McBrayer Member Mitchel Denham recently won a case before the Kentucky Supreme Court for his client, an employee of the Kentucky Office of Bar Admissions. The Office of Bar Admissions is an agency created under the Kentucky Supreme Court’s rulemaking authority to administer and oversee application and examination for bar admissions. The case involved an unsuccessful bar applicant who was notified that he passed the exam after a scoring error. Within a few days, he was notified of the error, and that he was, in fact, not successful. He sued our client alleging negligence, seeking damages for emotional distress and loss of employment opportunities. On behalf of his client, Mitchel filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit based on immunity and jurisdictional grounds. The Fayette Circuit Court dismissed the action, holding that the Supreme Court had original and exclusive jurisdiction over the matter. The applicant appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals recognized the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to oversee the bar admissions process under Ky. Const. § 116, but still reversed, holding that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction under Ky. Const. § 112(5) to hear the negligence action. Mitchel petitioned for rehearing on behalf of his client arguing that the Court of Appeals failed to consider the alternative immunity grounds to uphold the dismissal. After the Court of Appeals denied rehearing, Mitchel’s client sought discretionary review from the Kentucky Supreme Court, which was granted.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Court of Appeals Opinion and affirmed the Fayette Circuit Court’s judgment, albeit on the alternative immunity grounds. The Court held that “[i]ndividuals who serve in a judicial capacity are immune from any and all civil liability for conduct and communications occurring in the performance of their duties.” The Court’s To Be Published Opinion, authored by Chief Justice VanMeter, cites to both state and federal authority to reaffirm that “the nature of the function involved in determining qualifications for admissions to the bar … is a judicial act and is therefore entitled to absolute immunity.” The Court held that the Office of Bar Admissions executes its duties on behalf of the Supreme Court, and its actions cannot be separated from the actions of the Court. Therefore, the alleged acts were “the functional equivalent of judicial duties” and the employee was entitled to absolute immunity.