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Keller-Bee v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

June 22, 2016

CYNTHIA KELLER-BEE
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: April 1, 2016

         Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-13-008502

          Barbera, C.J., [*] Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Rodowsky, Lawrence F. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Barbera, C.J.

         This case poses the question of whether absolute judicial immunity bars suit against the State of Maryland for the alleged negligent act of an unspecified clerk of the court when the only injury alleged in the complaint is the direct and proximate result of the judge's issuance of a body attachment. For the reasons that follow, we answer that question in the affirmative.

         I.

         On April 16, 2010, Petitioner, Cynthia Keller-Bee, appeared in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Harford County pursuant to an order requiring her to show cause why she had not answered post-judgment interrogatories in an action in which judgment had been entered against her. For an unknown reason, the judgment creditor did not appear at that hearing, causing the court to dismiss the show cause order.

         Ironically, nine months later, the judgment creditor filed a motion requesting that Petitioner be found in contempt for her alleged failure to appear at the hearing on April 16, 2010, and seeking a body attachment against her.[1] The Administrative Judge for the District Court signed the body attachment. On the morning of January 27, 2011, it was executed upon Petitioner and she was taken into custody. That same afternoon, Petitioner was brought before a Court Commissioner who released her on her own recognizance with the advisement that she would receive notice of a court date to address her alleged failure to appear.

         On February 4, 2011, Petitioner went to the District Court Clerk's Office to ask why she had been arrested and detained. Following that office's investigation, Petitioner was advised that she should not have been arrested because she had appeared at the hearing as ordered and, for that reason, she would not need to appear again in court.

         On December 27, 2013, Petitioner filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City a two-count complaint against the State of Maryland. The complaint alleged "negligence and malfeasance of one or more of the State's employees in the District Court System for Harford County in presenting body attachment papers to [the Administrative Judge] for signage and issuance." Count I alleged that "drafting and or presenting body attachment papers to [the judge] for issuance of the same" constituted negligence on the part of some unnamed "employee/agent or employees/agents" of the District Court of Maryland. Count II alleged that those same acts violated Petitioner's rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Petitioner further alleged that "she was harmed and lost her liberty" and "experienced severe mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of freedom, liberty, and/or other recoverable losses and damages associated with the violation of her rights."

         The State moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground of absolute judicial immunity. Following a hearing, the Circuit Court denied the motion. While noting that a clerk would be entitled to the defense of absolute judicial immunity if acting at the direction or under the supervision of a judge, the Circuit Court questioned whether the clerk was acting with such authority based upon the time that had elapsed between Petitioner's appearance in court and the clerk's generating the body attachment.

         The State appealed the denial of the motion to dismiss. The Court of Special Appeals, in a reported opinion, reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court.[2] State v. Keller-Bee, 224 Md.App. 1, 3 (2015). Observing that "absolute judicial immunity attaches to the function and not the person, " id. at 11, the intermediate appellate court agreed with the State that the action complained of was the judge's judicial act of signing the body attachment, rather than any action by court personnel in presenting the body attachment to the judge for signature or thereafter transmitting the signed body attachment to the sheriff for execution. Id. at 6 ("The harm [Petitioner] alleges emanated from the judge's issuance of the warrant. It is this judicial function that is really the subject of [her] tort claim."). The Court of Special Appeals added that "presentment of warrants to judges for approval and signature is a task that regularly occurs during the performance of a clerk's employment, " and therefore "the issuance of arrest warrants is a judicial act." Id. at 13.

         Petitioner filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which asked us to decide:

Whether the Court of Special Appeals properly found that District Court clericals who are neither supervised by a Judge or State's Attorney nor directed to take certain actions by a Judge or State's Attorney are entitled to absolute judicial ...

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