Posted: February 6, 2015

Officer has Absolute Immunity from Civil Rights Claim Based on Perjurious Grand Jury Testimony

On January 13, 2015, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Coggins v. Buonora, 13‐4635, affirming a decision by the EDNY that a police officer had absolute immunity from a Section 1983 claim for perjured testimony he gave to a grand jury, but not for his other acts.

In Coggins, the plaintiff brought a civil rights claim against a Nassau County police officer who admitted to giving perjured testimony before a grand jury in connection with a proceeding against the plaintiff. The EDNY held that while other alleged misconduct by the officer was not protected, his testimony before the grand jury was. The Second Circuit affirmed, explaining:

In Rehberg v. Paulk, 132 S. Ct. 1497, 1506 (2012), the Supreme Court announced the bright line rule that a grand jury witness, including a law enforcement officer, has absolute immunity from any § 1983 claim based on the witness’ testimony, even if that testimony is perjurious.  The Rehberg Court thereby expressly extended to grand jury witnesses, including police officers, the same immunity that had previously been enjoyed by witnesses at trial. This holding was consistent with the understanding that, despite its broad terms, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not effect a radical departure from common‐law immunities. The question before us is whether a law enforcement officer is entitled to absolute immunity as a grand jury witness pursuant to Rehberg when a § 1983 plaintiff alleges that the officer withheld and falsified evidence in addition to committing perjury before the grand jury—an issue of first impression in our circuit.

In Rehberg, [t]he Supreme Court held that a grand jury witness has absolute immunity from any § 1983 claim based on the witness’ testimony. It reasoned that the justifications for granting absolute immunity to trial witnesses are equally applicable to grand jury witnesses: In both contexts, a witness’ fear of retaliatory litigation may deprive the tribunal of critical evidence.  And in neither context is the deterrent of potential civil liability needed to prevent perjurious testimony. To avoid circumvention of the immunity by artful pleading, the Court extended absolute immunity to § 1983 claims of conspiracy to present false testimony or to preparatory activity, such as a preliminary discussion in which the witness relates the substance of his intended testimony to the prosecutor.  Importantly, however, the Court acknowledged the limited nature of its holding in a footnote: of course, we do not suggest that absolute immunity extends to all activity that a witness conducts outside of the grand jury room.  For example, we have accorded only qualified immunity to law enforcement officials who falsify affidavits and fabricate evidence concerning an unsolved crime.

Buonora asserts that, at its core, Coggins’s claims all involve his grand jury appearance. We disagree.  Buonora’s interpretation of Rehberg would set a dangerous precedent: Any police officer could immunize for § 1983 purposes any unlawful conduct prior to and independent of his perjurious grand jury appearance merely by testifying before a grand jury.  Such an outcome would also be inconsistent with the limitations Rehberg explicitly imposes on the scope of the absolute immunity, which the Supreme Court instructed was not to extend to all activity that a witness conducts outside of the grand jury room.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

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