolve a disciplinary dispute in favor of the institution and their fellow employee." Id. ("It is the old situational problem of the relationship between the keeper and the kept, a relationship that hardly is conducive to a truly adjudicative performance.").

         Immigration Judges, meanwhile, are under the supervision and direction of the Chief Immigration Judge, who has "no authority to direct the result of an adjudication assigned to another immigration judge." 8 C.F.R. § 1003.9(b), (c). And an Immigration Judge's decisions are reviewed on appeal by the BIA: a division of the EOIR separate and apart from the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge and with no direct supervisory authority over Immigration Judges. See 8 C.F.R. § 1003.1. Immigration Judges are also independent of the agency responsible for enforcing the federal immigration laws: the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. See The United States Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, (last visited 14 December 2017). Given these structural safeguards, immigration proceedings do not involve the same potential for institutional bias as recognized in Cleavinger: no "relationship between the keeper and the kept."

         Considering both the adjudicatory role that Immigration Judges play within the immigration-hearing process and the existence of what we view -- in the light of the Supreme Court's guidance -- as sufficient pertinent safeguards, we are persuaded that Immigration Judges are judges entitled to absolute immunity for their judicial acts, without regard to the motive with which those acts are allegedly performed. And we underline that absolute immunity is not merely a defense to liability: it is an immunity from suit and from "the other burdens of litigation" that "is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Cf. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985).

         2. Judge Cassidy's Entitlement to Absolute Immunity

         Having determined that the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity applies to Immigration Judges, we next decide whether Judge Cassidy's complained-of conduct -- excluding Plaintiff from both a courtroom and from the courthouse --falls within the scope of that immunity. A judge acting within his judicial capacity is unentitled to absolute judicial immunity -- and, thus, is subject to suit and to civil liability -- only when he acts in the "clear absence of all jurisdiction." See Stump, 435 U.S. at 356-57. Here, we must determine whether Judge Cassidy acted in his judicial capacity and, if so, whether he acted in the "clear absence of all jurisdiction."

         In determining whether a judge's act is "judicial" for purposes of immunity, we consider (1) whether the act is one normally performed by judges, and (2) whether the complaining party was dealing with the judge in his judicial capacity. Id. at 362.

         About the first element, the Supreme Court has instructed that we look only to "the nature and function of the act, not the act itself." Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 13 (1991) (quotations omitted); see also Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229 (1988) (the Court's immunity analysis is informed by "the nature of the function performed"). If we were to examine, instead, the factual details of the particular act being challenged, "then any mistake of a judge in excess of his authority would become a 'nonjudicial' act, because an improper or erroneous act cannot be said to be normally performed by a judge." Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12 (determining that the pertinent "act" was "the function of directing police officers to bring counsel in a pending case before the court": not "a judge's direction to police officers to carry out a judicial order with excessive force"). "If judicial immunity means anything, ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.