JOHN R. BROWN, Circuit Judge:
This case concerns the doctrines of judicial and prosecutorial immunity. The District Court, 561 F.Supp. 1325 (E.D.La.1983), dismissed the plaintiffs' claims against a state judge and an assistant district attorney for damages resulting from their acts. We find that the absolute constitutional tort immunity accorded to some government officials requires the trial judge to demand heightened standards of pleading by plaintiffs in cases in which that doctrine is going to come into play. In cases against governmental officials involving the likely defense of immunity we require of trial judges that they demand that the plaintiff's complaint state with factual detail and particularity the basis for the claim which necessarily includes why the defendant-official cannot successfully maintain the defense of immunity. We therefore vacate the judgment (as to Klein and Judge Leon) and remand to the district court.
Shenanigans in Plaquemines
This appeal results from a series of events over several days in early 1981 centering on the activities of a special grand jury sitting in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.
On the evening of February 15, 1981 — four days before the term of the grand jury was to expire — Elliott, the grand jury foreman, received an envelope at his home containing a letter and several copies from Defley, the witness. In the letter Defley expressed the view that district attorney Perez' deceased father had illegally "bilked" the Parish out of a substantial number of valuable mineral leases beginning in the 1930s by diverting them to his company, Delta Development Company, Inc. He suggested that Perez and his brother and sisters, who were then the major shareholders of Delta Development, were as culpable as their deceased father, and that the grand jury should indict them for various crimes. Perez, the letter stated, might also be indicted for refusing to investigate and prosecute the theft of public funds. Defley urged Elliott to share the "ideas" in the letter with the other members of the grand jury and, in closing, asked that the letter be kept out of "general circulation."
Elliott distributed copies of the letter to the members of the grand jury the next morning. Perez, assistant district attorney Klein, and then district judge Leon apparently did not know about the letter at this point. On February 17, two days before its term was to lapse, the grand jury indicted Perez for the theft of $43 million in Parish funds and his company, Delta Development, for the theft of $72 million in Parish funds.
Elliott sought out a member of the district attorney's office to sign the indictment, as he and the other members of the grand jury thought that some sort of official authorization was necessary to validate the instrument. The ad hoc district attorney
Elliott then contacted Judge Leon for his advice. He asked Judge Leon, the judicial officer responsible for the special grand jury, to direct an officer of the court to sign the indictment. Judge Leon assured Elliott that he would arrange a conference with the State Attorney General on the matter the next day. He told Elliott that the grand jury should adjourn for the day.
Still on February 17, Klein informed Perez of the pending indictments against him and Delta Development. At noon that day,
Perez and Klein met again later that day. Perez at some point learned of Defley's letter and that it had been distributed to the grand jury members. He sought the advice of the Jefferson Parish district attorney and of a private lawyer. Both told him to move to discharge the grand jury since it had been tainted by outside influence.
On the morning of February 18, one day before the official end of the term of the special grand jury, Perez presented to Judge Leon a motion to discharge the grand jury, along with Defley's letter. The motion stated that the grand jury had "completed the function for which it was impaneled and had completed its report on all offenses presented to it by the District Attorney." Judge Leon by formal decree ordered that the grand jury be discharged as of that morning. He then telephoned Elliott and told him and the other grand jury members to report to his courtroom. When they arrived, Judge Leon advised them that the grand jury had been discharged. He did not inquire of them whether they had any further matters on which to report. Judge Leon also told Elliott that Perez had filed bills of information charging Elliott and Defley with conspiring to extort Perez, as evidenced by Defley's letter to Elliott.
Later that day, Perez filed the bills. Defley and Elliott were charged, arrested, confined, and forced to post bond for their release.
At Judge Leon's urging Klein filed another bill of information against Defley one week later (February 25), charging him with jury tampering, again relating to his February 15 letter to Elliott.
On February 27, the State Attorney General moved to supersede Perez' office in any criminal matters arising out of the activities of the special grand jury. The motion was granted almost a year later on February 24, 1982, pursuant to a writ issued by the Louisiana Supreme Court on May 18, 1981. All charges against Elliott and Defley were thereafter dropped.
A Quick Abort in Federal Court
Elliott and Defley brought separate suits seeking compensatory and punitive damages stemming from the asserted deprivation of their civil rights by the defendants.
The most critical thing — which put the trial judge in the middle of a constitutional guessing game — was the loose charge that Perez, Klein, and Judge Leon conspired through the criminal prosecution and discharge of the grand jury to injure the plaintiff because the grand jury had indicted Perez.
This claim — on which every serious constitutional question turns — was pleaded in the following blunderbuss fashion in each of the complaints:
Prior to any discovery or responsive pleadings, Perez and Klein moved to dismiss the claims against them based on their absolute immunity as prosecutors to suits for money damages. Judge Leon filed a similar motion based on his absolute immunity as a judge. The District Court denied Perez' motion but granted Klein's motion, treating both as motions for summary judgment. The Court also granted Judge Leon's motion to dismiss. It entered final judgments as to Klein and Judge Leon under F.R.Civ.P. 54(b), to which the plaintiffs timely noticed their appeal.
An Absolute Need for Trial Courts to Demand Clear Pleading
The blunderbuss phrasing of the arguable claims in the plaintiffs' complaints, (just quoted) presents this Court initially with an issue which goes to the heart of the "immunity" from damage suits long accorded certain government officials. In view of the purposes of the immunity defense, as declared by the Supreme Court and this Court, we conclude that allowing broadly-worded complaints, such as those of the plaintiffs here, which leaves to traditional pretrial depositions, interrogatories, and requests for admission the development of the real facts underlying the claim, effectively eviscerates important functions and protections of official immunity.
The Immunity Doctrine
Modern immunity doctrine is the product of explicit judicial balancing of the usually adverse interests which are implicated in suits brought by private persons injured by the acts of public officials.
This balance was thoughtfully articulated in an oft-quoted passage from Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579 (2d Cir.1949), cert. denied, 339 U.S. 949, 70 S.Ct. 803, 94 L.Ed. 1363 (1950):
Id. at 581.
As courts have weighed the conflicting values inherent to the immunity concept, they have acknowledged that the scales do not always tip evenly. For those officials whose especially sensitive governmental functions or constitutional status require complete protection from suit, the Supreme Court has recognized the defense of "absolute" immunity.
While immunity theory has traditionally focused on freedom from liability for damages, the Supreme Court has also emphasized the substantial costs which result from merely subjecting public officials to the defense of damage claims. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982), the Court discussed the problems which had arisen in the application of the former two-prong, subjective/objective test for qualified immunity first enunciated by it in Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 95 S.Ct. 992, 43 L.Ed.2d 214 (1975).
Id. at 816-17, 102 S.Ct. at 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d at 409-10 (footnotes omitted).
In order to free public officials from the burden of proving their good faith in taking official actions, the Court eliminated the subjective element of the qualified immunity test. The Harlow court expressed its belief that the new Harlow qualified immunity standard would permit "the resolution of many insubstantial claims on summary judgment." Id., 457 U.S., at 818, 102 S.Ct. at 2739. Consonant with its desire to shield public officials from the diversion of their energies through the forced defense of challenges to actions taken in their governmental capacities, the Court held that until resolution of the threshold question of the application of an immunity defense, "discovery should not be allowed." Id.
This Circuit has likewise accepted the premise that the protected official should be sheltered from trial and pretrial preparation as well as liability. Williams v. Collins, 728 F.2d 721, 726 (5th Cir.1984).
As this court through the words of Judge Rubin recently explained in a case involving judicial immunity:
Thomas v. Sams, 734 F.2d 185, 189 (5th Cir.1984) (footnotes omitted).
Where, as here, plaintiffs' complaint alleges in broad, indefinite and conclusory terms that two government officials, each having the status entitling each to claim immunity has, in his official capacity, violated plaintiffs' rights, the groundwork is laid for disruption of the official's duties, and frustration of the protections and policies underlying the immunity doctrine.
What is a federal trial judge to do? One thing he may not do: face it as just another lawsuit in which the notice pleading's liberal policy of F.R.Civ.P. 8
The public goals sought by official immunity are not procedural. Indeed, they go to very fundamental substantive objectives. To the extent that F.R.Civ.P. 8 and the practices under it present any conflict, the trial court must find a way to adapt its procedures to assure full effectuation of this substantive right, since the Enabling Act
In addition, use of liberal discovery to establish the basis of a claim is directly at odds with the Court's direction in Harlow that government officials entitled to immunity be freed from the burdens, the stress, the anxieties and the diversions of pretrial preparations.
Actually, we, and other courts,
Probably of greatest importance is that the burden of being able to ascertain what the real facts are in order to determine the defense of immunity is placed squarely on the district judge. The trial judge may not wait on motions or other actions by the parties or counsel. Fortunately, trial judges have the tools to carry out this mission.
Foremost is the recent amendments to F.R.Civ.P. 11.
Amended Rule 11, a significant part of the new approach of all of the 1983 amendments, and especially Rule 16 are intended to place on the shoulders of a federal trial judge the role of an active manager and director of the whole litigation process. This starts at the very beginning since the "detection and punishment of a violation of the signing requirement is part of the court's responsibility for securing the system's effective operation." F.R.Civ.P. 11, advisory committee note.
Amended Rule 16
Finally, both amended Rules 11 and 16 carry explicit provisions for sanctions. If the attorney cannot meet these requirements, the trial courts should heed the words of the Advisory Committee regarding Rule 11: "The new language is intended to reduce the reluctance of courts to impose sanctions ... by emphasizing the responsibilities of the attorney and reinforcing these obligations by the imposition of sanctions." F.R.Civ.P. 11, advisory committee notes.
It bears the strongest emphasis that under amended Rule 11 an attorney's signature on a document certifies that, "to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry it is well grounded in fact and is warranted by existing law or a good faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, ..." F.R.Civ.P. 11, advisory committee note. (emphasis supplied). This means that in a case ostensibly raising the probable question of immunity, counsel for the plaintiff is affirming that, after making reasonable inquiry, he believes in good faith that the defendant official cannot successfully show he has the defense of immunity. This means also that having that good faith belief, he is able to state
The trial judge has several means to determine the specific facts on which plaintiff relies, from which the judge can draw the legal conclusion on the availability of the immunity defense. First, the judge can, and must, demand full compliance with Rule 11.
In order to ensure sufficient specificity, district courts have a ready tool in the F.R.Civ.P. 12(e) motion for more definite statement. Once a complaint against a defendant state legislator, judge, or prosecutor (or similar officer) adequately raises the likely issue of immunity — qualified or absolute — the district court should on its own require of the plaintiff a detailed complaint alleging with particularity all material facts on which he contends he will establish his right to recovery, which will include detailed facts supporting the contention that the plea of immunity cannot be sustained. Such a requirement is not without precedent in this court. In Watson v. Ault, 525 F.2d 886 (5th Cir.1976), we approved the district court's use of a questionnaire in order to develop the factual bases of pro se prisoner complaints in § 1983 actions. We said there:
Id. at 892.
Because the conspiracy among Perez, the District Attorney, Klein, his assistant, and Judge Leon is at the center of every real claim made against them by the plaintiffs, we reach the conclusion that this Court should not, on the loose allegations of the complaint, undertake the "iffy" task of determining whether each (or both) appellants are entitled to immunity. Any such attempt would be not only arduous, but the result would be suspect. We would be running the risk of declarations of law on something which might never be. Vitally important to the public good as is the doctrine of official immunity, we ought not to imperil its application or undermine its strength by opinions expressed on situations or circumstances which may never have occurred. And yet, that is likely to happen when neither us, nor the trial court, has any but the vaguest of notions about what the real probable facts are.
For the reasons pointed out we think good administration calls for vacating
VACATED and REMANDED.
PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, concurring specially:
In his own inimitable way, Judge Brown has threaded his way to a sound result. It is a threading task because we must accommodate an exquisite confrontation: on the one hand, defendants enjoy an immunity from suit which reaches beyond trial and protects them from the debilitating processes of discovery; on the other hand, the notice pleading concepts rest on acceptance
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) provides that "[i]n all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity." Congress, of course, sanctioned Rule 9(b) in the Enabling Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2072, but I do not know where we find the authority to add the requirement that claims against officials who enjoy immunity from suit shall be pled with particularity. Nor do I see that it is necessary to the result to do so. Rather, I would conclude that no claim is stated against officials who hold positions which enjoy absolute immunity absent a statement of sufficient facts which, if true, would demonstrate the absence of immunity. If the filing of a complaint grants immediate access to our elaborate discovery machine and our substantive law teaches that such access is not available in immunity cases, it follows for me that absent the detailing of facts sufficient to negative immunity, no federal claim is stated. In other words, our task is, in the first instance, one of deciding what the claim is; what is short and plain has no universal meaning independent of the nature of a claim. It does no violence to notice pleading to suggest that the adequacy of a pleading is case specific.
This is not dissimilar from the effort to accommodate notice pleading in antitrust cases where a plaintiff seeks relief for conduct which is prima facie protected by the First Amendment under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. See generally P. Areeda, Antitrust Law ¶ 203.4b (1982 Supp.). In this circumstance, courts have said that "the danger that the mere pendency of the action will chill the exercise of First Amendment rights requires more specific allegations than would otherwise be required." Franchise Realty Interstate Corp. v. San Francisco Local Joint Executive Board of Culinary Workers, 542 F.2d 1076, 1083 (9th Cir.1976). While this effort in the antitrust cases to heighten pleading requirements while remaining faithful to Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 has been the subject of continuing debate, compare, e.g., Hydro-Tech Corp. v. Sundstrand Corp., 673 F.2d 1171, 1177 n. 8 (10th Cir.1982), with Sage International, Ltd. v. Cadillac Gauge, 507 F.Supp. 939 (E.D.Mich.1981), it supports our attempt to preserve the essence of the immunity defense by requiring specific allegations here.
That such an approach is not a judicial amendment to Rule 9(b) but is rather a definition of the claim is more convincing in the immunity context. If immunity protects a defendant from the discovery process, as it does,
This is far more than a semantical shell game. We must solve judicial problems, and we must not solve legislative problems. My effort has been to demonstrate that it is a judicial problem — defining the content of immunity — that we face here. By this path, I reach the same conclusion as the majority and therefore join its result.
For similar holdings in other circuits, see, e.g., Hurney v. Carver, 602 F.2d 993 (1st Cir.1979); Albany Welfare Rights Org. Day Care Center, Inc. v. Schreck, 463 F.2d 620 (2d Cir.1972), cert. denied, 410 U.S. 944, 93 S.Ct. 1393, 35 L.Ed.2d 611 (1973); Rotolo v. Borough of Charleroi, 532 F.2d 920 (3d Cir.1976); Place v. Shepherd, 446 F.2d 1239 (6th Cir.1971); Cohen v. Ill. Institute of Technology, 581 F.2d 658 (7th Cir.1978), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 1135, 99 S.Ct. 1058, 59 L.Ed.2d 97 (1979); Harley v. Oliver, 539 F.2d 1143 (8th Cir.1976); Uston v. Airport Casino, Inc. 564 F.2d 1216 (9th Cir.1977); Taylor v. Nichols, 558 F.2d 561 (10th Cir.1977).
Quoted with approval. Green v. McGougan, 744 F.2d 1189, at 1191 (5th Cir.1984).
Amendment effective August 1, 1983.