A litigant’s suit against a federal judge was dismissed after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found the plaintiff lacked standing as Virginia law does not allow private individuals to bring an action in Virginia courts to discipline an attorney.
The court also determined that the judge was subject to judicial immunity in this case.
Senior U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland authored the opinion in Spanos v. Gibney (VLW 022-3-524) last month.
The issue in this case pertains to a prior proceeding handled by U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney in his capacity as a judge for the Eastern District of Virginia.
In that proceeding, Nickolas Spanos filed an action in the Henrico County Circuit Court against the then-state attorney for Henrico County, seeking discipline or disbarment.
That action was removed to federal court and assigned to Gibney, who denied a motion to recuse filed by Spanos.
Gibney dismissed the action, holding that Spanos lacked standing on federal claims. The judge remanded the state law claims back to the county court. Spanos did not appeal the decision.
Spanos then filed a lawsuit against Gibney in Henrico County Circuit Court, seeking “either revocation of Judge Gibney’s license to practice law in Virginia, or that Judge Gibney be disciplined under the Virginia Code of Professional Conduct.”
The action was removed to federal court, and Gibney filed a motion to dismiss.
Gibney sought dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6), and claimed Spanos lacked standing under Virginia law, that no private right of action exists under Virginia’s Rules of Professional Conduct and that he was entitled to judicial immunity.
In his response, Spanos argued that judicial immunity did not apply “in cases alleging unethical conduct. His action, he said, was “an ‘action filed to protect the Public’” rather than a private cause of action.
Chasanow first addressed the issue of standing, pointing out that “whether Virginia law allows a private individual to bring a state court action seeking to have an attorney disciplined or disbarred” was the primary issue.
“If the answer to this question is no,” Chasanow wrote, “then Mr. Spanos lacks standing because a court cannot provide him with the relief he seeks.”
The argument that Spanos filed a “public cause of action” fails, the judge said, because “there is no basis in law for Mr. Spanos to bring an action for the public welfare. He does not have standing to act in the public interest.”
Spanos’s argument relied on Virginia Code § 54.1-3915, which states “Supreme Court shall not … promulgate any rule or regulation or method of procedure which eliminates the jurisdiction of the courts to deal with the discipline of attorneys.” According to Spanos, this allows private individuals to bring an action in Virginia’s state courts to discipline attorneys.
Chasanow rejected the argument.
“[T]here is no authority construing this provision to mean that an individual cause of action exists,” she pointed out.
The judge then noted that the Virginia Supreme Court “has clear authority” to specify a code of ethics governing attorney conduct — and for barring methods for disciplining, suspending and disbarring attorneys.
“[T]he Virginia Supreme Court has adopted extensive procedures for disciplining, suspending, and disbarring attorneys,” she explained. “None of these procedures allow for a private individual to institute such an action.”
Moreover, Chasanow said, the statute Spanos relied on “simply protects the authority of a state court to ban an attorney from practicing before that particular court.”
Having found that Spanos lacked standing as an individual to bring an action seeking attorney discipline, Chasanow turned to the judicial immunity issue. She ruled in Gibney’s favor.
“Even if the court were to find that Mr. Spanos has both prudential and statutory standing to bring his complaint, Judge Gibney would have judicial immunity for acts taken in his official or individual capacity,” Chasanow wrote.
The judge made that determination by noting that, while Spanos alleged Gibney’s actions were unethical, he did not claim Gibney acted beyond the scope of the litigation.
“Regardless of Mr. Spanos’ claims, he provides no grounds to defeat the judicial immunity that applies to Judge Gibney’s determinations in Spanos v. Vick,” Chasanow wrote. “Judge Gibney is entitled to judicial immunity for his actions.
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Forrester v. White, Chasanow noted the reasoning behind the use of judicial immunity.
“If judges were personally liable for erroneous decisions, the resulting avalanche of suits, most of them frivolous but vexatious, would provide powerful incentives for judges to avoid rendering decisions likely to provoke such suits,” Chasanow wrote.
Chasanow granted Gibney’s motion to dismiss and dismissed the complaint for lack of standing.