An arbitrator cannot sue a lawyer for wrongful use of civil proceedings, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, even if the lawyer allegedly lodged false accusations in court papers to have the arbitrator disqualified, because lawyers enjoy an "absolute privilege" that immunizes them from liability over any communication made in the course of litigation.
The five-page unpublished opinion is available here. It says:
The underlying litigation in this case began in 1995 when Anthony Patterson, a
member of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith in Philadelphia, filed an action in state court against church leaders alleging that they had looted millions of dollars from the church’s bank accounts. In November 2006, the parties agreed to submit the case to binding arbitration. The parties selected Edward Naythons (“Naythons”), a retired United States Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, as the neutral arbitrator. . . .
Naythons issued the final adjudication in October 2006, but dated it July 25, 2006,
the date he completed it. In November 2006, Stradley filed a motion to vacate the final arbitration award. In December 2006, Stradley filed a petition for a hearing on their petition to vacate, as well as their previous petition for recusal.
About ten months later, Naythons filed a complaint against Stradley. In it, Naythons alleged abuse of process and wrongful use of civil proceedings due to the “scorched earth” litigation strategy Stradley employed and the accusations Stradley leveled against Naythons in the course of making arguments for his recusal. Stradley moved to dismiss the case because Naythons, a non-party to the underlying litigation, lacked standing.
The Third Circuit agreed in a single paragraph of analysis:
Under Pennsylvania law, the District Court correctly dismissed Naythons’s claims
of abuse of process and wrongful use of civil proceedings. Stradley did not “use legal process” against Naythons. Naythons was the arbitrator in the state proceeding, not a party to the action, and the fact that he was named as a respondent in one of the state court petitions is of no import. Permitting Naythons to sustain either of these claims against Stradley would abrogate the doctrine of judicial privilege, whereby “pertinent and material” communications made in in the context of judicial proceedings are absolutely privileged from civil liability. Moses v. McWilliams, 549 A.2d 950, 956 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988) (citing Post v. Mendel, 507 A.2d 351, 355 (Pa. 1986)). The proper recourse for any unethical conduct on behalf of Stradley is through judicial review of the arbitration proceedings, which could result in sanctions against Stradley if their conduct was as egregious as Naythons alleged in his complaint.
The claims were obviously a long shot — an arbitrator isn’t a party to the case they hear, so nothing is "used" or "initiated" against them.
Why didn’t Naythons allege defamation?
Pursuant to the judicial privilege, a person is entitled to absolute immunity for ‘communications which are issued in the regular course of judicial proceedings and which are pertinent and material to the redress or relief sought.’ Post v. Mendel, 510 Pa. 213, 507 A.2d 351, 355 (Pa. 1986) (emphasis in original). This privilege is based on the ‘public policy which permits all suiters, however bold and wicked, however virtuous and timid, to secure access to the courts of justice to present whatever claims, true or false, real or fictitious, they seek to adjudicate.’ Id. As we explained in Post, ‘to assure that such claims are justly resolved, it is essential that pertinent issues be aired in a manner that is unfettered by the threat of libel or slander suits being filed.’ Id. Notably, this privilege is extended not only to parties so that they are not deterred from using the courts, but also to judges so that they may ‘administer the law without fear of consequences,’ ‘to witnesses to encourage their complete and unintimidated testimony in court, and to counsel to enable him to best represent his client’s interests.’ Binder v. Triangle Publications, Inc., 442 Pa. 319, 275 A.2d 53, 56 (Pa. 1971).
Bochetto v. Gibson, 580 Pa. 245, 251, 860 A.2d 67, 71 (2004).
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the privilege did not apply to the facts alleged by Bochetto, however, as the defendant attorney had faxed a copy of the allegedly defamatory complaint to a reporter (at The Legal Intelligencer). Such faxing was not "in the regular course of judicial proceedings."
The lawyers at Stradley Ronon no doubt paid heed the lesson of Bochetto v. Gibson and kept all their allegations within the confines of the litigation. Hence Naythons’ and Bochetto’s creativity.
I don’t know the merits of the allegations either way. Assuming, for a moment, that Naythons’ allegations were true and Stradley injured him through "scorched earth " litigation tactics, the immunity granted to them from suit by Nathons is all the more reason that the district court needs its hands free to deal with lawyers and parties who misbehave, the exact issue pending before the Third Circuit in Grider v. Keystone Health.