The North Carolina Court of Appeals has recently addressed the availability of immunity doctrines to state Magistrates. In Wynn v. Frederick and Great American Insurance Company, the Court addressed issues relating to both sovereign immunity and judicial immunity.
The facts are not complicated. The plaintiff rented a home to his sister and her son. The son suffered from severe mental health issues and also had been diagnosed with substance abuse disorders. When the son was not taking his prescribed medications, he could be dangerous to himself and others.
On December 14, 2016, the son was off his medications and behaving erratically. A doctor met with the mother and son two days later and determined that the son should be involuntarily committed. The doctor prepared and signed an Affidavit and Petition for Involuntary Commitment. The doctor then faxed it to the Orange County Magistrate’s Office, where it was received by the defendant Magistrate. That same day, the defendant Magistrate issued a Findings and Custody Order for Involuntary Commitment, which he faxed to the appropriate hospital but not to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The next day, the doctor who had prepared the Petition called the mother to see if the Sheriff’s office had picked up her son. When he learned that the son was still at home, the doctor contacted the defendant Magistrate to check on the Custody Order. The defendant Magistrate responded that he had sent the Order to the hospital because that was where he believed the son to be. When informed by the doctor that the son was with his mother, the defendant Magistrate asked the doctor to resend the documents to him so he could reissue the Custody Order. While this was being done, the plaintiff drove to his sister’s house, unaware that the son was off his medications. When he arrived, the son shot the plaintiff in the neck with a crossbow, inflicting grave injuries.
The plaintiff sued the defendant Magistrate in his official capacity as a Magistrate, along with Great American Insurance Company, which had issued an official bond to the defendant Magistrate. The defendant Magistrate moved to dismiss, claiming sovereign immunity and absolute judicial immunity among other defenses. (This post will limit its discussion to the immunity issues.) The trial court determined that the defendant Magistrate was not entitled to either sort of immunity and denied his motion to dismiss.
On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found no error (Judge Gore, with Judge Dietz; Judge Murphy concurring in the result only). After addressing several preliminary issues, the Court turned to the question of sovereign immunity. The Court began by noting that sovereign immunity ordinarily grants public officials acting in their official capacity absolute and unqualified immunity. The Court then cited N.C.G.S. § 58-76-5, which provides that “[e]very person injured by the neglect, misconduct, or misbehavior in office of any register, surveyor, sheriff, coroner, county treasurer, or other officer, may institute a suit…upon their respective bonds…” Although this statute waives sovereign immunity to the extent of the bond, the defendant Magistrate argued that it did not apply to him because the office of Magistrate was not explicitly included in the list of offices set out in the statute. The defendant Magistrate pointed out that every named office in the statute was a county office and argued that the closing term of “other officer” was limited to other county officers. The Court of Appeals was unpersuaded. Observing that if the General Assembly had intended to limit the waiver to county officials, it could easily have said so, the Court concluded that the statute waived sovereign immunity as to Magistrates.
The Court then turned to the issue of judicial immunity. It noted that judicial immunity extends to Magistrates but then pointed out that it applies to individuals, not to officials acting in their official capacities. Because the defendant Magistrate was sued in his official capacity only, judicial immunity provided him no protection.
Absolute immunities can lead to harsh results when an injured individual is left wholly without recourse. Waivers brought about by the purchase of insurance or the requirement of bonding allow an injured citizen some degree of recovery when the facts warrant while allowing an often-modestly-paid public official to tend to his or her duties without fear of personal liability. So while this case may yet wind up in the Supreme Court, the result is not particularly surprising. For now, though, it goes back to the superior court for further proceedings.