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Zenon v. Associate Justice Guzman

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 15, 2019

ABINEL ZENON, Plaintiff, Appellant,
ASSOCIATE JUSTICE MARGARET GUZMAN, in her official capacity, Defendant, Appellee.


          Dana Goldblatt, with whom Law Office of Dana Goldblatt was on brief, for appellant.

          Kerry D. Strayer, Assistant Attorney General, with whom Maura Healey, Attorney General was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Lynch, Thompson, and Barron, Circuit Judges.


         This federal case is brought by an aggrieved litigant who asks us to step in and change the way some things turned out for him in state court in Massachusetts. Specifically, appellant Abinel Zenon sought a declaratory judgment labelling as unconstitutional a protective order that remains in effect in his now-closed state criminal case. This request was denied by the federal district court on appellee's motion to dismiss. Because we hold that the state court judge's actions are shielded from this attack by the doctrine of judicial immunity, we affirm.

         BACKGROUND [1]

         In 2013, Zenon was at the Springfield District Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ("Springfield court"), attending to some driving charges unrelated to this case.[2] While there, he wound up getting into an altercation with two court security officers who, according to Zenon, attacked him without provocation, all the while "making inappropriate comments to him regarding his ethnicity." As Zenon tells it, one of the officers, Alexander Sierra, a former member of the Springfield Police Department, already had a reputation around the courthouse for violence. When the scuffle ended, Zenon found himself charged and arraigned on two counts of assault and battery on the officers.

         Based on Zenon's attorney's investigation of the incident, Zenon filed a notice of intent to assert the affirmative defense of self-defense. To get more information with which to bolster his case, Zenon subpoenaed administrative records from the Springfield court, seeking all written incident reports authored by Officer Sierra. In response to the subpoena, the records were filed with the court and delivered in due course to appellee Associate Justice Margaret Guzman ("Judge Guzman"), the judge overseeing Zenon's criminal case.

         Protective order

         On July 29, 2015, Judge Guzman, following a chambers conference, turned over Officer Sierra's trial incident reports for the preceding two years, and ordered the Commonwealth to produce Springfield Police Department reports involving Officer Sierra for the same two-year period.[3] But she released the records to defense counsel with restrictions, making the documents subject to a part written/part oral protective order. The written ruling was encapsulated in a pre-printed order entitled "PROTECTIVE ORDER FOR DEFENSE COUNSEL."[4] The written order, amongst other things, permitted defense counsel to review the "presumptively privileged" records for purposes of preparing for trial, but prohibited her, without prior court approval, from disclosing any of the information to anyone, including Zenon or her investigator (but not including colleagues). It also forbade her from contacting any of the individuals named in the reports without court permission. From the bench, Judge Guzman likewise allowed the Commonwealth access to the records with similar restrictions.

         As Zenon's criminal case proceeded, his counsel began to feel hampered by the prohibitions imposed by the court and repeatedly petitioned to have them lifted. Prior to receiving the records, defense counsel, on her own, had investigated other alleged episodes involving Officer Sierra and had identified and contacted several participants and witnesses to discuss their own experiences with him. Also, rumors abounded about other Officer Sierra dustups but the protective order thwarted counsel's efforts to dig deeper. By September 2015, though, she had partial success in convincing Judge Guzman to vacate the protective order as to at least two incidents, [5] but that was it.

         On September 23, 2015, Zenon filed a petition for extraordinary relief with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (the "SJC") to stay his criminal trial and vacate the protective order. This petition was denied without a hearing by a single justice, and Zenon pressed an appeal to the full court. A few days later, on October 5, 2015, Zenon entered a plea on the assault and battery charges: Zenon was not required to stipulate to the conduct alleged, and the charges were continued without a finding of guilt. But by its terms, the protective order remained in effect.[6]

         Following the disposition of Zenon's criminal case, other individuals who had been charged with assault and battery under similar circumstances, as well as attorneys involved in other courthouse incidents, contacted Zenon's attorney seeking information about Officer Sierra. Although Zenon had authorized his attorney to provide these people with relevant information, he and his attorney had been prevented by the protective order from sharing any information about Officer Sierra.

         On February 4, 2016, a full panel of the SJC denied Zenon's request to further consider his petition to vacate the protective order. Zenon v. Commonwealth, 44 N.E.3d 858, 859 (Mass. 2016). Summarizing the prior proceedings, the court wrote: "[Zenon] sought certain third-party records in support of his claim that the alleged victim was in fact the first aggressor." Id. at 859 (citing Commonwealth v. Adjutant, 824 N.E.2d 1 (Mass. 2005)). The court continued: "The judge issued the protective order concerning these records, apparently following the Dwyer protocol." Id. (citing Commonwealth v. Dwyer, 859 N.E.2d 400, 414-19 (2006)).[7]

         In explicating its decision, the SJC focused on the procedure available to Zenon when he initially filed his motion (that is, while the criminal charges were still pending). The court concluded that it did not need to exercise its "extraordinary power of general superintendence under c. 211, §3" to intervene in the workings of the Springfield court because Zenon had "an adequate alternative remedy" in the normal trial and appellate court processes. Id. at 859-60 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

Had Zenon been tried and convicted of any offense, he could have challenged the protective order on direct appeal. . . . If Zenon believes that the records have any continuing significance now that the charges have been resolved, he could move in the District Court for termination or modification of the protective order and, if such a motion is denied, appeal in the ordinary course from that ruling.

Id. at 859.

         Federal litigation

         Opting not to follow any of the SJC's suggested pathways, Zenon filed a complaint in federal court on July 14, 2016, seeking a declaratory judgment that the protective order violates his First Amendment rights, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and naming as defendants Judge Guzman and the District Court Division of the Massachusetts Trial Court.[8] Judge Guzman responded with a Rule 12 motion to dismiss, making three principal arguments: that she was protected from suit by sovereign immunity, pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment; that the federal court was barred from hearing the suit based on the doctrines of Younger and Rooker-Feldman abstention; and that the complaint was barred by collateral estoppel. Zenon then amended his complaint, dropping the Commonwealth Trial Court as a defendant. In due course a magistrate judge analyzed the amended complaint and Judge Guzman's motion, and recommended that Judge Guzman's motion be denied. Thereafter, in a written objection to the report and recommendation, Judge Guzman took the opportunity to add a new argument to her motion: judicial immunity. In the end, after citing the confusion caused by ...

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