438 U.S. 478 (1978), 76-709, Butz v. Economou

Docket Nº:No. 76-709
Citation:438 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895
Party Name:Butz v. Economou
Case Date:June 29, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

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438 U.S. 478 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895




No. 76-709

United States Supreme Court

June 29, 1978

Argued November 7, 1977




After an unsuccessful Department of Agriculture proceeding to revoke or suspend the registration of respondent's commodity futures commission company, respondent filed an action for damages in District Court against petitioner officials (including the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, the Judicial Officer, the Chief Hearing Examiner who had recommended sustaining the administrative complaint, and the Department attorney who had prosecuted the enforcement proceeding), alleging, inter alia, that, by instituting unauthorized proceedings against him, they had violated various of his constitutional rights. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the individual defendants, as federal officials, were entitled to absolute immunity for all discretionary acts within the scope of their authority. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the defendants were entitled only to the qualified immunity available to their counterparts in state government.


1. Neither Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, nor Spalding v. Vilas, 161 U.S. 483, supports petitioners' contention that all of the federal officials sued in this case are absolutely immune from any liability for damages even if, in the course of enforcing the relevant statutes, they infringed respondent's constitutional rights, and even if the violation was knowing and deliberate. Nor did either of those cases purport to abolish the liability of federal officers for actions manifestly beyond their line of duty; if they are accountable when they stray beyond the plain limits of their statutory authority, it would be incongruous to hold that they may nevertheless willfully or knowingly violate constitutional rights without fear of liability. Pp. 485-496.

2. Without congressional directions to the contrary, it would be untenable to draw a distinction for purposes of immunity law between suits brought against state officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, and suits brought directly under the Constitution against federal officials, Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388. Federal officials should enjoy no greater zone of protection when they violate federal constitutional rules than do state officers. Pp. 496-504.

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3. In a suit for damages arising from unconstitutional action, federal executive officials exercising discretion are entitled only to the qualified immunity specified in Scheuer v. Rhodes, supra, subject to those exceptional situations where it is demonstrated that absolute immunity is essential for the conduct of the public business. While federal officials will not be liable for mere mistakes in judgment, whether the mistake is one of fact or one of law, there is no substantial basis for holding that executive officers generally may with impunity discharge their duties in a way that is known to them to violate the Constitution, or in a manner that they should know transgresses a clearly established constitutional rule. Pp. 504-508.

4. Although a qualified immunity from damages liability should be the general rule for executive officials charged with constitutional violations, there are some officials whose special functions require a full exemption from liability. Pp. 508-517.

(a) In light of the safeguards provided in agency adjudication to assure that the hearing examiner or administrative law judge exercises his independent judgment on the evidence before him, free from pressures by the parties or other officials within the agency, the risk of an unconstitutional act by one presiding at the agency hearing is clearly outweighed by the importance of [98 S.Ct. 2897] preserving such independent judgment. Therefore, persons subject to these restraints and performing adjudicatory functions within a federal agency are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their judicial acts. Pp. 508-514.

(b) Agency officials who perform functions analogous to those of a prosecutor must make the decision to move forward with an administrative proceeding free from intimidation or harassment. Because the legal remedies already available to the defendant in such a proceeding provide sufficient checks on agency zeal, those officials who are responsible for the decision to initiate or continue a proceeding, subject to agency adjudication are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their parts in that decision. Pp. 515-516.

(c) There is no substantial difference between the function of an agency attorney in presenting evidence in an agency hearing and the function of the prosecutor who brings evidence before a court, and, since administrative agencies can act in the public interest only if they can adjudicate on the basis of a complete record, an agency attorney who arranges for the presentation of evidence on the record in the course of an adjudication is absolutely immune from suits based on the introduction of such evidence. Pp. 516-517.

5. The case is remanded for application of the foregoing principles

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to the claims against the particular petitioner-defendants involved. P. 517.

535 F.2d 688, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 517.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the personal immunity of federal officials in the Executive Branch from claims for damages arising from their violations of citizens' constitutional rights. Respondent1 filed suit against a number of officials in the Department of Agriculture claiming that they had instituted an investigation and an administrative proceeding against him in retaliation for his criticism of that agency. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the individual defendants, as federal officials, were entitled to absolute immunity for all discretionary acts within the scope of their authority. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the defendants were entitled only to the qualified immunity available to their counterparts in state government. Economou v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 535 F.2d 688 (1976). Because of

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the importance of immunity doctrine to both the vindication of constitutional guarantees and the effective functioning of government, we granted certiorari. 429 U.S. 1089.


Respondent controls Arthur N. Economou and Co., Inc., which was at one time registered with the Department of Agriculture as a commodity futures commission merchant. Most of respondent's factual allegations in this lawsuit focus on an earlier administrative proceeding in which the Department of Agriculture sought to revoke or suspend the company's registration. On February 19, 1970, following an audit, the Department of Agriculture issued an administrative complaint alleging that respondent, while a registered merchant, had willfully failed to maintain the minimum financial requirements prescribed by the Department. After another audit, an amended complaint was issued on June 22, 1970. A hearing was held before the Chief [98 S.Ct. 2898] Hearing Examiner of the Department, who filed a recommendation sustaining the administrative complaint. The Judicial Officer of the Department, to whom the Secretary had delegated his decisional authority in enforcement proceedings, affirmed the Chief Hearing Examiner's decision. On respondent's petition for review, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the order of the Judicial Officer. It reasoned that

the essential finding of willfulness . . . was made in a proceeding instituted without the customary warning letter, which the Judicial Officer conceded might well have resulted in prompt correction of the claimed insufficiencies.

Economou v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 494 F.2d 519 (1974).

While the administrative complaint was pending before the Judicial Officer, respondent filed this lawsuit in Federal District Court. Respondent sought initially to enjoin the progress of the administrative proceeding, but he was unsuccessful in that regard. On March 31, 1975, respondent filed a second

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amended complaint seeking damages. Named as defendants were the individuals who had served as Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture during the relevant events; the Judicial Officer and Chief Hearing Examiner; several officials in the Commodity Exchange Authority;2 the Agriculture Department attorney who had prosecuted the enforcement proceeding; and several of the auditors who had investigated respondent or were witnesses against respondent.3

The complaint stated that, prior to the issuance of the administrative complaints, respondent had been "sharply critical of the staff and operations of Defendants, and carried on a vociferous campaign for the reform of Defendant Commodity Exchange Authority to obtain more effective regulation of commodity trading." App. 157-158. The complaint also stated that, some time prior to the issuance of the February 19 complaint, respondent and his company had ceased to engage in activities regulated by the defendants. The complaint charged that each of the administrative complaints had been issued without the notice or warning required by law; that the defendants had furnished the complaints "to interested persons and others without furnishing respondent's answers as well"; and that, following the issuance of the amended complaint, the defendants had issued a "deceptive" press release that

falsely indicated...

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