Court upholds judge protected by judicial immunity

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed a lower court's decision that Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown was protected by judicial immunity in a lawsuit filed by a former Kingsport area attorney.
   J.D. Hickman filed suit against Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown after Brown assessed court costs against him in a proceeding involving another prisoner, according to court documents.
   In the opinion written by Judge Herschel P. Franks and joined by judges Charles D. Susano and D. Michael Swiney, the court stated that "the doctrine of judicial immunity had long been recognized in this state."
   The other prisoner's habeas corpus petition was dismissed, and Brown ruled that Hickman had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in assisting the other prisoner as a basis to tax costs in that proceeding against the plaintiff.
   Hickman, on a separate appeal to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, obtained a reversal of Brown's ruling for court costs, because under the statute, costs could only be taxed to one of the parties.
   Hickman had alleged that his civil rights were violated by Brown, and sought compensatory and punitive damages in the Court of Appeals. Brown filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of judicial immunity, which was sustained in trial court.
   The Court of Appeals opinion ruled that "so long as the judge is performing a 'judicial' act, and the act falls within the subject matter jurisdiction of the judge, then absolute immunity from suit attaches."
   The Court of Appeals opinion reads that "The same obtains even when the judge acts with 'malice or corruption of motive' or when the action is erroneous or exceeds the judge's authority."
   The opinion delivered by Franks further reads, "In this case, the defendant Judge had subject matter jurisdiction over the petition, and had the authority to assess court costs in cases within this jurisdiction. The fact that the Judge erred in assessing court costs to plaintiff is of no consequence, as the act of assessing court costs is unquestionably a judicial act."
   Hickman, a former Kingsport-based attorney, was charged in 1996 and 1997 with multiple counts of theft of property involving clients' funds.
   A Sullivan County jury found Hickman guilty of theft in Feb. 1997. The court sentenced him to serve five years in the Department of Correction as a Range I standard offender.
   Hickman later entered pleaded guilty to charges of four other cases heard in Washington County. Brown was the judge in the Washington County trial. Brown sentenced him to an effective incarcerative term of 11 years in prison with sentences in all four cases to run concurrently with each other and the five-year sentence.
   Hickman is currently incarcerated at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City. He has a parole hearing scheduled for Dec. 2003, according to the Department of Correction.
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   Circuit Court Judge Jean Stanley granted a motion on Jan. 27 filed by attorneys representing Mountain State Health Alliance to dismiss a second lawsuit brought against the health organization by a Carter County woman.
   Darlene Price had originally filed a $3.1 million lawsuit in Feb. 2000 against Mountain States and two physicians -- Borzou Azima and Todd Whitaker -- alleging negligence by the misdiagnosis of a heart ailment in Feb. 1999.
   That lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff in April 2000, according to court records. A second lawsuit almost identical was filed against the hospital and both physicians in Jan. 2002.
   Stanley's order did not dismiss the existing complaint against Azima and Whitaker.
   The suit set forth that on Feb. 3, 1999, Price was working at her regular employment at Snap-On Tools when she began experiencing pain in her upper chest and arms. Price was taken to the emergency room of Sycamore Shoals Hospital where she was diagnosed with food poisoning and not a heart attack, according to the suit.
   The suit reads that she experienced a similar episode on Feb. 19, 1999. She was treated by a cardiologist who advised her that she had suffered a severe myocardial infarction on Feb. 19 and a mild heart attack on Feb. 3.
   Attorneys representing Azima and Whitaker filed motions to dismiss the second lawsuit in mid-January. Their motions read that the statute of limitations had expired for refile a lawsuit, citing the voluntary dismissal order in April 2000 and the filing of the second lawsuit in Jan. 2002.