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A Privilege: The Boundaries of Immunity for Bankruptcy Judges and Trustees

By: Nataniel Arabov

St. John’s Law Student

American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff

 

A bankruptcy judge and a trustee are generally entitled to immunity for actions performed in their official capacity. In Babaev v. Farinella, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York emphasized these principles.[1] There, Plaintiffs filed a complaint against the Honorable Carla Craig, Chief Judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York, and Trustee John Pereira (“Defendants”) alleging that the Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by permitting the liquidation of Plaintiffs’ assets in an earlier 2003 bankruptcy case.[2] The Plaintiffs’ allegations consisted of declaratory statements reflecting their displeasure with the outcome of the case. Plaintiffs did not allege any facts that supported the assertion that the judge or trustee acted outside of their roles as judicial officers.[3] Accordingly, the Eastern District Court dismissed Plaintiffs’ complaint, finding that Chief Judge Craig and Trustee Pereira were protected by the judicial immunity doctrine.[4]

It is well established that judges are granted absolutely immunity from all claims related to their performance of judicial tasks.[5] In Mireles v. Waco, the Supreme Court defined the scope of such immunity and reaffirmed the view that judges cannot be sued for monetary damages for actions taken in their judicial capacity.[6] Specifically, the Court noted that “judicial immunity is not overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice.”[7] Judges may lose their immunity only (1) when they are sued for a “non-judicial action,” like a personnel decision, or (2) when they are sued for an action that was judicial in nature, but was “taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.”[8] Furthermore, the Court emphasized that even if the action was non-judicial and the judge acted outside of his authority in allowing excessive force, it was nevertheless in the “aid of the judge’s jurisdiction over a matter before him.”[9] This immunity also extends to bankruptcy trustees who act under the “supervision” and “authority” of the bankruptcy judge.[10]

There is an important policy purpose behind the doctrine, namely to prevent an avalanche of litigation and to protect judges’ independence by shielding them from litigants that they might anger or disappoint while carrying out their duties. Accordingly, litigants cannot generally sue judges or trustees for monetary damages resulting from unfavorable rulings or results. While it is true that the immunity protects judges and trustees from monetary suits, the doctrine does not provide absolute immunity from criminal liability or actions taken outside of a judge or trustee’s official capacity. Overall, the doctrine of judicial immunity allows judges and trustees protection when they are acting in conformity with their “judicial duties.”

 


[1] Babaev v. Farinella, No. 17-CV-873 (CBA) (LB), 2017 WL 2256643, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. May 22, 2017) (demonstrating that the doctrine of judicial immunity is not overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice); see Peia v. United States Bankr. Court, 62 Fed.Appx 394, 396 (2d Cir. 2003) (emphasizing that the doctrine of judicial immunity bars claims against bankruptcy judges and trustees); see also Gonzales v. Musso, No. 08-CV-3026 (NGG), 2008 WL 3194179, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 6, 2008) (holding that a trustee will enjoy absolute immunity so long as he does not act in the clear absence of all jurisdiction, or at least acts under the supervision of the bankruptcy judge).

[2] Babaev, at *1; see In re Babaev, No. 1-03-16559 (CEC) (Bankr. E.D.N.Y.) (dismissing and closing the bankruptcy case). Plaintiffs were unhappy with the outcome of the bankruptcy proceeding, so they instituted this action to recover monetary damages from Judge Craig and Trustee Pereira.

[3] Babaev, at *2.

[4] Id.

[5] See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9, 112 S. Ct. 286, 287, 116 L. Ed. 2d 9 (1991) (per curiam) (emphasizing that “[a] long line of this Court's precedents acknowledges that, generally, a judge is immune from a suit for money damages”); see also, Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 108 S. Ct. 538, 98 L. Ed. 2d 555 (1988) (finding that a judicial act does not become less judicial by virtue of an allegation of malice or corruption of motive); Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 106 S. Ct. 496, 88 L. Ed. 2d 507 (1985); Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 101 S. Ct. 183, 66 L. Ed. 2d 185 (1980); Supreme Court of Va. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 446 U.S. 719, 100 S. Ct. 1967, 64 L. Ed. 2d 641 (1980); Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 98 S. Ct. 2894, 57 L. Ed. 2d 895 (1978); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S. Ct. 1099, 55 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1978) (granting complete immunity after concluding that the sterilization petition was within his court's jurisdiction and that signing it was a judicial act); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S. Ct. 1213, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288 (1967).

[6] Mireles, at 13.

[7] Id. at 11.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 13.

[10] Babaev, at *3.