Immunity Kills Bar Applicant’s Claims Against Lawyers, Employer

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By Joan C. Rogers

An excluded bar applicant can’t pursue federal claims against lawyers or others who supplied the state bar with information about his fitness to practice, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held Aug. 25 ( Delacruz v. Antle , 2017 BL 300178, N.D. Cal., No. 5:14-cv-05336-EJD, 8/25/17 ).

The defendants are immune from liability for their alleged wrongs because the conduct involved petitioning the government under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, Judge Edward J. Davila decided.

The decision may be reassuring to people who give information about would-be lawyers in character and fitness proceedings.

Daniel Delacruz is a self-described “disabled Latino male” who got turned down for admission to the California state bar on moral character grounds. He filed a complaint in federal court several years ago against 51 people and entities. The allegations arose out of numerous events including the California state bar’s denial of his law license.

The court dismissed claims against the state bar defendants on various grounds such as the Eleventh Amendment, judicial immunity, and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Delacruz filed then an amended complaint against some defendants, including lawyers who had dealings with Delacruz in legal matters and furnished information to the state bar about his fitness to practice law, and a former employer and various people affiliated with the company who gave information in the character proceeding.

No Rooker-Feldman Bar

The Rooker Feldman doctrine—named after two Supreme Court cases that established it—holds that federal courts other than the Supreme Court don’t have power to hear challenges to state court decisions.

The doctrine bars the doors of federal courts when lawyers challenge state disciplinary judgments on any grounds. For example, a First Circuit case recently held that Rooker-Feldman bars a suit claiming that officers and administrators of the Rhode Island court system violated a lawyer’s constitutional rights by charging him with ethical violations and suspending his license ( McKenna v. Curtin , 1st Cir., No. 17-1006, 8/25/17 ).

But here, the court held that Rooker-Feldman doesn’t preclude federal jurisdiction over Delacruz’s claims in his amended complaint. In contrast to the claims that were already dismissed, these claims don’t require the federal court to review the correctness of the state court proceedings, Davila said.

The amended complaint asserts legal wrongs by adverse parties rather than a legal error by the state bar and the state courts, the judge said.

Protected Petitioning

The court found the claims against the defendants blocked anyway by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which grants immunity from statutory liability for conduct involving exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government.

Proceedings before the California State Bar Court can implicate Noerr-Pennington because the bar court is part of California state government, the court said.

Moreover, it said the defendants’ alleged activities in relation to Delacruz’s state bar proceedings constitute petitioning or conduct incident to petitioning for purposes of Noerr-Pennington.

“Defendants’ reporting to the State Bar was a petitioning activity protected by the First Amendment and thus immune from suit,” the court said.

Although Noerr-Pennington immunity has a sham exception, the exception doesn’t apply here because it only encompasses situations where people use the governmental process as an anticompetitive weapon, the court said.

Applying the sham exception would discourage those who have information relevant to licensing determinations from exercising their First Amendment rights, the judge said.

Daniel Delacruz, Salinas, Cal., represented himself. Noland, Hamerly, Etienne & Hoss represented Stephanie Sayler and Sayler Legal Service Inc. Lombardo & Gilles PLC and L&G LLP represented Carmen Ponce and L&G LLP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joan C. Rogers in Washington at jrogers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bna.com

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