April 02, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Rehberg v. Paulk

On April 2, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rehberg v. Paulk, No. 10-788, holding unanimously that a grand jury witness is entitled to the same absolute immunity from a § 1983 suit as a trial witness.

Charles Rehberg, a certified public accountant, sent several anonymous faxes to several recipients, including the management of a hospital in Albany, Georgia, criticizing the hospital's management. In response, the local district attorney's office and its chief investigator, James Paulk, launched a criminal investigation into Rehberg. At three different grand jury hearings, Paulk testified against Rehberg, and each time Rehberg was indicted for making harassing phone calls, among other charges. But each time the indictment was dismissed based on lack of evidence.

Rehberg then sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Paulk conspired to present false testimony to the grand jury. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia denied Paulk's motion to dismiss, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that Paulk was absolutely immune from a § 1983 claim that was based on his grand jury testimony.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address a split among the circuits on whether a "complaining witness" in a grand jury proceeding is entitled to absolute immunity from suit under § 1983. Unanimously, the Court held that witnesses to grand jury proceedings, including those some courts label "complaining witnesses," are entitled to absolute immunity.

The Court explained that judges, legislators, prosecutors and trial witnesses are given absolute immunity to permit them to act with independence and without fear of consequences. In this case, the Court stated, immunity is appropriate because the truth-seeking function of grand jury proceedings might be impaired if grand jury witnesses knew that their testimony could be in the basis of a subsequent § 1983 suit.

The Court rejected Rehberg's proposed "complaining witness" distinction as "of little use," while also noting that such a standard would potentially subvert grand jury secrecy.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of a unanimous Court.

Download Opinion of the Court

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