January 13, 2014–A Federal District Court Judge in Pennsylvania ruled last Friday that “Kids for Cash” Pennsylvania State Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella’s actions in causing juveniles to be sentenced under a “zero tolerance” policy to further a civil conspiracy are not protected by judicial immunity. United States District Judge A. Richard Caputo on Thursday issued a decision in favor of plaintiffs in that case, holding that Judge Mark Ciavarella’s acts in participating in a conspiracy to deprive children of a right to a fair trial in order to send the children to juvenile detention facilities which Ciavarella helped develop are not “judicial acts” entitled to judicial immunity.
What It Means for Parents and Children
“This decision will profoundly impact parents’ ability to pursue Family Court judges for civil rights violations based on judicial conduct occurring outside of the courtroom, which causes injury inside the courtroom.” says Colbern Stuart, President of California Coalition for Families and Children. “Every parent should take a close look at the judge, psychologist, and attorneys in their cases to see if they were involved in any out-of-court activity such as court policy-making committees, legal or judicial professional organizations, “CLE” for judges or attorneys, “think tanks” and “technical assistance” organizations that influence judicial behavior and the administration of justice. Those activities are now clearly suspect if they result in constitutional injury.” Says Stuart. “Illegal policies or guidance, and unethical conduct and business dealings that lead to a decision inside of court that deprives a litigant or their family of civil rights can be the basis for civil liability that is not immunized by the in-court act.” “If a parent or child has been deprived of civil rights or otherwise damaged by such policies or illegal dealings, they may have recourse against the Family Court judge, psychologist, or attorney acting illegally outside of court.” Says Stuart.
California Coalition’s DDICE RICO Lawsuit
California Coalition has sued San Diego Family Court judges for conspiring with attorneys, psychologists, and the county bar association to deprive families of civil rights. “This is exactly the type of conduct we’ve found in San Diego. Judges and private professionals self-dealing for private advantage, making policy to stoke that advantage, then working the policy in court to fuel their private fire with parents’ and children’s college funds. It’s now clear those judges may be liable despite the fact that part of the transaction occurred in court. Parents in every state should closely re-examine their cases to see if similar facts exist in their case.”
From Judge Caputo’s January 9, 2014 Memorandum in the Ciavarella case:
Ciavarella is not entitled to judicial immunity for his role in closing the River Street facility. That is, appearing on television urging a shutdown of a county-run detention facility and facilitating hiring decisions for a private detention facility are not functions “normally performed by a judge.” Wallace, 2009 WL 4051974, at *7 (quoting Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 362, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978)). During Ciavarella’s criminal trial, he acknowledged that he was not performing any official duties when he took part in the television interview. (Plfs.’ SMF, ¶ 74.) Moreover, aiding PACC in staffing its facility with employees of the River Street facility also falls outside the traditional role of a judge. Cf. Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229, 108 S. Ct. 538, 98 L. Ed. 2d 555 (1988) (“personnel decisions made by judges[ ] are often crucial to the efficient operation of public institutions (some of which are at least as important as the courts), yet no one suggests that they give rise to absolute immunity from liability in damages under § 1983.”).
b. Zero Tolerance Policy
Second, Plaintiffs argue that the enactment of a zero tolerance policy was not a judicial act. While Ciavarella served as judge of the juvenile court, he enacted an administrative policy that dictated instances in which probation officers had to file charges against and detain juveniles in Luzerne County. (Plfs.’ SMF, ¶¶ 79-82.) Ciavarella expanded his zero tolerance policy in February 2003, the same month PACC opened, to require that children on probation be violated and detained for any violation of their probation, including zero tolerance for drug and alcohol violations, not attending school, not attending appointments, or violating curfew. (Id. at ¶ 80.) Under this policy which was distributed to all juvenile probation officers on February 20, 2003, (id. at ¶ 82), Ciavarella eliminated juvenile probation officers’ discretion to informally adjust juveniles’ charges. (Id. at ¶ 79.)
Ciavarella’s enactment and expansion of a zero tolerance policy dictating how probation officers were to handle violations of probation and other charging decisions fall outside the scope of judicial action. “Administrative decisions, even though they may be essential to the very functioning of the courts, have not similarly been regarded as judicial acts.” Forrester, 484 U.S. at 228, 108 S. Ct. 538. Under Pennsylvania law, probation officers have the authority to informally adjust allegations before a delinquency petition is filed. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6323; Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 312 (“At any time prior to the filing of a petition, the juvenile probation officer may informally adjust the allegation(s) if it appears: (1) an adjudication would not be in the best interest of the public and the juvenile; (2) the juvenile and the juvenile’s guardian consent to informal adjustment with knowledge that consent is not obligatory; and (3) the admitted facts bring the case within the jurisdiction of the court.”). Moreover, “coercing probation officers to change their recommendations is outside the role of a judicial officer. Probation officers are to advise the court, not the other way round, on sentencing matters.” Wallace, 2009 WL 4051974, at *8. In adopting the zero tolerance policy, Ciavarella was acting in an administrative capacity, and acts such as that which involve “supervising court employees and overseeing the efficient operation of a court- may have been quite important in providing the necessary conditions of a sound adjudicative system. The decision[ ] at issue, however, [was] not [itself] judicial or adjudicative.” Forrester, 484 U.S. at 229, 108 S. Ct. 538. Because Ciavarella’s enactment and expansion of the zero tolerance policy were non-judicial acts, judicial immunity does not shield this conduct.
c. Additional Out-of-Court Actions
Finally, Ciavarella is not sheltered from liability for his out-of-court conduct that was not judicial in nature. Ciavarella initiated the plan by approaching Conahan and suggesting that they bring together a team that had the financial ability to construct a new detention facility. (Plfs.’ SMF, ¶¶ 23-26.) Ciavarella also connected Powell and Mericle. (Id. at ¶ 26.) Ciavarella’s failure to disclose the payments he received from Mericle and Vision Holdings also furthered the conspiracy. Specifically, Ciavarella took steps to conceal the more than $2,700,000 he and Conahan received from Mericle and Powell starting in 2003. (Id. at ¶ 66.) Indeed, Ciavarella sought to conceal the payments because knew that it would not look good that he was receiving payments from Powell while sending juveniles to his detention facility. (Id. at ¶ 67.) In that regard, Ciavarella instructed Mericle where to send the second and third payments. (Id. at ¶ 58.) This out-of-court conduct was not judicial in nature, and, as such, is not protected by judicial immunity.
Lastly, Plaintiffs must establish that Ciavarella “caused the complained of injury.” Elmore, 399 F.3d at 281. I previously indicated that the “setting in motion” theory of causation would be applied to individual Defendants in this case. See Wallace, 2012 WL 2590150, at *11. This standard provides:
“”A person ‘subjects’ another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of § 1983, if [that person] does an affirmative act, participates in another’s affirmative acts, or omits to perform an act which [that person] is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made. Indeed, the requisite causal connection can be established not only by some kind of direct personal participation in the deprivation, but also by setting in motion a series of acts by others which the actor knows or reasonably should know would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury.””
Id. (quoting Pilchesky v. Miller, No. 05–2074, 2006 WL 2884445, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct.10, 2006). While the Third Circuit has not squarely addressed the issue of causation in § 1983 cases, see, e.g., Burnsworth v. PC Lab., 364 F. App’x 772, 775 (3d Cir. 2010), the “setting in motion” theory has been accepted by multiple Circuit Courts of Appeals. See, e.g., Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1207 (9th Cir. 2011); Sanchez v. Pereira-Castillo, 590 F.3d 31, 51 (1st Cir. 2009); Morris v. Dearborne, 181 F.3d 657, 672 (5th Cir. 1999); Sales v. Grant, 158 F.3d 768, 776 (4th Cir. 1998); Waddell v. Forney, 108 F.3d 889, 894 (8th Cir. 1997); Conner v. Reinhard, 847 F.2d 384, 396-97 (7th Cir. 1988).
The undisputed facts establish that Ciavarella caused the violation of Plaintiffs’ right to an impartial tribunal through the receipt and concealment, by himself and Conahan, of payments from and through other Defendants. In particular, Ciavarella knew he had a duty to disclose information relevant to his ability to engage in impartial decision-making, that he violated that duty, and that he never informed any juveniles that he was receiving payments from PACC, WPACC, or Powell. (Plfs.’ SMF, ¶¶ 69-70.) The undisputed facts conclusively establish that Ciavarella knew that, as a result of his conduct, Plaintiffs would be deprived of their right to appear before an impartial tribunal.
Ciavarella’s role in closing the River Street facility set the conspiracy in motion.
Significantly, knowing that he stood to profit from the completion of the PACC facility, Ciavarella took steps to close the old facility and ensure that it would not re-open, resulting in PACC being the only detention facility in Luzerne County where a child could be detained. (Id. at ¶¶ 38-42, 73-77.) Yet, despite his financial stake in closing the River Street facility, he never disclosed this interest. (Id. at ¶¶ 44, 69-72.) Thus, the undisputed material facts establish that Ciavarella knew, or he should have known, that his role in the closure of the River Street facility and his concealment of his interest in its closure (and the resulting opening of the PACC facility while he served as judge of the juvenile court) would deprive Plaintiffs of an impartial tribunal.
The zero tolerance policy adopted by Ciavarella also furthered the conspiracy and caused the deprivation of Plaintiffs’ right to an impartial tribunal. In 2003 when Ciavarella knew he had a financial interest in PACC, he expanded the zero tolerance policy, which increased the number of juveniles that would appear before him and be detained. As a result of the expansion of this policy, more juveniles appeared before him and were subject to adjudication by a biased tribunal. And, as detailed above, Ciavarella’s out-of-court conduct which set the conspiracy in motion, and which concealed the existence and the nature of the conspiracy, as well as the corresponding payments, all furthered the goals of the conspiracy. As the undisputed facts establish that Ciavarella knew or should have known that, as a result of his out-of-court conduct, Plaintiffs would not appear before an impartial tribunal when they were in his courtroom, the causation element of Plaintiffs’ § 1983 impartial tribunal claims against Ciavarella is satisfied.
Therefore, for Ciavarella’s conduct which is not protected by judicial immunity, i.e., his non-judicial acts, Ciavarella is liable to Plaintiffs on their § 1983 impartial tribunal claims. In particular, Ciavarella’s non-judicial acts detailed above set in motion and/or caused the deprivation of Plaintiffs’ right to an impartial tribunal as he initiated the scheme to construct a new detention facility, he assisted in closing the River Street facility, and he expanded a policy which increased the number of juveniles that appeared before him. And, these acts were all taken without Ciavarella ever disclosing, and, in fact, while he took affirmative steps to conceal his financial interest in the success of PACC and WPACC. Accordingly, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Ciavarella subjected Plaintiffs to a deprivation of their constitutional right to an impartial tribunal. For the conduct which Ciavarella is not shielded by judicial immunity, he is liable to Plaintiffs on their § 1983 impartial tribunal claims.
Family Court Implications
Judge Caputo’s decision is a significant development for parents and children victims of Family Court. First, it clarifies the existing law that out-of-court actions by a judge are not protected by judicial immunity. This was pre-existing law, but in some cases has been challenged by those asserting immunity, especially where an in-court act is involved in the chain of causation or pieces of the conspiracy leading to injury. Parents should examine closely their family court judges out-of-court activities such as bar association meetings, business dealings, political activity, and other behavior not conducted inside the courtroom, but which may impact judicial behavior nonetheless.
Administrative and Policy-Making Decisions Not Immune
Second, the decision clarifies that administrative “supervisory” and “policy-making” acts by a judge, even those deemed essential to operation of the court, are administrative, and not judicial, and therefore not entitled to absolute judicial immunity. Administrative actions include oversight of other justice system officials such as court administrative staff or law enforcement, and may include direct “supervisory” oversight such as instructing law enforcement or staff, or from policy-making roles such as setting rules for how staff or employees treat litigants. In the Ciavarella case, this included direct oversight of juvenile system probation officers and detention facility personnel, and setting a “zero tolerance” policy for law enforcement apprehending juvenile offenders assuring that more offenders would end up in court.
In the family court context, judicial officers have many such roles, including overseeing law enforcement for illegal “pro-arrest” or “zero tolerance removal” policies in domestic violence cases, equal protection violations against domestic couples, families, or a gender, guiding attorneys and custody evaluators in how to manage litigants, and guidance over the “forensic psychologists”, supervisors, and other court-related personnel who, though “essential” to the business of the court, are not judicial officers. Because these functions are administrative, the judge’s role in them is not protected by judicial immunity. Social workers, too, will not be shielded from such liability.
Parents should be suspicious of any statement by an attorney, supervisor, social worker, child services worker, court staff, law-enforcement, or other government official claiming to act under a “policy,” judicial instruction, or “that’s how we do things in Family Court.” Such “policies”, if not consistent with valid law, may be illegal, and may give rise to a judicial or other government official’s liability. Judicial officers (or any other government official’s) role in enacting such “policies” are not protected by judicial immunity.
Judges Liable for In-Court Injury
Perhaps most earth-shaking, the Pennsylvania District Court explicitly found Judge Ciavarella liable for acts outside his courtroom which “set in motion” acts inside his courtroom which caused deprivation of civil rights. Some have argued that acts by a judge outside the courtroom are protected by immunity when the “direct act” causing the constitutional injury occurs inside the courtroom—such as a judge’s depriving juveniles of a fair trial.
“This decision establishes that reasoning is wrong.” Says Stuart. “Judge Caputo held that a judge performing a non-judicial act outside the courtroom which “sets in motion” a judicial act causing injury inside the courtroom is not protected simply because the second act occurred inside the courtroom.” California families in Family Court often face similar scenarios, though they or their attorneys may not be aware of it. Family Court judges, like judge Ciavarella, regularly establish policies and practices outside of courtrooms which cause injury inside the courtroom. This ruling makes clear that the judge may still be liable for those “outside the courtroom” illegal acts “setting in motion” judicial acts inside the courtroom. The Pennsylvania court relied on a recent case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which has jurisdiction over California State Court judicial officers, making the case directly relevant to California state court judges.
A judge engaging in “out-of-court” activities that would impact his impartiality, breach duties of disclosure and create conflicts of interest may be subject to liability if those acts lead to injury inside the courtroom. Policies relating to use of unqualified, biased, or unethical custody evaluators, guardians, or other experts fall into this category. Even activity which would otherwise be legal—such as business dealings, professional activities with attorneys, activities on rule or lawmaking bodies, or other indirectly related legal, professional, or business activity—may be problematic in the context of a judge’s duties under the judicial code of ethics, fiduciary duties, oaths of office, or constitutional restrictions on judicial behavior. If such activity leads to in-court injury, the judge may face liability even though the litigant’s harm was inflicted in court.
“This is huge.” says Stuart. “Judges previously thought themselves insulated from all liability so long as the injury occurred inside the courtroom. That’s no longer a safe bet.”
California Coalition’s DDICE RICO lawsuit engages several family court judges on precisely these theories. “The case is a vindication of what we’ve been telling parents, judges, and family law attorneys all along—illegal acts are illegal no matter where they occur or who performs them. Judge Caputo’s decision makes it clear that such acts are not shielded by immunity just because they cause injury inside a courtroom. A judge, social worker, psychologist, attorney—all may be held liable civilly as well as criminally for their illegal acts outside of court leading to injury anywhere” says Stuart.
California Coalition filed its First Amended Complaint on similar theories on January 9, 2014. A Case Management Conference is scheduled for February 26, 2014 in United States District Court for the Southern District of California.