BUTZ V. ECONOMOU, 438 U. S. 478 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478 (1978)

Butz v. Economou

No. 76-709

Argued November 7, 1977

Decided June 29, 1978

438 U.S. 478


After an unsuccessful Department of Agriculture proceeding to revoke or suspend the registration of respondent's commodity futures commission company, respondent filed an action for damages in District Court against petitioner officials (including the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, the Judicial Officer, the Chief Hearing Examiner who had recommended sustaining the administrative complaint, and the Department attorney who had prosecuted the enforcement proceeding), alleging, inter alia, that, by instituting unauthorized proceedings against him, they had violated various of his constitutional rights. The District Court dismissed the action on the ground that the individual defendants, as federal officials, were entitled to absolute immunity for all discretionary acts within the scope of their authority. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the defendants were entitled only to the qualified immunity available to their counterparts in state government.


1. Neither Barr v. Matteo, 360 U. S. 564, nor Spalding v. Vilas, 161 U. S. 483, supports petitioners' contention that all of the federal officials sued in this case are absolutely immune from any liability for damages even if, in the course of enforcing the relevant statutes, they infringed respondent's constitutional rights, and even if the violation was knowing and deliberate. Nor did either of those cases purport to abolish the liability of federal officers for actions manifestly beyond their line of duty; if they are accountable when they stray beyond the plain limits of their statutory authority, it would be incongruous to hold that they may nevertheless willfully or knowingly violate constitutional rights without fear of liability. Pp. 438 U. S. 485-496.

2. Without congressional directions to the contrary, it would be untenable to draw a distinction for purposes of immunity law between suits brought against state officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U. S. 232, and suits brought directly under the Constitution against federal officials, Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388. Federal officials should enjoy no greater zone of protection when they violate federal constitutional rules than do state officers. Pp. 438 U. S. 496-504.

Page 438 U. S. 479

3. In a suit for damages arising from unconstitutional action, federal executive officials exercising discretion are entitled only to the qualified immunity specified in Scheuer v. Rhodes, supra, subject to those exceptional situations where it is demonstrated that absolute immunity is essential for the conduct of the public business. While federal officials will not be liable for mere mistakes in judgment, whether the mistake is one of fact or one of law, there is no substantial basis for holding that executive officers generally may with impunity discharge their duties in a way that is known to them to violate the Constitution, or in a manner that they should know transgresses a clearly established constitutional rule. Pp. 438 U. S. 504-508.

4. Although a qualified immunity from damages liability should be the general rule for executive officials charged with constitutional violations, there are some officials whose special functions require a full exemption from liability. Pp. 438 U. S. 508-517.

(a) In light of the safeguards provided in agency adjudication to assure that the hearing examiner or administrative law judge exercises his independent judgment on the evidence before him, free from pressures by the parties or other officials within the agency, the risk of an unconstitutional act by one presiding at the agency hearing is clearly outweighed by the importance of preserving such independent judgment. Therefore, persons subject to these restraints and performing adjudicatory functions within a federal agency are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their judicial acts. Pp. 438 U. S. 508-514.

(b) Agency officials who perform functions analogous to those of a prosecutor must make the decision to move forward with an administrative proceeding free from intimidation or harassment. Because the legal remedies already available to the defendant in such a proceeding provide sufficient checks on agency zeal, those officials who are responsible for the decision to initiate or continue a proceeding, subject to agency adjudication are entitled to absolute immunity from damages liability for their parts in that decision. Pp. 438 U. S. 515-516.

(c) There is no substantial difference between the function of an agency attorney in presenting evidence in an agency hearing and the function of the prosecutor who brings evidence before a court, and, since administrative agencies can act in the public interest only if they can adjudicate on the basis of a complete record, an agency attorney who arranges for the presentation of evidence on the record in the course of an adjudication is absolutely immune from suits based on the introduction of such evidence. Pp. 438 U. S. 516-517.

5. The case is remanded for application of the foregoing principles

Page 438 U. S. 480

to the claims against the particular petitioner-defendants involved. P. 438 U. S. 517.

535 F.2d 688, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 438 U. S. 517.

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