On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County.
Michels, Brody and Gruccio. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
[248 NJSuper Page 582] We granted defendant Paul M. Kling (Kling) leave to appeal from an order of the Law Division that denied his motion
for summary judgment with respect to the Fifth and Sixth Counts of a complaint in this contract-tort action. In the Fifth Count of the complaint, plaintiff Carmen A. Petruzzi (Petruzzi) claimed that Kling's false and fraudulent testimony and documents resulted in his conviction for defrauding the United States government in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia and that such tortious conduct entitled him to recover compensatory and punitive damages. In the Sixth Count of the complaint, Petruzzi's wife, plaintiff Rita Petruzzi, sued per quod. Here, the pivotal issue is whether Kling's testimony and documents utilized by the United States government in preparation of and for criminal proceedings were entitled to absolute immunity. The trial court held that they were not. We disagree and reverse. We hold that Kling's testimony and documents utilized in preparation of and for the criminal proceedings were entitled to absolute immunity, and therefore, Kling is entitled to summary judgment with respect to the claims asserted in the Fifth and Sixth Counts of the complaint in this action.
It is well-settled that a witness in a judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding enjoys an absolute immunity from civil suit for his words and actions relevant to the judicial proceedings. See Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 331, 103 S. Ct. 1108, 1113, 75 L. Ed. 2d 96, 105, cert. denied sub nom., Talley v. Crosson, 460 U.S. 1037, 103 S. Ct. 1426, 75 L. Ed. 2d 787 (1983); Dairy Stores, Inc. v. Sentinel Pub. Co., Inc., 104 N.J. 125, 136, 516 A.2d 220 (1986); Rainier's Dairies v. Raritan Valley Farms, Inc., 19 N.J. 552, 558, 117 A.2d 889 (1955); DeVivo v. Ascher, 228 N.J. Super. 453, 457, 550 A.2d 163 (App.Div.1988), certif. denied, 114 N.J. 482, 555 A.2d 607 (1989); Middlesex Concrete Prods. & Excavating Corp. v. Carteret Indus. Ass'n, 68 N.J. Super. 85, 91, 172 A.2d 22 (App.Div.1961); Fenning v. S.G. Holding Corp., 47 N.J. Super. 110, 117, 135 A.2d 346 (App.Div.1957). This absolute immunity is afforded even if "the words are written or spoken maliciously, without any justification or excuse, and from personal ill will or anger against the party
defamed." DeVivo v. Ascher, 228 N.J. Super. at 457, 550 A.2d 163 (citations omitted). "[A]bsolute immunity 'is not limited to what a person may say under oath while on the witness stand. It extends to statements or communications in connection with a judicial proceeding.'" Id. (quoting Middlesex Concrete Prods. & Excavating Corp. v. Carteret Indus. Ass'n, 68 N.J. Super. at 92, 172 A.2d 22). Absolute immunity extends not only to testimony and documents admitted in evidence but also to documents utilized in the preparation of judicial proceedings. Id., 228 N.J. Super. at 457-60, 550 A.2d 163; Middlesex Concrete Prods. & Excavating Corp. v. Carteret Indus. Ass'n, 68 N.J. Super. at 91-92, 172 A.2d 22.
"The privilege grows out of the strong public policy 'that persons in such circumstances be permitted to speak and write freely without the restraint of fear . . . this sense of freedom being indispensable to the due administration of justice.'" Id. at 91, 172 A.2d 22 (quoting Fenning v. S.G. Holding Corp., 47 N.J. Super. at 117, 135 A.2d 346). Because the witness plays such an integral role in the fact-finding process, a reluctant or reticent witness would disservice the ends of justice. A witness who knows that he may be forced to defend a subsequent lawsuit "might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff, to magnify uncertainties, and thus to deprive the finder of fact of candid, objective, and undistorted evidence." Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. at 333, 103 S. Ct. at 1114, 75 L. Ed. 2d at 106. The common law recognized that:
controversies sufficiently intense to erupt in litigation are not easily capped by a judicial decree. The loser in one forum will frequently seek another, charging the participants in the first with unconstitutional animus. Absolute immunity is thus necessary to assure that judges, advocates, and witnesses can perform their respective functions without harassment or intimidation. [ Id. (emphasis added)].
The truth-seeking function of the court demands evidence. The discovery, organization and understanding of evidence is a vital part of the judicial process. The search for evidence necessitated Kling's testimony before the federal grand jury and during Petruzzi's criminal trial and required Kling's production
of documents to the United States government in connection with the preparation of those proceedings. The possibility that a witness may be forced to defend a lawsuit for damages can only discourage his involvement in a judicial proceeding. The court's need for evidence demands that all participants in the process of gathering evidence for use at trial be immune from any liability for damages for their part in that process.
The absolute immunity granted to witnesses is not designed to benefit the dishonest witness but to further the broad public interest in having witnesses who are unafraid to testify fully and openly. As Judge ...