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Boyd v. Town of Hayneville

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 14, 2017

DANIEL BOYD, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF HAYNEVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On March 21, 2017, the Magistrate Judge entered a Recommendation. (Doc. # 54.) Defendants Kelvin Mitchell and the Town of Hayneville filed timely objections. (Doc. # 57; Doc. # 58.) The court has conducted an independent and de novo review of those portions of the Recommendation to which objection is made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b).

         I. ANALYSIS[1]

         A. Defendant Mitchell's Objections

         The Magistrate Judge concluded that Defendant Mitchell does not have state agent or discretionary function immunity from Plaintiff's state law malicious prosecution claim arising out of a warrant Defendant Mitchell procured on April 17, 2014.[2] In reaching this conclusion, the Magistrate Judge reasoned that, under Ex parte Harris, when there is no dispute that an officer is engaged in a discretionary function with respect to a malicious prosecution claim, the concept of arguable probable cause is irrelevant to the immunity analysis. Defendant Mitchell argues that, under Harris and an earlier Alabama Supreme Court case, Borders v. City of Huntsville, 875 So.2d 1168, 1180 (Ala. 2003), he is immune from Plaintiff's state law malicious prosecution claim so long as he had arguable probable cause to obtain the warrant for Plaintiff's arrest.

         Before analyzing Defendant Mitchell's argument, it may be helpful to review the burden-shifting nature of state agent and discretionary function immunity under Alabama law. First, Defendant Mitchell must demonstrate that Plaintiff's claims arise from Defendant Mitchell's exercise of a function that would entitle him to immunity, i.e., that he was acting as a state agent “‘exercising judgment in the enforcement of the criminal laws of the state, '” or, in other words, engaged in a discretionary function in the capacity of a peace officer. Harris, 216 So.3d at 1209 (quoting Hollis v. City of Brighton, 950 So.2d 300, 309 (Ala. 2006). Although there are other ways to demonstrate that a police officer is engaged in a discretionary function, in cases of false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution, the officer may do so by showing that he or she had “arguable probable cause” to make an arrest. Borders, 875 So.2d at 1179-80.

         In this case, there is no dispute that, with respect to the conduct giving rise to Plaintiff's claims, Defendant Mitchell was engaged in a discretionary function that would entitle him to immunity. Therefore, the burden shifts to Plaintiff to demonstrate that a recognized exception to state-agent immunity applies - in this case, that Defendant Mitchell acted willfully, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his authority, or under a mistaken impression of the law. Harris, 216 So.3d at 1209.

         At least in cases of false arrest, [3] even when a plaintiff demonstrates that an officer acts willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, or in bad faith, a defendant police officer can negate the applicability of the immunity exception by demonstrating the existence of “arguable probable cause.” Id. at 1213-14. As will be discussed, infra, the Alabama Supreme Court in Harris held that the “arguable probable cause standard” gives rise to immunity in cases of false arrest, but, without explanation, the court in Harris did not discuss arguable probable cause in its analysis of state agent or discretionary function immunity in the context of a separate malicious prosecution claim. Defendant Mitchell's objection necessitates consideration of whether arguable probable cause negates the malicious conduct exception to state agent and discretionary function immunity, and, if so, whether the undisputed evidence establishes that Defendant Mitchell had arguable probable cause to obtain the April 17, 2014 warrant.

         1. Borders v. City of Huntsville

         In Borders, the Alabama Supreme Court considered an officer's argument that he was immune from numerous state law claims, including a claim for malicious prosecution. 875 So.2d at 1171 (listing the plaintiff's state law claims, including malicious prosecution); id. at 1177 (introducing the defendant's argument that “all of [the plaintiff's claims were] barred by the discretionary function immunity afforded to peace officers”). The Alabama Supreme Court distilled the dispute over the applicability of immunity to the following issue: “whether a peace officer making a warrantless arrest on a charge based upon conduct the officer witnessed is entitled to discretionary-function immunity in a subsequent civil action after the arrestee is acquitted.” Id. at 1179.

         The Borders court noted that discretionary function immunity and state agent immunity are withheld if the defendant officer acted with willful or malicious intent or in bad faith, but this exception to immunity was inapplicable because the plaintiff contended only that the officer's conduct was neglectful, careless, or unskillful.[4] Id. at 1178. Rather than focus on whether proof of actual malice could rebut any showing that defendant was entitled to qualified immunity, the Borders court focused its inquiry on whether the defendant met the threshold requirement for demonstrating the applicability of immunity in the first place by showing that “he was performing a discretionary function with respect to the incident in question.” Id. The Borders court held that the defendant could meet the burden of demonstrating that he was engaged in a discretionary function by showing that he had arguable probable cause for the arrest, Id. at 1179-80, but that material factual disputes concerning the existence of arguable cause precluded a finding as a matter of law that the officer was engaged in a discretionary function when he arrested the plaintiff. Id. at 1181 (“[W]e cannot determine, as a matter of law, that [the defendant] was engaged in a discretionary function when he arrested [the plaintiff], that is, that [the defendant] had arguable probable cause in that officers of reasonable competence and with the same knowledge would disagree as to whether probable cause existed.”); Id. at 1182 (holding that the factual dispute “preclude[d] a determination as to whether [the defendant] was engaged in a discretionary function and instead presented a jury question”).

         2. Ex parte Harris

         In Harris, [5] the Alabama Supreme court, citing Borders, applied the concept of arguable probable cause in determining whether a police officer was immune from a state law claim of false arrest. Despite the citation to Borders, a significant distinction exists between the Harris court's use of the concept of arguable probable cause and the Borders court's use of the concept. Unlike in Borders, the Harris court did not invoke the concept of arguable probable cause in relation to the defendant officer's initial burden to demonstrate that he was engaged in a discretionary function when he placed the plaintiff under arrest. 216 So.2d at 1213-14.

         In Harris, the initial discretionary function analysis concerned the plaintiff's argument that the defendant officer had no authority to make an arrest for the misdemeanor of selling alcohol without a license because the defendant officer did not personally witness the unlawful sale of alcohol. Rejecting the plaintiff's argument, the Harris court found that sufficient suspicious circumstances occurred within the defendant officer's view to give him the authority to make the arrest. 216 So.2d at 1209-1212. Therefore, the court concluded that the defendant officer “satisfied his initial burden of demonstrating that at the time of the incident made the basis of [the plaintiff's] claims [the defendant officer] was engaged in a law-enforcement function for which State-agent immunity would be available under § 6-5-338(a) and Ex parte Cranman, as modified by Hollis [v. City of Brighton, 950 So.2d 300, 309 (Ala. 2006)].” Id. at 1209.

         Thus it was that, without considering whether arguable probable cause established that the defendant officer was engaged in a discretionary function, the Harris court turned to whether, with respect to the plaintiff's false arrest claim, the plaintiff met his burden to establish the malicious conduct exception to state agent/discretionary function immunity. Specifically, the Harris court held that undisputed evidence establishing “arguable probable cause” precluded a finding that the defendant officer acted “willfully maliciously, or in bad faith so as to remove him from the umbrella of state agent immunity.” Id. at 1214.

         Following this holding, the court stated: “Although we recognize that [the plaintiff] has presented evidence indicating that [the defendant officer] held some personal animosity toward her and that he had a competing financial interest, the fact remains that [the Defendant officer] had probable cause to arrest [the plaintiff].” Id. Following on the heels of the court's reliance on arguable probable cause, the reference to “probable cause” introduces some ambiguity, but does not necessarily change the preceding holding that arguable probable cause eliminates the malicious conduct exception to immunity. Any ambiguity is easily resolved if the court's statement is read as making the larger point that, even if evidence of malice exists, the immunity exception for malicious conduct is unavailable if the arrest was objectively valid, or if an objective officer would have had reason to believe the arrest was valid.[6] Otherwise, an officer could be deprived of immunity simply on the mere basis of his subjective feelings or motives toward the plaintiff, while an objective, unbiased officer with the same knowledge and in the same circumstances would be immune for claims arising out an otherwise identical arrest.

         After concluding that the malicious conduct exception did not deprive the defendant officer of state agent/discretionary function immunity from plaintiff's false arrest and false imprisonment claims, the Harris court proceeded to consider immunity in the context of the plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim. The Harris court noted that, to prevail on an Alabama state law claim of malicious prosecution, the plaintiff must demonstrate, among other things, that the arrest was initiated with malice and without probable cause. Id. at 1214. For purposes of proving the elements of a malicious prosecution claim, but not for the purpose of establishing the malice exception to immunity, malice can be inferred from lack of probable cause. Id. at 1215. To establish the malicious conduct exception to immunity on a malicious conduct claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant's conduct was in fact so egregious as to amount to malicious, willful, or bad faith conduct, such as by showing that the defendant had personal ill will against the plaintiff and that the defendant acted solely for the purpose of harassment. Id. The Harris court noted facts tending to indicate that the defendant officer had probable cause for the arrest. Then, citing Borders, the court concluded that, “because [the defendant officer] had probable cause to initiate a judicial proceeding against [the plaintiff] and because he did so without malice, he is immune from suit on [the plaintiff's] malicious prosecution claim under the doctrine of State-agent immunity set forth in Ex parte Cranman.”[7] Id.

         The Magistrate Judge concluded that, because the Harris court did not discuss arguable probable cause in the context of negating the malicious conduct exception to immunity on a malicious prosecution claim, the Harris court “implicitly held that the arguable-probable-cause standard does not apply to malicious prosecution claims.” (Doc. # 54 at 50 n.15.) As Defendant Mitchell points out, in the absence of any explanation from the Harris court itself why arguable probable cause was not discussed in the context of the malicious prosecution claim, it is not necessary to read Harris so narrowly. After all, the Borders court considered arguable probable cause in the context of a malicious prosecution claim (albeit at a different stage of the immunity analysis), and Harris contains no express statement of intent to abrogate Borders.

         It may be that, in Harris, the court did not discuss the issue of probable cause in the context of the malicious prosecution claim because the parties did not raise the issue. Alternatively, it may be that, in determining that probable cause existed in the context of the malicious prosecution claim, the Harris court found no need to address the existence of arguable probable cause. Whenever probable cause exists, arguable probable cause also necessarily exists[8] (although the reverse is not necessarily true). Therefore, under Harris's holding that arguable probable cause negates the malicious conduct exception to immunity, any time probable cause exists, the maliciousness exception to immunity will not apply. Otherwise, despite the existence of an objective basis for an officer's actions, the officer would lose state agent and discretionary function immunity merely because of the officer's personal motives and attitude toward the plaintiff during the arrest, even if an unbiased officer would have immunity for making the same arrest under the same circumstances.

         Accordingly, at Defendant Mitchell's urging, and in accordance with Borders and Harris, the court will apply the concept of arguable probable cause to the immunity analysis of the state law malicious prosecution claim arising out of the April 17, 2014 warrant.[9]

         3. Applying the Concept of Arguable Probable Cause

         As the Magistrate Judge correctly noted, it is undisputed that Defendant Mitchell met threshold requirement for demonstrating the applicability of immunity on the state law malicious prosecution claim by showing that “he was performing a discretionary function with respect to the incident in question.” Borders, 875 So.2d at 1178. Accordingly, unlike in Borders, it is not necessary to consider whether undisputed evidence of arguable probable cause entitles Defendant Mitchell to judgment as a matter of law that he was performing a discretionary function when he swore out the April 17, 2014 warrant.

         In his objection, Defendant Mitchell does not challenge the Magistrate Judge's conclusion (Doc. # 54 at 53-55) that, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the disputed facts reasonably support a finding that, in obtaining the April 14, 2017 warrant, Defendant Mitchell engaged in malicious or bad faith conduct sufficient to trigger the maliciousness exception to state agent/discretionary function immunity.[10] However, using Harris's approach to “the concept of arguable probable cause, ” even in the face of evidence that the defendant acted with actual malice, the maliciousness exception to immunity is inapplicable if arguable probable cause exists. Id. at 1213-14.

         In analyzing Plaintiff's § 1983 malicious prosecution claim, the Magistrate Judge found that the uncontradicted evidence establishes arguable probable cause. As the Magistrate Judge noted, the definition of arguable probable cause used in Borders and Harris is the same as that used by the Eleventh Circuit in determining the applicability of qualified immunity in § 1983 cases.[11] (Doc. # 54 at 47.) Defendant Mitchell argues that arguable probable cause exists for purposes of the state law malicious prosecution claim for the same reasons that the Magistrate Judge concluded arguable probable cause exists in the context of the § 1983 malicious prosecution claim. Accordingly, at Defendant Mitchell's invitation, the court will consider the validity of the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that, as a matter of law based on undisputed evidence, Chief Mitchell had arguable probable cause to obtain the April 17, 2014 warrant against Plaintiff for reckless endangerment of the female students at Hayneville Middle School.

         In the absence of probable cause, arguable probable cause exists if “‘officers of reasonable competence in the same circumstances [as the defendant officer] and with the same knowledge would disagree as to whether probable cause existed.'” Harris, 216 So.2d at 1213 (quoting Borders, 875 So.2d at 1179). On the basis of the following facts, the Magistrate Judge found no factual dispute as to the existence of arguable probable cause: (1) after the student reported the assault at 10:00 a.m., the janitor remained on Hayneville Middle School grounds until 1:30 p.m. the same day; (2) the janitor entered the school counselor's office where the school counselor was meeting with the student immediately following the incident; (3) Defendant Mitchell testified that he subjectively believes Plaintiff returned the janitor to Hayneville Middle School after the day of the assault; and (4) the April 17, 2014 warrant was issued by a neutral magistrate. (Doc. # 54 at 43-44.) However material factual disputes exist as to each of the four reasons given by the Magistrate Judge for finding arguable probable cause at the summary judgment stage.

         As to the Magistrate Judge's first reason for finding probable cause, competing factual inferences may be drawn from the fact that the janitor remained on school grounds until approximately 1:30 p.m. after the student reported the assault at 10:00 a.m.[12] As Defendant Mitchell noted in his summary judgment brief (Doc. # 42 at 2-3), Plaintiff was not notified of the incident until the school principal called “around lunchtime”[13] on the day of the assault. (Doc. # 41-1 at 21-22; Doc. # 41-14 at 8-9.) Plaintiff testified that, immediately upon notification of the incident, he instructed the principal to “collect all [the] information, ” including a statement from the janitor, and then bring the janitor and the guidance counselor to Plaintiff's office. (Doc. # 41-1 at 21-23.) By the time the principal notified Plaintiff of the incident, the principal already had separated the janitor from the students by requiring the janitor to stay in the principal's office, and, for at least some part of the time after notifying Plaintiff of the incident, the principal was personally interviewing the janitor. (Doc. # 41-1 at 21-22). The principal conducted the requested interviews and arrived at Plaintiff's office with the janitor “around” 1:00 p.m. or “1:30-ish” that day. (Doc. # 41-1 at 21; Doc. # 41-14 at 8.) It is undisputed that Plaintiff's office is not on the grounds of Hayneville Middle School. When Plaintiff released the janitor from his office, he instructed the janitor not to return to school property. (Doc. # 41-1 at 29.)

         Thus, approximately one or two hours passed between the time Plaintiff was notified of the incident and the time the janitor left Hayneville Middle School to travel to Plaintiff's office. (Doc. # 41-1 at 21-23.) Defendant Mitchell cites no evidence that, during that time, the janitor was unsupervised in the vicinity of students, or that Plaintiff's instructions to the principal placed students at risk of unsupervised contact with the janitor, or that Plaintiff had reason to believe that students were at risk during that time. The only fact that the Magistrate Judge identified to support the inference that the janitor's continued presence on school grounds might have posed a danger to the students is the fact that, when instructing the janitor to remain in his office, the principal locked the office door so that no one could enter the office and then returned to the counselor's office, which was located “three rooms down” from the principal's office. (Doc. # 41-14 at 7, 9.) The Magistrate Judge observed that locking the office door did not prevent the janitor from leaving the office despite the principal's instructions to remain there. (Doc. # 54 at 43.) However, the principal informed Plaintiff of the student's allegation against the janitor after instructing the janitor to remain in his office and locking the door. (Doc. # 41-14 at 6-7, 9, 20-22.) Accordingly, viewed in the light most favorable ...


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