Johnson v. Kegans, 87-2352

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Citation870 F.2d 992
Docket NumberNo. 87-2352,87-2352
PartiesDaniel JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Joe KEGANS and John Holmes, Defendants-Appellees.
Decision Date24 April 1989

Daniel Johnson, Huntsville, Tex., pro se.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before GOLDBERG, GARWOOD and JOLLY, Circuit Judges.

GARWOOD, Circuit Judge:

The issue in this case is whether the district court erred in dismissing as frivolous pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d) an in forma pauperis action by a state prisoner seeking damages from and injunctive relief against a county prosecutor and a state court judge under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. We hold that the judge and prosecutor are absolutely immune from liability for damages and that the allegations for injunctive relief are insufficient. We therefore affirm.

Facts and Proceedings Below

Plaintiff-appellant Daniel Johnson (Johnson) is an inmate of the Texas Department of Corrections. On February 9, 1987, he filed this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. He named as defendants Judge Joe Kegans (Judge Kegans), Judge of the 230th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas, and John Holmes (Holmes), District Attorney of Harris County, Texas. Johnson claims that in the fall of 1986 Judge Kegans and Holmes each filed with the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole (the Board) a letter or instrument in which they urged or recommended the Board to deny Johnson parole. Johnson alleges that Judge Kegans and Holmes filed their letters in retaliation for civil rights suits that Johnson had prosecuted against Judge Kegans and other state and county officials and that Holmes further acted "with the intent of extending Plaintiff's period of incarceration ... on the basis of unadjudicated offenses." 1 His complaint does not allege whether defendants informed the Board of those matters, nor does it otherwise allege the contents of the letters or allege that defendants made any false statements to the Board. Johnson does claim that these letters "prejudiced" him "in parole matters." In addition to damages, he seeks an injunction ordering defendants to withdraw their letters and not to engage in "future, similar acts."

Defendants were never served. Instead, on March 23, 1987, the district court granted Johnson leave to file his complaint in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(a), but found that Johnson had no constitutional right to parole and that defendants were absolutely immune from suit, and concluded that Johnson had therefore failed to state a section 1983 claim. The court dismissed his action as frivolous under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(d). This appeal followed.


A district court may dismiss an in forma pauperis proceeding pursuant to section 1915(d) if: "(1) the claim's realistic chance of ultimate success is slight; (2) the claim has no arguable basis in law and fact; or (3) it is clear that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim." Cay v. Estelle, 789 F.2d 318, 326 (5th Cir.1986). The district court may dismiss sua sponte an in forma pauperis proceeding, Cay, 789 F.2d at 323, and is vested with "especially broad discretion" when making the determination of frivolousness vel non, id. at 325; Green v. McKaskle, 788 F.2d 1116 1119 (5th Cir.1986). The district court in this case did not abuse its discretion under section 1915(d) because defendants were absolutely immune from suit and Johnson did not state a claim for injunctive relief.

I. Absolute Immunity

It is well established that judges are absolutely immune from liability for judicial acts that are not performed in clear absence of all jurisdiction, however erroneous the act and however evil the motive. See Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 1105-07, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967); Holloway v. Walker, 765 F.2d 517, 522-25 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1037, 106 S.Ct. 605, 88 L.Ed.2d 583 (1985); Adams v. McIlhany, 764 F.2d 294, 297-99 (5th Cir.1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 1101, 106 S.Ct. 883, 88 L.Ed.2d 918 (1986). See also Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 106 S.Ct. 496, 500, 88 L.Ed.2d 507 (1985). This absolute judicial immunity contrasts with the qualified immunity that executive officials generally enjoy. 2 See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). "Judges have absolute immunity not because of their particular location within the Government but because of the special nature of their responsibilities." Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 2914, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978). Officials whose responsibilities are "functionally comparable" to those of a judge are also absolutely immune from liability. Id. 98 S.Ct. at 2913-14. Thus, for example, federal hearing examiners and administrative law judges, id. at 2914, arbitrators, Corey v. New York Stock Exchange, 691 F.2d 1205, 1208-11 (6th Cir.1983), bar association disciplinary committee members, Slavin v. Curry, 574 F.2d 1256, 1266 (5th Cir.1978), modified on other grounds, 583 F.2d 779 (5th Cir.1978) (per curiam), rev'd sub nom. on other grounds Sparks v. Duval County Ranch Co., 604 F.2d 976 (5th Cir.1979) (en banc), the National Association of Securities Dealers, Inc. and its disciplinary officers, Austin Mun. Securities v. Nat. Ass'n of Securities, 757 F.2d 676, 689-92 (5th Cir.1985), and members of pardon and parole boards, Cruz v. Skelton, 502 F.2d 1101, 1101-02 (5th Cir.1974) (per curiam); Johnson v. Rhode Island Parole Board Members, 815 F.2d 5, 6-7 (1st Cir.1987), have been held absolutely immune from suit because they perform adjudicatory roles which are functionally substantially equivalent to those of judges. 3 But see Cleavinger, 106 S.Ct. at 502-05 (prison disciplinary committee members have qualified, not absolute, immunity; they are not to be equated to parole board members, who are "serving essentially 'as an arm of the sentencing judge' "). These officials are sometimes labeled "quasi-judicial" officials and, as most of the above examples indicate, need not be members of the judiciary.

Prosecutors and other necessary participants in the judicial process enjoy "quasi-judicial" immunity as well. Prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability for initiating prosecutions and other acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984, 995, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976); Morrison v. City of Baton Rouge, 761 F.2d 242, 246-48 (5th Cir.1985) (per curiam). This prosecutorial immunity extends to individuals serving prosecutorial functions at administrative hearings. See Butz, 98 S.Ct. at 2916. Cf. Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914, 104 S.Ct. 2820, 2826, 81 L.Ed.2d 758 (1984) (public defenders not immune). Witnesses, including police officers, are absolutely immune from liability for their testimony in judicial proceedings, Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 103 S.Ct. 1108, 1113-14, 75 L.Ed.2d 96 (1983), and grand jurors, Imbler, 96 S.Ct. 991-92 & n. 20, and jurors, White v. Hegerhorst, 418 F.2d 894, 895 (5th Cir.1969), cert. denied, 398 U.S. 912, 90 S.Ct. 1710, 26 L.Ed.2d 74 (1970), are likewise absolutely immune from liability arising out of their service. See also Freeze v. Griffith, 849 F.2d 172, 174-75 (5th Cir.1988). Similarly, probation officers are immune from liability for preparing and submitting a presentence report. Freeze, 849 F.2d at 175; Spaulding v. Nielsen, 599 F.2d 728, 729 (5th Cir.1979) (per curiam). Accord Demoran v. Witt, 781 F.2d 155, 157-58 (9th Cir.1986).

The "cluster" of absolute immunities that protect participants in judicial and other adjudicatory proceedings exist to help guarantee an independent, disinterested decision-making process. These absolute immunities prevent the harassment and intimidation that could otherwise result if disgruntled litigants--particularly criminal defendants and inmates, both of whom have their liberty at stake--could vent their anger by suing either the person who presented the decision maker with adverse information or the person or persons who rendered an adverse decision. See Butz, 98 S.Ct. at 2913; Holloway, 765 F.2d at 522. When determining the scope of judicial immunity, the requirements of judicial acts and jurisdiction are to be broadly construed to effectuate these policies. Holloway, 765 F.2d at 523-24. A similar approach, of course, should be taken when determining whether an act by a prosecutor, juror, grand juror, or witness is integral to the judicial process and therefore protected by absolute immunity.

Turning to the acts by the judge and prosecutor here, it is not altogether clear that they were "judicial" or "prosecutorial." Sentencing is without doubt a judicial act, see Adams, 764 F.2d at 294. And when a prosecutor or probation officer provides information relevant to sentencing or recommends a sentence, they are clearly performing prosecutorial or quasi-judicial acts. But Johnson does not complain about his sentence or the acts of defendants with regard thereto; he in essence complains of his failure to be paroled.

The power to grant parole is executive. Clifford v. Beto, 464 F.2d 1191, 1194 (5th Cir.1972). See also Hilliard, 759 F.2d at 1193 (the board is an independent agency whose members are appointed by the governor). The functioning of a parole board, however, is quasi-judicial. Cruz, 502 F.2d at 1101. See also Johnson v. Rhode Island, 815 F.2d at 6. And although this Court has not previously addressed this issue, we conclude that those individuals who function before the Board in the same capacity as a prosecutor, witness, or probation officer would enjoy absolute immunity. Yet, in the very strictest sense, defendants did not act in one of these capacities before the Board.

Nonetheless, we conclude defendants are absolutely immune. Their acts were intimately connected with both the judicial process...

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