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Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections Not Immune From Section 1983 Suit Seeking Injunctive Relief

by John E. Dannenberg

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the Commissioner of Corrections does not enjoy absolute immunity from injunctive relief when acting in her “quasi-judicial” capacity to review a lifer’s suitability for parole. It further ruled that the
Commissioner is not a “judicial officer” for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Life prisoner Lillian Simmons sued Commissioner Joan Fabian under § 1983 for injunctive relief, to wit, a new parole consideration review wherein the decision would not be arbitrary in violation of Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Although Simmons had become eligible for parole after serving 17 years, Fabian declined to establish a parole release date because “there will still be [a] number of years beyond the[] minimum to serve before release is considered.”

In the district court below, Fabian had successfully moved to dismiss on grounds that as a quasi-judicial officer, she enjoyed absolute immunity from suit. On appeal, the court examined both Fabian’s “judicial officer” status as well as her immunity claim, and reversed on both questions of law.

The court first relied upon Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522 (1984) [judicial immunity from damages does not extend to equitable relief]. It also noted the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 [FCIA] (codified within 42 U.S.C. § 1983) as restricting injunctive relief against “a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity.” However, § 1983 does not define “judicial officer.” Reviewing the plain language of § 1983, its legislative history and its purpose, the court found that § 1983 does not protect the Commissioner of Corrections, when making parole decisions, from lawsuits seeking injunctive relief.

From Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158 (1992), the court observed that § 1983 created an action to “deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief if such deterrence fails.”
However, it has been held that absolute immunity does accrue to such judicial officers against suit for damages, since the threat of this would necessarily chill their objectivity in performing their tasks. The sole question here was as to gaining injunctive relief against a quasi-judicial officer (Fabian was plainly not a judge).

As to absolute quasi-judicial immunity, the court noted that any suit that gained injunctive relief at most would “coerce” the officer to act, but would not prescribe any particular outcome. Since there were no “perverse incentives” that would inhere from a mere command to act, absolute immunity would not attach.

Prior to the FCIA, it was settled that federal common law did not immunize quasi-judicial officers against injunctive relief. Following Pulliam, Congress enacted the FCIA expressly protecting “judicial officers.” Although Congress expressly designed it to reach “every” state official, there was no reference to quasi-judicial officers in the legislative history. Rather, “judicial officer” was used interchangeably only with the terms “judge,” “justice,” or “magistrate,” i.e., someone who “presides over litigation.” The Minnesota appellate court was unwilling to infer from this legislative silence that “quasi- judicial” officers were to be engrafted into the category of “judicial officer.”

Because the district court had erred in dismissing Simmons' complaint on absolute immunity grounds, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. See: Simmons v. Fabian, Minnesota Court of Appeals, 743 N.W.2d 281 (2007).

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Related legal case

Simmons v. Fabian