STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Mahoney & Hagberg,
a Professional Association,
n/k/a Mahoney & Emerson,
a Professional Association,
and Mahoney & Emerson, Ltd.,
Affirmed in part and reversed
Hennepin County District Court
File Nos. CT 04-16164/CT 03-16797
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Hudson, Judge.
1. Where a witness makes statements in an affidavit relevant to the issues in a judicial proceeding, the witness is not subject to tort liability for breach of confidences, invasion of privacy, or civil conspiracy, and is absolutely immune from suit for such claims under the doctrine of judicial immunity.
2. A witness who makes statements in an affidavit is subject to liability for a claim for money owed that bears no relation to statements that are protected under the doctrine of judicial immunity.
O P I N I O N
Appellant was assigned to work as a
legal assistant in respondent’s law firm by her employer PAL from June 1999 to
February 2003. During her employment,
appellant worked primarily for
PAL was preceded in interest by
Professional Administration Corporation (PAC).
After PAC was inadvertently dissolved in 2000 for failure to register as
a corporation, the same parties formed PAL, although they dispute the ownership
interests in PAL. PAC was initially
PAL had a contract with respondent, drafted by Mahoney, to provide office support services to the firm in exchange for 25 percent of respondent’s revenues. Respondent argues that the contract, if enforceable, was for a duration of one year only, but some PAC shareholders argue that they operated under the contract for almost ten years.
Boldt initiated an action against other PAL shareholders and respondent, claiming that they owed her a share of a $9 million jury verdict that respondent won and that other shareholders had improperly forced her out of the business. Boldt’s attorney, Sean Shiff, contacted appellant regarding this action and, according to appellant, told her that if she did not provide an affidavit she would be subpoenaed and deposed on the same information.
Appellant then executed an affidavit that set forth her duties while she was employed by PAL, including her work at respondent’s firm. The affidavit outlined her understanding of the ownership interests in PAL, the fee-splitting agreement between respondent and PAL, and her failure to be paid by PAL. It also set forth details of claimed improper and possibly illegal conduct by Mahoney with regard to two clients’ businesses, as well as his attempt to gain appellant’s assistance in some of that conduct. With regard to one client, appellant’s affidavit stated, as follows:
Mahoney told me he created approximately 50 companies for one of his clients who wanted to use the companies as a means to funnel money through in order to avoid paying so much money in taxes. Mahoney told me to incorporate these companies for him. I told him that I was concerned about this, since I did not want to be the Incorporator, and I knew nothing about the same. He told me that my name would only be listed as the Incorporator until the Articles of Incorporation were formed, at which time, my name would be replaced by the Officers of the companies. So, I incorporated the companies, relying on Mahoney’s experience and knowledge. Mahoney then asked me if I would call the IRS and say that I was an officer of these companies. However, I felt very uncomfortable with Mahoney’s request and I told him that I could not lie to the IRS, as I was not an officer of the companies. That made him very angry with me, and his face turned bright red and he started yelling at me because I would not do what he asked of me. Because I would not do this, Mahoney, Burns, and Miller then had to make several phone calls to the IRS and state that they were officers of the companies in order to get federal identification numbers for all of the companies because they needed the numbers by that afternoon.
In response to the affidavit, respondent sued appellant for breach of confidences, invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy, and money owed. Appellant moved to dismiss, claiming that she was “absolutely immune” from suit because her affidavit contained privileged information published in the due course of a judicial proceeding. Appellant challenges the district court’s denial of her motion to dismiss.
Is appellant immune from suit under the doctrine of judicial immunity for information she revealed as a witness during the pendency of a judicial proceeding?
The district court implicitly rejected appellant’s
claim of immunity. An appellate court
may decide an issue not determined by the district court where the question is
determinative of the entire controversy and neither party is prejudiced by the
lack of a prior ruling, as in the instance of undisputed facts. Harms v.
Judicial immunity is a fundamental principle of American
jurisprudence derived from the English common law.
Judicial immunity is specifically offered to witnesses as
well as to other participants in the judicial process, such as judges,
prosecutors, or other persons appointed by the court, because “[b]oth types of
witness [take] the stand and testif[y] under oath in response to the questions
of counsel. Both might be deterred by
the prospect of subsequent, vexatious litigation.”
Respondent claims that judicial immunity applies only to
defamation claims. Traditionally,
judicial immunity has applied to protect participants in the judicial process
against claims of defamation. Prosser
and Keeton on Torts § 114, at 816-17 (W. Page Keeton, et al. eds., 5th ed.
1984). “[D]efamatory matter published in
the due course of a judicial proceeding is absolutely privileged and will not
support a civil action for defamation[.]”
Even if the claim is not for defamation, if it sounds in
defamation, absolute immunity applies.
The judicial immunity “rule is not to be ‘scuttled’ by pleadings which
allege that the wrongful acts resulted from a conspiracy” rather than from
defamation. Jenson v.
While no published Minnesota case has applied judicial
immunity to protect participants in the judicial process from other types of
tort claims stemming from their communications, other jurisdictions that have
considered this issue have applied it to a broader range of tortious acts, such
as perjury or intentional infliction of emotional distress, and some
jurisdictions even apply it to all torts.
See, e.g., Darragh v. Super.
In this case, respondent has alleged one cause of action to which immunity clearly does not apply, money owed. This claim arises out of Hagberg’s loan of $2,000 to appellant and has no relation to the facts set forth in appellant’s affidavit. Therefore, judicial immunity does not insulate appellant from suit on this claim.
The claims of breach of confidences, invasion of privacy, and civil conspiracy, however, all arise out of the communications contained in appellant’s affidavit and are the sort of claims to which judicial immunity should apply. With regard to the invasion of privacy claim, respondent alleges that appellant’s sharing of confidential information “placed it in a false and defaming position in the public.” This is essentially a defamation claim. The civil conspiracy claim states that the purpose of the conspiracy was “the complete destruction and loss of any value of the Law Firm,” and the breach of confidences claim also suggests that appellant improperly shared private information which she should have kept confidential, to respondent's detriment. These claims, broadly interpreted, arise only from appellant’s allegedly defamatory statements contained in her affidavit. As such, they are protected under the judicial immunity doctrine.
Respondent claims that appellant’s affidavit reveals
confidential communications that are subject to the attorney-client privilege,
which itself is supported by public policy rationales that are as compelling as
the public policy arguments supporting the judicial immunity rule.
D E C I S I O N
Because the substance of appellant’s statements contained in her affidavit was the source of respondent’s tort claims for breach of confidences, invasion of privacy, and conspiracy, we hold that judicial immunity applies to appellant for those claims and reverse the district court’s denial of appellant’s motion to dismiss. We affirm the district court’s denial of appellant’s motion to dismiss respondent’s claim for money owed.
Affirmed in part and reversed in part.