Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, July 15, 2020


Page 1


Court of Appeal:

Judicial Immunity Applies to Out-of-Court Defamation of Lawyer

Ikola’s Opinion Says It Extends to Bad-Mouthing by Judge at a Private Party


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal took an expansive view of judicial immunity in an opinion filed yesterday, holding that judges are not liable if they spread false and defamatory gossip about a lawyer out of court and, in one instance alleged in the complaint, at a private party.

The action was brought by attorney Ernest Calhoon of San Bernardino County’s Sun Valley against Orange Superior Court Judges Lon Hurwitz and Donald Gaffney, a court counter clerk, Mia Mejia, and others. The plaintiff claims that when he insisted on Mejia accepting papers for filing which she wanted to reject, she called for help, falsely asserting to bailiffs he had threatened to kill her, and that the two judges then spread the tale.

Hurwitz told someone at a party that Calhoon is dangerous and a troublemaker, the complaint alleged.

Judge Halm Presides

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Howard L. Halm, was assigned by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to handle the case. Halm sustained demurrers without leave to amend, holding that Hurwitz and Gaffney enjoy absolute judicial immunity, and Mejia is cloaked with quasi-judicial immunity.

Yesterday’s opinion, which was not certified for publication, affirms that decision.

Rejecting Calhoon’s contention that Hurwitz and Gaffney were not acting in a judicial capacity in spreading false rumors about him, Justice Raymond J. Ikola wrote:

 “Here, plaintiff alleges Judge Hurwitz and Judge Gaffney were involved in publishing the defamatory statement regarding plaintiffs alleged death threat through word of mouth at the courthouse. As [Halm] correctly held, ‘Plaintiffs claims ... arise from their duties as superior court judges and involve matters for which they had jurisdiction and power to maintain orderly proceedings and control the conduct of the people coming before them.’…Because plaintiffs allegations arise from acts taken by Judge Hurwitz and Judge Gaffney in their function as Superior Court judges, plaintiffs claims against them are barred by absolute judicial immunity.”

Private Party

Addressing Cahoon’s contention that Hurwitz’s alleged denigration of him at a private party “had nothing to do with any case before the judge” and was plainly outside the scope of immunity, Ikola said:

“But other than the alleged location of this conversation—a private party—plaintiffs proposed amendment provides no facts suggesting the conduct did not occur in Judge Hurwitz’s judicial capacity. Nor does plaintiffs proposed amendment even allege the statement was false, much less that it was unprivileged.”

Mejia, Calhoon maintained, is covered by no immunity in connection with making a false that he threatened her which, he insisted, is neither a judicial nor discretionary function. Ikola responded as to quasi-judicial immunity:

“Contrary to plaintiff’s assertions, the allegations arise from Mejia’s capacity as a court clerk. Her alleged reporting of a violent statement made by plaintiff in the courthouse is closely related to an integral part of the judicial process—courthouse security….[T]he doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity covers ‘’nonjudicial persons who fulfill quasi-judicial functions intimately related to the judicial process.’…This includes court clerks like Mejia.”

Government Code Immunity

He added that Mejia’s “alleged act of notifying the bailiffs of a perceived threat is surely discretionary, not ministerial” and that Halm was correct in finding that immunity for a discretionary governmental act is afforded by Government Code §820.2.

The jurist found the allegations of the complaint insufficient to constitute a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violation of his civil rights, and rejected other contentions.

The case is Calhoon v. Mejia, G055915.

Calhoon represented himself. Kevin M. McCormick of the Ventura law firm of Benton, Orr, Duval & Buckingham acted for Hurwitz, Gaffney, and Mejia. Zachary M. Schwartz and William L. Haluck if the Irvine firm of Koeller, Nebeker, Carlson & Haluck were the attorneys on appeal for the County of Orange and two individuals employed by the county.


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