Rule 54(b) — Directing Entry of Final Judgment as to Some But Not All Parties or Claims — Factors and Review — Special Masters Entitled to Quasi-Judicial Immunity Even for Invoices for Services

Nystedt v. Nigro, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 23947 (1st Cir. Nov. 20, 2012):

The claims against the Nigro defendants are narrowly focused. The complaint posits that the special master's delinquent performance of his duties prolonged the will contest and, thus, caused the value of the estate to plummet. The plaintiff frames this plaint as both a racketeering conspiracy charge under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-1968, and a civil conspiracy charge under common law. In essence, he avers that the special master's misdeeds furthered a conspiracy crafted by Munroe and others. Viewed from that coign of vantage, the dispatch of each of the fifty-five invoices sent by the Nigro defendants was intended to "reap illicit[] benefits" from the conspiracy. These mailings ostensibly amounted to instances of mail fraud, which served as predicate acts for the racketeering charge. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1962. The invoices and ex parte communications also allegedly abetted Munroe's unlawful conversion of estate assets.

The Nigro defendants moved to dismiss the claims against them on the basis of quasi-judicial immunity. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The district court granted this motion by means of a docket entry because, in its view, all of the Nigro defendants' actions "relate[d] to [Nigro's] quasi-judicial work as a discovery master." The district court then certified its order of dismissal as a final judgment. See Nystedt v. Munroe, No. 10-10754, 2012 WL 244939 (D. Mass. Jan. 26, 2012) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b)). This timely appeal followed. ***

Before us, the plaintiff challenges both the certification order and the order of dismissal. Without the certification, we would lack jurisdiction to entertain the appeal. See 28 U.S.C. § 1291; see also Feinstein v. Resolution Trust Corp., 942 F.2d 34, 39-40 (1st Cir. 1991). Accordingly, we begin with the certification order and then mull the dismissal order.

A. The Certification Order.

"When an action presents more than one claim for relief . . . or when multiple parties are involved, the court may direct entry of a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b). This procedure, though sometimes useful, is in obvious tension with the "long-settled and prudential policy against the scattershot disposition of litigation." Spiegel v. Trs. of Tufts Coll., 843 F.2d 38, 42 (1st Cir. 1988). "It follows, then, that entry of judgment under the rule should not be indulged as a matter of routine or as a magnanimous accommodation to lawyers or litigants." Id. Rather, Rule 54(b) should be applied sparingly and "only if the court expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay." Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(b).

When contemplating Rule 54(b) certification, a trial court first must ensure that the ruling underlying the proposed judgment is final. Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 42. Such a determination embodies a judgment about a matter of law and, thus, engenders de novo review. González Figueroa v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 317 (1st Cir. 2009). To qualify as final, a ruling must "dispose[] completely either of all claims against a given defendant or of some discrete substantive claim or set of claims against the defendants generally." Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez, 23 F.3d 576, 580 (1st Cir. 1994). This requirement is plainly satisfied here: the order granting the Nigro defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss terminated all of the plaintiff's claims against them.***

In addition to finality, Rule 54(b) requires the trial court to make an express determination that there is "no just reason for delay." We examine the district court's evaluation of the equities inherent in this determination with a deferential eye. See Spiegel, 843 F.2d at 43-44.

In the case at hand, the district court focused on the importance of protecting the Nigro defendants' reputation in the legal community. Nystedt, 2012 WL 244939, at *1. The court noted that pending RICO and conspiracy charges might well dissuade potential clients from using their services. Id. To cinch matters, the court found nothing to suggest that the immediate entry of a partial final judgment would prejudice the rights of any party. Id.

We discern no error. We think that the district court's assessment of the equities is reasonable, and that Rule 54(b) certification is appropriate in the circumstances of this case. We note, moreover, that the policy of the law favors the resolution of immunity defenses as early in a lawsuit as may be practicable. See, e.g., P.R. Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 145 (1993); Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). This factor, too, counsels in favor of immediate appellate review. ***

B. The Dismissal Order.

***

The doctrine of quasi-judicial immunity provides absolute immunity for those who perform tasks that are inextricably intertwined with the judicial function. Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 200 (1985); Coggeshall v. Mass. Bd. of Regis. of Psychologists, 604 F.3d 658, 662-63 (1st Cir. 2010); LaLonde v. Eissner, 539 N.E.2d 538, 540-41 (Mass. 1989). This doctrine is rooted in the wise idea that those who perform adjudicative functions "require a full exemption from liability." Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 508 (1978).

Court-appointed discovery masters plainly perform judicial functions. Under accepted Massachusetts practice, they "control the extent of discovery, including the scheduling and oversight of depositions [and] the time for completion of discovery, and [they] resolve any discovery disputes which may arise during the course of the litigation." Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 26(j). During his performance of these duties, a master is "functionally indistinguishable from a trial judge." AccuSoft Corp. v. Palo, 237 F.3d 31, 58 (1st Cir. 2001) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). It follows inexorably, as night follows day, that court-appointed discovery masters, acting in that capacity, share a judge's immunity from suit. Cf. Brown v. Newberger, 291 F.3d 89, 94 (1st Cir. 2002) (discussing acts of court-appointed evaluators); Kermit Constr. Corp. v. Banco Credito Y Ahorro Ponceno, 547 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1976) (discussing acts of court-appointed receiver). This immunity makes perfect sense; in its absence, court-appointed discovery masters would become "lightning rod[s] for harassing litigation aimed at judicial orders." Kermit Constr., 547 F.2d at 3.

The plaintiff acknowledges the general proposition that a court-appointed discovery master may be entitled to quasi-judicial immunity. To avoid this dead end, however, he tries to invoke two recognized exceptions to the general proposition. The first of these exceptions relates to non-judicial acts, see, e.g., Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 435-36 (1993); Cok v. Cosentino, 876 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1989); the second relates to acts, which, "though judicial in nature," are "taken in the complete absence of all jurisdiction," Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11-12 (1991). We examine these claims separately.

The plaintiff argues that the Nigro defendants' transmittal of invoices and the special master's ex parte communications with Lordan are non-judicial acts sufficient to trigger the first exception. This argument rests on a misapprehension of the exception.

Judicial acts are those that are "intimately associated" with the judicial function. Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486 (1991) (internal quotation marks omitted). For this purpose, the judicial function has been defined as the adjudication of disputes between parties. Antoine, 508 U.S. at 435. Nigro's performance of his duties as a court-appointed discovery master falls comfortably within this sphere. This includes the sending of invoices for services rendered and the alleged ex parte communications -- acts that were intimately associated with the adjudication of discovery disputes.

As to the invoices, they were sent in furtherance of the probate court's direction about how the special master should be paid and were an unremarkable vehicle for securing that compensation. As to the communications, the plaintiff has not alleged -- nor does the record in any way suggest -- that they pertain to anything other than Nigro's work as a court-appointed discovery master. Indeed, the probate court denied the motion to remove the special master, which was based on the same allegations of ex parte communications. There is no reason to look behind that ruling. In any event, a mere claim of ex parte contact, alleged to be in violation of Mass. Sup. Jud. Ct. R. 3:09, canon 3(B)(7), does not, without more, establish that the nature of the communication was not inextricably intertwined with the judicial function. The fact that a court-appointed discovery master performs a judicial function in an imperfect (or even unethical) way does not, by itself, dissolve his quasi-judicial immunity. See Cok, 876 F.2d at 3 (holding that "allegations of malice," "bad faith," or "conspiracy" will not circumvent absolute quasi-judicial immunity).

As a fallback position, the plaintiff avers that sending an invoice is an "administrative," rather than a "judicial" act. This averment suggests a false dichotomy. The administrative character of an act might make a difference if the act was not intimately associated with the performance of core judicial functions. See, e.g., Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229 (1988) (holding discriminatory dismissal of court employee to be a non-judicial act). Here, however, the administrative act of sending invoices was integrally related to Nigro's work as a court-appointed discovery master and, therefore, the immunity attaches to the act. Cf. New Eng. Cleaning Servs., Inc. v. Am. Arbit. Ass'n, 199 F.3d 542, 545 (1st Cir. 1999) (holding that administrative tasks associated with processing a party's demand are arbitral acts for purposes of arbitral immunity).

The plaintiff's attempt to invoke the second exception -- for actions taken in the absence of all jurisdiction -- is equally unavailing. He bases this argument on a number of perceived procedural glitches, including the fact that the record does not indicate any "special reasons" sufficient to justify the appointment of a discovery master pursuant to former Mass. Prob. Ct. R. 20 (amended 2011); the fact that Nigro neither lived nor maintained an office in the county in which the probate court sat, as required by that rule; the fact that the special master's billings were in excess of the billings permitted by that rule; the fact that the appointment was not temporally limited, as required by former Mass. Prob. Ct. R. 21 (amended 2011); and the fact that the special master's ex parte communications with Lordan were unethical.

We need not address these allegations item by item. Even if procedural irregularities of this sort existed, they would not strip Nigro of his jurisdiction to act as a court-appointed discovery master. The Supreme Court has squarely held that absolute judicial immunity is ineffaceable even in the presence of "grave procedural errors." Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 359 (1978); see also Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 335, 357 (1871) (distinguishing the "validity of the act" from the question of whether judicial immunity attaches); New Eng. Cleaning Servs., 199 F.3d at 546 (similar). The errors here (if errors at all) were not grave and, in all events, fall within the prophylaxis afforded by Stump.

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