Rehberg v. Paulk

PETITIONER:Charles A. Rehberg
RESPONDENT:James P. Paulk, et al.
LOCATION:U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 10-788
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Mar 21, 2011
ARGUED: Nov 01, 2011
DECIDED: Apr 02, 2012

Andrew J. Pincus – for the petitioner
John C. Jones – for the respondents

Facts of the case

Charles Rehberg, a forensic accountant, discovered evidence of unethical billing practices at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia. He publicized his findings by sending a series of anonymous faxes to the hospital. As a “favor” to the hospital, former Georgia District Attorney Kenneth Hodges and Chief Investigator James Paulk began investigating Rehberg for allegedly sending harassing e-mail messages and faxes to hospital administrators. In the course of their investigation, Hodges wrote and issued subpoenas to Rehberg’s Internet service provider to obtain copies of Rehberg’s e-mails, which were given to private investigators. Hodges and Paulk later secured three grand jury indictments against Rehberg, which were all subsequently dismissed.

Rehberg filed a civil suit against Hodges, Paulk, and specially appointed prosecutor Kelly Burke alleging, among other things, that they conspired to violate his Fourth Amendment rights by obtaining his e-mails through a subpoena. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the district court denied the motion. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision.


Are government officials who initiate prosecutions by providing false testimony in judicial proceedings absolutely immune from civil suit?

Media for Rehberg v. Paulk

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 01, 2011 in Rehberg v. Paulk

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 02, 2012 in Rehberg v. Paulk

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has our opinion this morning in case 10-788, Rehberg versus Paulk.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

The question in this case is whether a witness, who testifies before a grand jury, is entitled to the same immunity from suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 as a witness who testifies at trial.

Petitioner Charles Rehberg, a certified public accountant sent anonymous faxes to several recipients, including the management of a hospital in Albany, Georgia, criticizing the hospital’s management and activities.

In response, the local district attorney’s office, with the assistance of its chief investigator, respondent James Paulk, launched a criminal investigation of Rehberg, allegedly as a favor to the hospital’s leadership.

Paulk testified three times before a grand jury and Rehberg was indicted three times.

Among other things he was charged with assault and making harassing phone calls.

The indictments were all dismissed.

Petitioner then brought this action under Section 1983, alleging that respondent had conspired to present and did present false testimony to the grand jury.

Respondent moved to dismiss, arguing among other things that he was entitled to absolute immunity for his grand jury testimony.

The District Court denied that motion to dismiss, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed.

The Court of Appeals noted petitioner’s allegation that respondent was the sole complaining witness before the grand jury, but it declined to recognize a complaining witness exception to its precedent on grand jury witness immunity and it held that respondent was absolutely immune from a Section 1983 claim based on his grand jury testimony.

We agree and hold that a grand jury witness is entitled to the same immunity from suit under Section 1983 as a witness who testifies at trial.

In Briscoe versus LaHue, the Court held that a trial witness, sued under Section 1983, has absolute immunity with respect to any claim based on his testimony because without such immunity the truth-seeking process would be impaired as witnesses might be reluctant to testify, and even a witness who took the stand might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff for fear of subsequent civil liability.

These factors apply with equal force to grand jury witnesses.

In both contexts, a witness’ fear of retaliatory litigation may deprive the tribunal of critical evidence and in either context is the deterrent of potential civil liability needed to prevent perjurious testimony because perjury before a grand jury like the perjury at trial is a serious criminal offense.

Petitioner’s main argument is that under our cases, certain grand jury witnesses, namely those who qualified as complaining witnesses, are not entitled to absolute immunity, but this Court looks to the common law for guidance in identifying the functions meriting the protection of absolute immunity.

And at the time when Section 1983’s predecessor was enacted as Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a complaining witness was a party who procured an arrest and initiated a criminal prosecution.

A complaining witness might testify either before a grand jury or a trial, but testifying was not a necessary characteristic of a complaining witness.

In sum, testifying whether before a grand jury or a trial was not a distinctive function performed by a complaining witness.

It is clear that a complaining witness cannot be held liable for perjurious testimony at trial and there is no more reason why a complaining witness should be subject to liability for testimony before a grand jury.

For these and other reasons stated more fully in our opinion, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

The opinion is unanimous.