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FERRI v. ACKERMAN

decided: December 4, 1979.

FERRI
v.
ACKERMAN



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Stevens

[ 444 U.S. Page 194]

 MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether an attorney appointed by a federal judge to represent an indigent defendant in a federal criminal trial is, as a matter of federal law, entitled to absolute immunity in a state malpractice suit brought against him by his former client.

On August 28, 1974, a federal grand jury for the Western District of Pennsylvania named petitioner as a defendant in five counts of a nine-count federal indictment alleging that he had participated in a 1971 conspiracy to construct and use a bomb in violation of various federal statutes.*fn1 In due course, the District Court appointed respondent to serve as petitioner's counsel pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act of 1964.*fn2 Respondent represented petitioner during pretrial proceedings

[ 444 U.S. Page 195]

     and a 12-day trial. The jury found petitioner guilty on all counts; the judge imposed a sentence of 20 years on the conspiracy and bombing counts and an additional 10 years on the counts charging violations of the Internal Revenue Code. The judgments of conviction were affirmed summarily by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.*fn3

While that appeal was pending, on March 4, 1976, petitioner filed a "complaint in negligence" against respondent in the Court of Common Pleas for Union County, Pa.*fn4 The complaint described 67 different instances of alleged malpractice in respondent's conduct of the federal criminal trial and prayed for the recovery of substantial pecuniary damages.*fn5 Respondent filed a demurrer, asserting that the complaint failed to state a cause of action and that respondent was immune from any civil liability arising out of his conduct of petitioner's defense.

Petitioner thereafter filed a "Traversal Brief" in which he argued that the sufficiency of the malpractice complaint was supported by various sections of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and the Pennsylvania Constitution.*fn6 In that brief petitioner added a claim that respondent had negligently

[ 444 U.S. Page 196]

     failed to plead the statute of limitations as a bar to the Internal Revenue Code counts of the indictment.*fn7

Without ruling on its sufficiency, the Court of Common Pleas, sitting en banc, dismissed the complaint on the ground that decided cases and strong public policy required that a lawyer appointed to represent an indigent defendant in a federal trial must be immune from liability for damages. The court cited one Pennsylvania case*fn8 but relied primarily on federal authorities for its conclusion.*fn9 By a divided vote, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the order of dismissal, squarely resting its decision on federal law.

Because the case concerned a claim of immunity by a participant in a federal proceeding, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court believed that it was required to look to federal law to determine ...


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