July 08, 2009

Judge Naves's shaky ruling

Robinson:  Churchill ruling nowhere near the final resolution

By Scott RobinsonThe ruling by Chief Denver District Judge Larry Naves that set aside the jury's $1 verdict in ex-professor Ward Churchill's civil rights wrongful-termination lawsuit sets the stage for the inevitable appeal, an appeal that presents complicated and difficult legal issues that could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The unusual post-verdict dismissal of the case is based on Naves' legal determination that in terminating Churchill, the regents of the University of Colorado were serving a judicial function, acting as judges are called upon to act, and, consequently, are entitled to "quasi-judicial immunity" as a matter of law.

What is quasi-judicial immunity, you ask?

It's an emerging doctrine eliminating liability for individuals and entities serving in judicial-like capacities, such as an administrative agency hearing officer or a member of a regulatory agency like the Board of Medical Examiners, which oversees physicians.

The idea is that, as a society, we cannot permit judges to be sued for their actions as judges, or the entire legal system would collapse.
Judge Larry J. Naves Denies Churchill Even a Pyrrhic Victory

By Kevin O'BrienIn effect, Judge Naves has, unless reversed on appeal, sanitized CU of the taint of the jury’s decision that CU terminated him not for research misconduct, but for expressing his first amendment rights in violation of the Constitution. Thus, not only is Churchill not entitled to the $1 jury award and the vindication the award represented, but his attorneys cannot seek reimbursement of their attorney fees conjectured to be over $1,000,000 since Churchill did not prevail in his Section 1983 first amendment claim. Most of this cost would never have been incurred by Churchill and his attorneys (or, for that matter, the jury’s time in sitting through a month long trial) had the issue of quasi-judicial immunity been determined before trial by Judge Naves through a motion for summary judgment that as a matter of law CU would prevail.

What is remarkable about the judge’s decision is that it adopted almost every argument proffered by CU’s legal briefs. Reading today’s trial decision felt like I was re-reading the CU briefs. For example, by not awarding even front pay in lieu of reinstatement, Judge Naves effectively blocked an award of attorney fees to Churchill on the basis that the $1 award represents a Pyrrhic victory invalidating the award of attorney fees under existing case law (in the event his quasi-judicial immunity ruling in favor of CU is overturned and the reinstatement and front-pay issues are no longer moot).
CU billing Churchill for out-of-pocket legal expenses

Churchill attorney:  ‘I don’t know how many schools would hire him’

Comment:  Naves's "reasoning" seems bogus to me. He decided that the university fired Churchill for misconduct even though the jury decided it didn't. That $1 was all Churchill deserved even though the jury was limited to considering past damages, not future damages. That the dubious doctrine of "quasi-judicial immunity" applied to a situation it hadn't applied to before. And more.

If you ask me, we need more situations where we can sue officials for malfeasance, not fewer. Too many people--politicians, corporate executives, government bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, et al.--are protected by law from being sued for their misconduct. If they can't stand the heat, they should stay out of the kitchen.

In addition, Naves is a CU law school alumnus, which means he had a huge incentive to maintain the prestige of his school and his fellow alumni. Most rulings don't have much chance of being overturned on appeal, but this ruling seems shakier than most. As Robinson said, I'll bet this case "is nowhere near final resolution."

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