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FIGUEROA v. BLACKBURN

March 10, 1999

ROBERT DAVID FIGUEROA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AUDREY P. BLACKBURN, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wolfson, United States Magistrate Judge.

OPINION

Factual Background

The instant lawsuit stems from Mr. Figueroa's appearance before Judge Blackburn in the Trenton Municipal Court on July 8, 1996, for his arraignment on two harassment charges filed by New Jersey Superior Court judges. During these proceedings, Judge Blackburn ordered Mr. Figueroa's arrest and subsequently sentenced him to thirty days in prison for contempt of court. The following facts are not in dispute.

Mr. Figueroa was arrested on July 3, 1996, after he allegedly harassed two Mercer County Superior Court judges who were assigned to Mr. Figueroa's divorce and custody dispute over his children. Mr. Figueroa was charged with two counts of harassment under N.J.STAT.ANN. § 2C:33-4A. See Certification of Lyle P. Hough, Jr. dated January 19, 1999, (hereinafter "Hough Cert."), Exhibit 5 (Arrest Docket dated July 3, 1996). On July 8, 1996, Mr. Figueroa appeared, pro se, before Judge Blackburn at the Trenton Municipal Court for his arraignment on these charges. At the commencement of the arraignment proceedings, Mr. Figueroa stated that he was present to "challenge [the] jurisdiction" of the Trenton Municipal Court in this matter. After Mr. Figueroa apparently refused to both come forward and turn off a tape recorder in his possession, Judge Blackburn ordered his arrest.*fn1

Following Mr. Figueroa's arrest and removal from the courtroom, Judge Blackburn entered a "Contempt of Court" Order against Mr. Figueroa sentencing him to thirty days in the Mercer County Correction Center.*fn2 See Hough Cert., Exhibit 10 (Contempt of Court Order dated July 8, 1996). Notably, Mr. Figueroa was prevented from an immediate appeal of his prison sentence because Judge Blackburn inexplicably failed to provide him with the automatic five-day stay of sentence as provided by N.J.CT.R. 1:10-1. Moreover, Judge Blackburn did not set bail. On July 16, 1996, Mr. Figueroa, with the assistance of counsel, filed an appeal from Judge Blackburn's contempt order in the New Jersey Superior Court.

Additionally, on July 16, 1996, Mr. Figueroa's counsel, Elizabeth Macron. Esq., delivered a letter to Judge R. Kevin McGrory, the presiding judge in the Trenton Municipal Court, requesting the release of Mr. Figueroa on his own recognizance or on a reasonable bail. The letter was copied to Judge Blackburn. See Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment dated January 7, 1999, (hereinafter "Plaintiff's Opposition Brief"), Exhibit C. These requests were subsequently denied. See Plaintiff's Opposition Brief at p. 2. On July 19, 1996, Mr. Figueroa appeared before Judge Blackburn to enter his plea on the two harassment charges. During these proceedings, Ms. Macron once again requested the aforementioned relief, but Judge Blackburn instructed that such relief could only be obtained from the New Jersey Superior Court. See Hough Cert., Exhibit 20 (State v. Robert David Figueroa, Docket No. 96-8767, 96-8768, Transcript of Hearing dated July 19, 1996), at p. 4-5.

On July 22, 1996, Mr. Figueroa's motion for the stay of his thirty-day contempt sentence, which was pending a de novo appeal, was granted by Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson, J.S.C. . See id. at Exhibit 25 (Order of the Court dated July 22, 1996). On July 24, 1996, after Mr. Figueroa had been incarcerated for fourteen days, and two days after Judge Sapp- Peterson released him, Judge Blackburn filed a certification, as required by N.J.CT.R. 1:10-1, listing her reasons for holding Mr. Figueroa in contempt of court. See id. at Exhibit 30 (Certification of Audrey P. Blackburn dated July 23, 1996). Next, on August 14, 1996, Judge Samuel Sachs, J.M.C., presiding over Mr. Figueroa's arraignment proceedings in Judge Blackburn's absence, acknowledged the existence of a state court directive promulgated by the late-Chief Justice Wilentz which provided for the referral of any case involving a judge to the assignment judge of the county in which the case was docketed.*fn3 Based on this directive, Judge Sachs referred the two harassment charges to the Mercer County Superior Court.*fn4 See id. at Exhibit 33 (State v. Robert David Figueroa, Docket No. 96- 8767, 96-8768, Transcript of Hearing dated August 14, 1996).

On December 23, 1996, Judge Robert Figarotta, J.S.C., granted the State's motion to dismiss the two harassment charges brought against Mr. Figueroa. See Plaintiff's Opposition Brief Exhibit H (Order dated December 23, 1996). Further, on February 21, 1997, Judge Alan J. Pogarsky, J.S.C., after considering Mr. Figueroa's appeal of the contempt conviction, and the State's consent to a reversal of that conviction, entered an Order reversing Judge Blackburn's order. See Hough Cert., Exhibit 35 (State v. Robert David Figuero, Municipal Appeal No. 39-96, Order Reversing Conviction, dated February 21, 1996).

On July 29, 1998, Mr. Figueroa filed this civil rights complaint in the New Jersey District Court naming Judge Blackburn as the sole defendant. In this action, plaintiff asserts that Judge Blackburn's acts deprived him of his rights under the First, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article 1, paragraphs 6, 7, 10, and 12 of the Constitution of the State of New Jersey. Mr. Figueroa further alleges that as a result of his arrest and incarceration, he suffered "physical injury, scarring, exposure to unsafe, unsanitary conditions and exposure to contagious disease." Plaintiff's Complaint and Jury Demand filed June 29, 1998, pp. 1, 3.

The instant motion was filed by Judge Blackburn on January 19, 1999. In her moving brief; Judge Blackburn argues that she should be granted summary judgment on the grounds of absolute judicial immunity. Defendant claims that the doctrine applies in this case because the arrest of Mr. Figueroa and the subsequent entry of the contempt order were judicial acts made without a clear absence of all jurisdiction. Arguing that the municipal court possessed jurisdiction to arraign Mr. Figueroa on the two harassment charges, Judge Blackburn concludes that she is entitled to immunity for any procedural error she may hare committed in connection with citing Mr. Figueroa with contempt.

Plaintiff opposes the entry of summary judgment on four grounds. First, Mr. Figueroa contends that Judge Blackburn's "warrantless arrest order, issued sua, sponte from the bench" did not constitute a judicial act. Plaintiff's Opposition Brief, at p. 3. Specifically, the plaintiff maintains that the Judge Blackburn's acts during the July 8, 1996, proceedings amounted to nothing more than a false arrest and false imprisonment, as defined by N.J.STAT.ANN. § 2C: 13-3. Second, Mr. Figueroa argues that Judge Blackburn operated in the complete absence of jurisdiction as to both the harassment and contempt matters. Third, plaintiff opposes defendant's assertion of absolute judicial immunity on the ground that municipal court judges only possess limited jurisdiction and thus should only be afforded qualified immunity for their judicial acts. Fourth, Mr. Figueroa's opposition brief extensively quotes from Judge Learned Hand's opinion Gregoire v. Biddle, 177 F.2d 579 (2d Cir. 1949), to make the public policy argument that denying Judge Blackburn immunity in this case would not frustrate the underlying purposes of the judicial immunity doctrine. See infra, note 5 (further discussing plaintiff's public policy argument).

In her reply brief, Judge Blackburn addresses each of the four arguments made by plaintiff in his opposition brief. As to whether the contempt order was a judicial act, the defendant points out that during the July 8, 1996, proceedings, Mr. Figueroa dealt with her in her judicial capacity. Defendant further argues that a ruling which turns out to be legally incorrect can nonetheless qualify as a judicial act. In addressing plaintiff's argument that she lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the harassment charges, Judge Blackburn maintains that N.J.STAT.ANN. § 2B:12-17 and -19 provide the municipal courts of New Jersey with jurisdiction over the arraignment of disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses. Further, defendant alleges that a procedurally flawed contempt citation does not equate to a complete lack of jurisdiction over the contempt ruling. Next, as to Mr. Figueroa's contention that New Jersey municipal courts only possess limited jurisdiction and as such are not afforded absolute judicial immunity, Judge Blackburn cites case law which directly contradicts plaintiff's argument. Finally, Judge Blackburn discounts Mr. Figueroa's public policy argument by asserting that the underlying rationale of the judicial immunity doctrine was not frustrated in this case because plaintiff was afforded the right to appeal the contempt citation.*fn5

Discussion

I. Summary Judgment

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 empowers a court to enter summary judgment if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has satisfied this initial burden, the opposing party must establish that a genuine issue exists. See Jersey Central Power & Light Co. v. Lacey Township, 772 F.2d 1103, 1109 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 475 U.S. 1013, 106 S.Ct. 1190, 89 L.Ed.2d 305 (1986). Not every issue of fact will be sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; issues of fact are genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Further, the opposing party cannot rest upon mere allegations; it must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue of material fact. See id. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (citing First Nat'l Bank of Arizona v. Cities Service Co., 391 U.S. 253, 290, 88 S.Ct. 1575, 20 L.Ed.2d 569 (1968)). The court must draw all reasonable inferences in the opposing party's favor, and must accept the party's evidence when considering the merits of the summary judgment motion. See Pollock v. American Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986).

The facts of the present case are not in dispute. Counsel for Judge Blackburn has provided this Court with a certification dated January 19, 1999, to which a number of police and court documents are annexed. Mr. Figueroa does not attack the authenticity of these documents, and, in fact, he attached many of the same documents to his opposition brief. Instead, Mr. Figueroa argues that based upon the undisputed facts the judicial immunity doctrine should not extend to Judge Blackburn's acts of ordering his arrest and holding him in contempt of court. Thus, it is incumbent upon Judge Blackburn to carry the burden of demonstrating that the requirements of the judicial immunity doctrine have been satisfactorily met under the facts of this case. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

II. Judicial Immunity

It is a well-established principle of Angelo-American jurisprudence that judges are generally afforded absolute immunity from civil suits for money damages. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 112 S.Ct. 286, 116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991); Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978); Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967); Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335, 80 U.S. 335, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1871). Simply stated, the doctrine of judicial immunity is justified by strong public policy which recognizes that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary might be compromised if judges are exposed to the threats of civil liability for actions taken in their judicial capacity. See Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, 508 U.S. 429, 435, 113 S.Ct. 2167, 124 L.Ed.2d 391 (1993). "For it is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself." Bradley, 80 U.S. at 347. If this legal principle were otherwise and judges were ...


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