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Pace v. Williams

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

June 16, 2015

SHERRY PACE, Plaintiff,
NICK WILLIAMS, et al., Defendants.



This matter comes before the Court on defendant Probate Judge Nick Williams’ Motion to Dismiss (doc. 7) and his Motion to Disqualify Plaintiff’s Counsel (doc. 14). Both Motions have been briefed and are now ripe for disposition.[1]

I. Relevant Background.

On March 24, 2015, plaintiff, Sherry Pace (proceeding by and through counsel), filed her Complaint (doc. 1) in this District Court against Nick Williams (Probate Judge of Washington County, Alabama), Michael Goldman (the “Mental Health Representative” of Washington County, Alabama), Johnny Pace (plaintiff’s ex-husband), and Jason Pace (plaintiff’s ex-husband’s son). The crux of the Complaint is Ms. Pace’s contention that “one or more of the Defendants act[ed] wrongfully to involuntary commit her” without complying with proper procedures, without investigating the matter, without a factual basis, and with an improper purpose (namely, her ex-husband’s desire “to gain an unfair tactical advantage in an ongoing domestic relations dispute”). (Doc. 1, at 1.)[2]

With regard to defendant Nick Williams, the Complaint identifies him as Probate Judge of Washington County, Alabama, and sharply criticizes his handling of a petition for involuntary commitment filed by defendant Johnny Pace on or about August 29, 2014. According to the Complaint, Judge Williams “wrongfully involuntarily committed [plaintiff] to a mental health facility summarily without any due process hearing or any investigation and without any attempt to comply with the statutory mandate for such issues.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 10.) The Complaint further alleges that Judge Williams “could have easily … discovered” that “there was no actual need to commit the Plaintiff who did not then and does not now suffer from any mental health condition, ” had he “conducted any investigation or a pre-commitments due process hearing as is set out by state law.” (Id., ¶ 16.) Plaintiff’s pleading repeatedly characterizes this alleged conduct as an “abuse of governmental power.” In sum, Ms. Pace seeks to hold Judge Williams liable for compensatory, consequential and punitive damages exceeding $1 million because he ordered her to be involuntary committed, allegedly without conducting a due process hearing, performing an investigation, or otherwise complying with Alabama law and procedure. According to the Complaint, Judge Williams’ conduct amounts to “violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, abuse of governmental power, trespass and the wrongful taking of the Plaintiff’s person” (doc. 1, ¶ 15); as well as “violation(s) of federal, state and municipal rights of private citizens to be free from unlawful and unauthorized governmental interference and ‘taking’ of private property for tactical advantage in a divorce and taking of the Plaintiff’s person without due process of law” (id., ¶ 19); and “retaliation against the Plaintiff SHERRY PACE’s exercise of her First Amendment rights and vocal criticism of the Defendant(s) in the recent past” (id., ¶ 22); and at least 15 separately enumerated state-law torts (id., ¶ 25).

Judge Williams’ response to the Complaint has been two-fold. First, he filed a Motion to Dismiss (doc. 70) pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed.R.Civ.P., citing the doctrine of judicial immunity. Second, he filed a Motion to Disqualify Plaintiff’s Counsel (doc. 14) based on a conflict of interest, in that Ms. Pace’s counsel had previously represented defendant Johnny Pace in connection with the underlying facts at issue in this litigation. Plaintiff has denied that judicial immunity applies and has further denied that counsel labors under any conflict.

II. Analysis of Motion to Dismiss.

Judge Williams’ Rule 12(b)(6) Motion hinges on the doctrine of judicial immunity. It is hornbook law that “[j]udges are entitled to absolute judicial immunity from damages for those acts taken while they are acting in their judicial capacity unless they acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Sibley v. Lando, 437 F.3d 1067, 1070 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Dykes v. Hosemann, 776 F.2d 942, 944 (11th Cir. 1985) (“Since the seventeenth century, common law has immunized judges from suit for judicial acts within the jurisdiction of the court.”). “The rationale is that judges should not have to fear that unsatisfied litigants will hound them with litigation.” Weinstein v. City of North Bay Village, 977 F.Supp.2d 1271, 1281-82 (S.D. Fla. 2013) (citation and internal marks omitted).[3]

In applying the two-pronged test for judicial immunity, “the first question is whether the judge dealt with the plaintiff in his judicial capacity.” William B. Cashion Nevada Spendthrift Trust v. Vance, 552 Fed.Appx. 884, 886 (11th Cir. Jan. 13, 2014). “If he did act in his judicial capacity, then we ask whether the judge acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Id. If the judge acted in his judicial capacity, and if he did not act in the clear absence of all jurisdiction, then he is entitled to judicial immunity, as a matter of law. See Washington Mut. Bank v. Bush, 220 Fed.Appx. 974, 975 (11th Cir. Mar. 23, 2007) (“Judicial immunity applies when (1) the judge dealt with the plaintiff in his judicial capacity and (2) the judge did not act in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.”) (citation and internal marks omitted).

Beginning with step one, the allegations of the Complaint leave no doubt that Judge Williams dealt with Sherry Pace in his capacity as Probate Judge of Washington County. “Whether a judge’s actions were made while acting in his judicial capacity depends on whether: (1) the act complained of constituted a normal judicial function; (2) the events occurred in the judge’s chambers or in open court; (3) the controversy involved a case pending before the judge; and (4) the confrontation arose immediately out of a visit to the judge in his judicial capacity.” Sibley, 437 F.3d at 1070. Well-pleaded factual allegations of the Complaint reflect that Judge Williams’ alleged wrongful act was his entry of an order of involuntary commitment and accompanying writ on August 29, 2014, directing that Sherry Pace be taken into custody and delivered to Eastpointe Hospital for mental health treatment. The Complaint confirms that Judge Williams took such measures only after Johnny Pace filed a Petition for Involuntary Commitment. Review and disposition of petitions for involuntary commitment is a normal judicial function of an Alabama probate judge.[4] Because it is an Alabama probate judge’s job to review and decide petitions for involuntary commitment, the complained-of conduct by Judge Williams is the embodiment of a “normal judicial function.” Plaintiff does not suggest otherwise. Under any reasonable application of the concept, Judge Williams was acting in his judicial capacity.

The first prong of the judicial immunity test having thus been satisfied, the analysis proceeds to step two, which provides that judicial immunity bars Ms. Pace’s claims unless Judge Williams acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction. This is a high bar. Indeed, “[j]udges do not lose their judicial immunity even if they act in absence of jurisdiction as long as they do not have knowledge that they lack jurisdiction or act in the face of clearly valid statutes or case law expressly depriving them of jurisdiction.” Franklin v. Arbor Station, LLC, 549 Fed.Appx. 831, 834 (11th Cir. Sept. 27, 2013) (citation and internal marks omitted). Neither in her Complaint nor in her briefing has Ms. Pace identified facts showing that Judge Williams knew he lacked jurisdiction, much less that any Alabama statute or case law clearly deprived him of jurisdiction to rule on Johnny Pace’s Petition for Involuntary Commitment filed against his wife in August 2014. There being no facts or circumstances presented that might support an inference that Judge Williams acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction, the Court concludes that the doctrine of judicial immunity applies. Accordingly, Judge Williams is absolutely immune from all claims asserted against him in this lawsuit.

In so determining, the Court has considered and rejected plaintiff’s counterarguments. Principally, Ms. Pace asserts that judicial immunity does not apply because Judge Williams violated state law in his handling of the Petition for Involuntary Commitment. This argument misapprehends the breadth and scope of judicial immunity. A judge’s judicial acts are not removed from the protections of judicial immunity merely because they are erroneous, unlawful, or even corrupt or malicious. See, e.g., Bolin v. Story, 225 F.3d 1234, 1239 (11th Cir. 2000) (“This immunity applies even when the judge’s acts are in error, malicious, or were in excess of his or her jurisdiction.”).[5] So merely saying that Judge Williams contravened state or even constitutional law does not override his protections under the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity. For judicial immunity purposes, it makes no difference whether Judge Williams “got it right, ” or even whether he followed the law. Nor is plaintiff’s case strengthened by her apparent allegation that Judge Williams persuaded Johnny Pace to file the Petition for Involuntary Commitment in the first place, particularly where (as here) there is no allegation that Judge Williams possessed any personal interest in the Paces’ domestic dispute. See Harris v. Deveaux, 780 F.2d 911, 916 (11th Cir. 1986) (“Judges must be free to act on their convictions. Judge Deveaux may have acted improperly in ordering the charges against Harris. We cannot say, however, that he was not acting in his judicial capacity.”).[6] Finally, plaintiff’s reliance on Alabama cases interpreting and delineating the limitations of other forms of immunity (such as state-agent immunity) is unilluminating in the context of a judicial immunity analysis.

In short, the Court readily concludes that the doctrine of judicial immunity bars all of Sherry Pace’s claims ...

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