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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Supreme Court Clinic Presents Oral Arguments in the Case of a “Whistle Blower” Attempting to Sue for Wrongful Arrest

When oral arguments in the case, Rehberg v. Paulk were delivered before the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 1, members of Yale Law School’s Supreme Court Advocacy Clinic present in the courtroom had more than just a passing interest. In fact, they represented Charles Rehberg, in a case that will decide whether a government official – who caused an innocent person to be prosecuted by falsely testifying to a grand jury – is immune from being sued for civil damages.

Charles Rehberg is the innocent person. Rehberg was wrongfully indicted and arrested because of his “whistle blowing” activity against a Georgia hospital. When he publicly exposed the hospital’s questionable billing and management practices, the local prosecutor’s office responded by pressing baseless criminal charges against him as a “favor” to the hospital.

The charges were dismissed, and Rehberg filed suit against the prosecutor’s investigator based on the investigator’s false testimony before the state grand jury. A lower court, however, concluded that the investigator had absolute immunity from civil liability.

The Supreme Court Clinic, on Rehberg’s behalf, contended otherwise and filed a petition for a writ of certiorari before the High Court saying that grand jury witnesses who function as “complaining witnesses” to initiate false charges do not have absolute immunity from civil liability. In March of this year, the Supreme Court granted the clinic’s cert petition.

“If the Court decides to afford the Respondent absolute immunity, state officials will be free to initiate harassing prosecutions with relative impunity based on fabricated evidence,” said clinic student Matt Hegreness ’12, who helped draft the reply brief.

Clinic instructor Andrew J. Pincus of Mayer Brown argued on Rehberg’s behalf, and current and former clinic students Christine Buzzard ’13, Celia Choy ’12, Samir Deger-Sen ’13, Matt Hegreness ’12, Pete Huffman ’12, Philip Levitz ’12, Cameron Kistler ’11, Alexandra Harwin ’11, Travis Crum ’11, and Katie O'Banion ’11 worked on the cert petition and the briefs. They also took part in “mooting” Andrew Pincus to prepare him for argument.

“These students labored 24/7 to unearth key common law precedents from the Nineteenth Century about the scope of liability for false grand jury testimony and also to develop vital policy arguments about why the common law rule still makes sense,” noted Jeffrey A. Meyer ’89, a visiting law professor who was co-counsel for this case and who co-teaches the clinic with Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL, Dan Kahan, Charles Rothfeld and Pincus.

A decision in the case is expected by June 2012. Hegreness said he is hopeful about the outcome and added that being a part of it all was one of his best experiences in law school.

“What is a more exciting way to develop research and writing skills than through writing a merits brief for the Supreme Court? When the stakes are so high, everyone is working intensely to produce the best work product possible…I'm sure not everyone from the clinic will go on to become Supreme Court litigators, but I think we will all take away some great memories and some new skills.”