Court of Special Appeals Endorses Absolute Immunity for Administrative Adjudicators
On June 26, 2019 the Court of Special Appeals published a scholarly 110-page opinion on an issue of first impression in Maryland: whether administrative adjudicators and prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity. Bd. of Physicians v. Geier, 241 Md. App. 429 (2019). In Geier, the court held that members of the Maryland Board of Physicians were entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity for adjudicative and prosecutorial acts and, as a result, the Board itself was entitled to immunity. (The case previously had been in the Court of Special Appeals in 2015 (Geier I) and the Court of Appeals in 2017 (Geier II), but the procedural context of those appeals did not present an opportunity for the courts to resolve the absolute immunity question.) In the simplest of terms, the case arose out of a public cease and desist order issued by the Board in 2012. The plaintiffs, a physician and his family, sued the Board and numerous Board personnel, alleging federal constitutional claims under Section 1983 and state common law claims under the Maryland Tort Claims Act. After a series of perceived discovery failures, the trial court ordered default as to the liability of all defendants and then, following a bench trial on damages, awarded the plaintiffs $1.25 million in compensatory damages, $1.25 million in punitive damages, and $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees. Id. at 449. The trial court, which itself issued a 112-page memorandum opinion, was not persuaded by federal case law recognizing and applying absolute quasi-judicial immunity, and it considered Section 5-715(b) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, which grants the Board and its agents qualified immunity for actions taken without malice, to be at odds with the principle of absolute quasi-judicial immunity. Id. at 467. Ultimately, the trial court found that multiple defendants had acted with malice. Id. Reversing the trial court’s judgment, the Court of Special Appeals surveyed the history of absolute judicial and quasi-judicial immunity, observing that the concept is well-settled for judges and prosecutors and that, in Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978), the Supreme Court “extended absolute immunity to agency officials who perform adjudicative or prosecutorial functions in certain administrative proceedings.” Id. at 486-92. . The court also analyzed numerous federal cases involving medical boards specifically and identified two tests that courts have used to determine whether an administrative official’s performance of a discretionary function should entitle the official to absolute quasi-judicial immunity. Without expressly adopting either test, the court concluded that courts are uniformly in accord that state medical board personnel are entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity for actions involving adjudication or prosecution of licensing and professional discipline matters. Id. at 492-93. The Court reasoned, “boards perform the core adjudicative tasks of making factual findings, reaching legal conclusions, determining sanctions, and issuing orders and decisions.” Id. at 493. In the event of unconstitutional conduct, aggrieved parties can seek judicial review, but they cannot sue the decision maker. Id. at 497. Thus, the court held, the plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims against Board personnel were barred by the doctrine of absolute immunity. Id. at 505.
The court also found Butz persuasive authority on the state common law claims, noting that “Maryland common law shares all doctrinal foundations with Butz.” Id. Therefore, the court held that the Board personnel were entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity on the plaintiff’s state law claims, as well. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Section 5-715(b) of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article “supplants any” absolute immunity the might exist at common law. Id. at 523. In so doing, the court reasoned that “the statute reaches a range of activities that is broader than the functions protected by the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity,” and, thus, is consistent with absolute immunity for certain quasi-judicial acts. Id. at 526-27. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the court’s opinion appears 107 pages in. The court reversed the trial court’s default judgment against the Board itself, reasoning that the absolute quasi-judicial immunity of the Board personnel “inures to the benefit of the Board.” Id. at 541. Thus, the court held, the Board was itself immune from liability on the plaintiff’s state law claims.
While Geier only speaks directly to claims against the Maryland Board of Physicians and its personnel, the opinion provides a framework for other state and local administrative adjudicators and prosecutors to avoid liability for compensatory damages, and it potentially removes an arrow from the quiver of aggrieved administrative litigants hoping to end-run the strictures imposed by ordinary judicial review petitions. Additionally, by holding that the immunity of the Board members inures to the benefit of the Board itself, Geier arguably precludes an aggrieved party from end-running an individual official’s absolute immunity by suing the administrative body on whose behalf the official acts. Immunity attaches to the function, not the defendant; thus, it shouldn’t matter whether a plaintiff sues the agency or the individual adjudicator.
[i] The author is a partner at Nelson Mullins. As with all Maryland Appellate Blog posts, the views expressed here are the author’s, and not those of his firm.