Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Edwards v. Gerstein[1]

Opinion handed down October 30, 2007

Where a chiropractor sued a state regulatory board for gross negligence and malicious prosecution, the Missouri Supreme Court held that, by virtue of the language of the governing statute, the board did not enjoy quasi-judicial immunity from the gross negligence claim.

I. Facts and Holding

The facts of this case are few and the legal issues complex. Dr. Gary Edwards was a chiropractor. The Missouri Board of Chiropractic Examiners (hereafter “The Board”) instituted and resolved disciplinary proceedings against Dr. Edwards. Dr. Edwards subsequently alleged that several members of The Board acted with gross negligence during the course of the disciplinary proceedings. Dr. Edwards also alleged a claim of malicious prosecution against an employee of The Board.[2]

The court first discussed the dismissal of The Board members on the gross negligence charge. Dr. Edwards argued that the language of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 331.100.5 [3] superseded any quasi-judicial immunity members of The Board would have enjoyed absent the statute. The court agreed, giving a “plain language” interpretation to the language of the statute. While the dissent in Edwards sought to distinguish between sovereign immunity doctrines and the common law immunity doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity, [4] the majority found that both are common law immunities and both are equally subject to legislative modification.[5] The Missouri Supreme Court held the language of § 331.100 modified The Board’s common law immunity protection. [6]

The court did not reach the issue of Dr. Edwards’ claim against The Board employee for malicious prosecution because the court found that Dr. Edwards failed to state all the elements for a claim of malicious prosecution. [7]

II. Legal Background

Since the majority found Edwards’ arguments of venue and malicious prosecution to be unpersuasive, this paper will focus on the court’s refusal to grant quasi-judicial immunity to members of The Board.

Quasi-judicial immunity provides immunity to certain officials when they perform functions resembling those of a judge.[8] It is a common law immunity and is subject to legislative override.[9] Judicial immunity is premised on the idea of protecting the integrity of the court system. One early opinion explained that “[l]iability to answer to every one who might feel himself aggrieved by the action of the judge…would destroy the independence without which no judiciary can be either respectable or useful.”[10] Missouri courts have endorsed this proposition wholeheartedly. [11]

Judicial immunity does not protect persons; rather, it protects functions.[12] For that reason, the doctrine of judicial immunity extends beyond applying only to judges. The Missouri Supreme Court noted that, “[a]gency officials responsible for deciding whether to initiate proceedings are absolutely immune from a suit for damages for their parts in that decision.”[13] The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that, so far as federal law is concerned, persons occupying the role of public prosecutor shall be immune from suit. The Court determined that the benefit of having prosecutors who courageously and independently administer their respective offices outweighs the risk that a valid cause of action would arise from the malfeasance of a few prosecutors.[14] Indeed, “[i]t is the functional comparability of their judgments to those of the judge that has resulted in both grand jurors and prosecutors being referred to as ‘quasi-judicial’ officers, and their immunities being termed ‘quasi-judicial’ as well.” [15]

The issue in Edwards is not the existence of quasi-judicial immunity. What is in controversy is whether Mo. Rev. Stat. § 331.100.5 overrides that quasi-judicial immunity to the extent that members of The Board acted with gross negligence. The plain language of § 331.100.5 seems to grant absolute immunity to The Board, except in the event its members act with gross negligence. In her dissent in Edwards, Judge Stith uses analogous federal caselaw arising under section 1983 [16] to highlight the willingness of the federal courts to grant quasi-judicial immunity in cases very similar to the facts of Edwards. For example, the case of Horowitz v. State Bd. of Medical Examiners [17] is analogous to Edwards. Horowitz involved a section 1983 claim by a podiatrist who charged the State Board of Medical Examiners of the State of Colorado with depriving him of civil rights in their initiating charges against him for unprofessional conduct.[18] Citing the public policy of insulating board members from political influence in carrying out their adjudicatory responsibilities, the Tenth Circuit found the board members acting in their official capacities to be exempt from personal liability.[19] Noting the importance of quasi-judicial immunity, Judge Stith found that quasi-judicial immunity cannot be legislatively abrogated without express statutory language indicating the legislature’s intent; in Judge Stith’s mind, general language allowing suit against public officials is insufficient to override quasi-judicial immunity. [20]

Judge Stith’s position is consistent with at least one state supreme court. The Supreme Court of Florida held that the legislature cannot take actions that would undermine the independence of Florida’s judicial and quasi-judicial offices.[21] The court’s rationale implied that the legislature may never waive judicial or quasi-judicial immunity, for any statutory waiver of judicial or quasi-judicial immunity could “undermine the independence” of the judiciary and judiciary-like activities.

III. Comment

At first blush, Judge Stith’s position looks like that of the quintessential activist judge. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 331.100.5 clearly states that members of The Board may be sued for gross negligence. The problem with holding members of The Board liable for their quasi-judicial activities is that it robs The Board of the independence and freedom to vigorously pursue malefactors.

I argue that the legislature should never limit the as-established common-law judicial and quasi-judicial immunities,[22] lest it overstep its bounds and violate the concept of separation of powers mandated by the Missouri Constitution.[23] One could argue in the alternative that reading judicial immunity into Mo. Rev. Stat. § 331.100.5 is itself a violation of the separation of powers, as Judge Stith’s conclusion is not readily ascertainable from the face of the statutory language. In this way, Judge Stith’s opinion involves creating a rule of law. However, in light of the history and purpose of the doctrines of judicial and quasi-judicial immunity, Judge Stith’s opinion is not the creation of law, but rather a practical and necessary interpretation of it.

Quasi-judicial immunity is vital to preserve the effectiveness and impartiality of the adjudicatory activities of The Board. Holding otherwise “could deter a full and unfettered exercise of…quasi-judicial authority.”[24] It is reasonable to assume the Missouri legislature intended to continue the established doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity with the enactment of Mo. Rev. Stat. § 331.100.5, except for acts by members of The Board amounting to gross negligence. The statute is reasonable in codifying a balance of immunity with recourse for serious missteps by The Board. The concern with protection from gross negligence can be answered with a quote from Judge Learned Hand, who thought it “better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation.”[25] And once legislation begins impinging on the quasi-judicial functions of The Board [26] by affecting its decisionmaking, the court should find the legislation, to the extent it waives quasi-judicial immunity, to be unconstitutional. The alternative that Judge Stith chose was to interpret the waiver of immunity in the statute as not reaching quasi-judicial immunity. Either alternative would rest on solid state constitutional ground.

- Andrew Crossett

[1] No. SC88313 (Mo. Oct. 30, 2007) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=26574.  The West reporter citation is Edwards v. Gerstein, 237 S.W.3d 580 (Mo. 2007) (en banc).
[2] In his suit against The Board, Dr. Edwards also claimed the venue of the case was wrong. The issue is governed strictly by Mo. Rev. Stat. 508.010 and the court summarily rejected Dr. Edwards’ argument. Edwards, 237 S.W.3d at 583. Consequently, that issue will not be discussed in this article.
[3] This statute provides in pertinent part that “[m]embers of the [The Board] shall not be personally liable either jointly or separately for any act or acts committed in the performance of their official duties as board members except gross negligence.”
[4] Edwards, 237 S.W.3d at 585-87 (Stith, J., dissenting).
[5] Id. at 582.
[6] Id.
[7] Specifically, the court found that Dr. Edwards failed to plead that The Board conducted its investigation with malicious intent. Edwards v. Gerstein, 237 S.W.3d 580, 582 (Mo. 2007).
[8] See, e.g., Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512-17 (1978).
[9] See, e.g., Wollard v. City of Kansas City, 831 S.W.2d 200, 203 (Mo. 1992) (where the Missouri Supreme Court interpreted the legislative intent of a statute to remove from common law immunity two categories of torts).
[10] Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 347 (1871).
[11] Long v. Cross Reporting Service, Inc., 103 S.W.3d 249, 254 (Mo. App. W.D. 2003).
[12] Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227 (1988). C.f., State ex rel. Howenstine v. Roper, 155 S.W.3d 747, 752 (Mo. 2005) (discussing official immunity as protecting certain individuals).
[13] Group Health Plan, Inc. v. State Bd. of Registration for the Healing Arts, 787 S.W.2d 745, 750 (Mo. App. E.D. 1990).
[14] Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 423-24 (1976).
[15] Id. at 423 n.20.
[16] 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006).
[17] 822 F.2d 1508 (10th Cir. 1987).
[18] Id. at 1510.
[19] Id. at 1515.
[20] Edwards v. Gerstein, 237 S.W.3d 580, 585-587 (Mo. 2007) (Stith, J., dissenting). It is important to note Judge Stith’s acknowledgement that quasi-judicial immunity might be waived by an express statement by the legislature: “It may be that the legislature could expressly waive quasi-judicial immunity in the case of an administrative agency that it has itself created by statute as a part of the executive branch.” Id. at 8.
[21] Office of State Attorney, Fourth Judicial Cir. of Florida v. Parrotino, 628 So.2d 1097, 1099 (1993) (hereafter “Parrotino”).
[22] At least to the extent that the judicial or quasi-judicial body is acting within the scope of its authority. For example, a judge acting without jurisdiction should not be cloaked with judicial immunity. See e.g., Howe v. Brouse, 427 S.W.2d 467 (Mo. 1968).
[23] Art. II, § 1.
[24] Parrotino, 628 So.2d at 1098-1099.
[25] Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579, 581 (2d Cir. 1947).
[26] It was uncontroverted in Edwards that the challenged actions of The Board were of a quasi-judicial character.

Research Sources on Topic:

Michael D. Murray, Liability for Official Actions and Judicial Immunity, 12 Mo. Practice Series § 1.11 (2007).