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Echols v. Lawton

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 25, 2019

DOUGLAS ECHOLS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SPENCER LAWTON, in his individual capacity, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 4:08-cv-00023-WTM-GRS

          Before TJOFLAT, WILLIAM PRYOR, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.

          WILLIAM PRYOR, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         This appeal requires us to decide whether a district attorney enjoys qualified immunity from a complaint that he defamed a former prisoner in retaliation for seeking legislative compensation for his wrongful convictions. After Douglas Echols served seven years of imprisonment for kidnapping and rape, a test revealed that his DNA did not match the semen recovered from the victim. Echols presented this evidence to Spencer Lawton, the local district attorney, who had a state crime lab confirm the test results. A Georgia trial court later vacated Echols's convictions. After Lawton declined to retry Echols, the trial court dismissed the indictment against him. A state legislator then introduced a bill to compensate Echols for his wrongful convictions. But Lawton wrote in opposition to the bill and allegedly falsely stated that Echols remained under indictment-a libel per se. See Harcrow v. Struhar, 511 S.E.2d 545, 546 (Ga.Ct.App. 1999). After the bill failed, Echols sued Lawton for violating his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court dismissed Echols's complaint based on qualified immunity. Although we conclude that Echols's complaint states a valid claim of retaliation under the First Amendment, we agree with the district court that Lawton enjoys qualified immunity because Echols's right was not clearly established when Lawton violated it. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 1986, three unknown assailants kidnapped and raped Donna Givens in Savannah, Georgia. Although Douglas Echols professed his innocence, a jury convicted him of the kidnapping and rape of Givens. He was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.

         After Echols served seven years of his sentence, a DNA test revealed that the semen recovered from Givens did not match Echols's DNA. Echols presented this evidence to Spencer Lawton, the district attorney for Chatham County, who also served in that role when Echols was convicted. Lawton ordered the state crime lab to conduct additional testing, which confirmed that the semen was not from Echols.

         A Georgia trial court then vacated Echols's convictions and granted him a new trial. Instead of retrying Echols, the state entered a nolle prosequi on the charges of kidnapping and rape, and the trial court dismissed the indictment against him.

         Four years later, after the Georgia Claims Advisory Board recommended compensation for Echols, a legislator in the Georgia General Assembly introduced a bill to compensate him with $1.6 million for his wrongful convictions. But before the General Assembly voted on the bill, Lawton sent a letter and memorandum to several legislators opposing Echols's compensation. Echols "was informed by the legislature that [the bill] would not pass specifically due to . . . Lawton's correspondence." Indeed, the legislators with whom Lawton corresponded blocked the bill from reaching the floor of the General Assembly, and the bill failed.

         Echols then filed a complaint against Lawton, which he later amended. In his amended complaint, Echols alleged that Lawton violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by providing "false information" and "intentionally misleading legal advice" to the legislators. Echols alleged that Lawton told the legislators that Echols's convictions "were proper and fitting, even though [his] conviction[s] had been vacated." Lawton also told the legislators not to presume Echols innocent of kidnapping and rape because the vacatur of his convictions did not establish his innocence. Lawton urged the legislators not to compensate Echols unless he proved his innocence. And Lawton told the legislators that Echols remained under indictment for kidnapping and rape even though the indictment had been dismissed four years earlier when the state entered a nolle prosequi on the charges. Echols complained that Lawton interfered with his freedom of speech and right to petition the government and retaliated against him for exercising those rights. And Echols complained that Lawton violated his right to due process of law by depriving him of a presumption of innocence.

         The district court granted Lawton's motion to dismiss Echols's complaint. The district court ruled that Echols's complaint failed to state a claim under either the First or Fourteenth Amendments. It ruled that Lawton's letter did not amount to a threat, coercion, or intimidation, so Echols failed to state a claim of First Amendment retaliation. And it ruled that Echols failed to state a claim under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because he failed to allege either a violation of a fundamental liberty or government conduct that shocks the conscience. The district court also ruled that Lawton enjoys qualified immunity because Echols's complaint failed to allege the violation of a right that was clearly established when Lawton sent his letter.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review de novo a dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim. Mills v. Foremost Ins. Co., 511 F.3d 1300, 1303 (11th Cir. 2008). We accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Id. "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). We also review de novo a grant of qualified immunity. Courson v. McMillian, 939 F.2d 1479, 1486 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. DISCUSSION

         We divide our discussion in two parts. First, we explain that Lawton enjoys qualified immunity from the claim that he retaliated against Echols for exercising his rights under the First Amendment. Second, we explain that Lawton also enjoys qualified immunity from the claim that he violated Echols's right to due process of law because the general rubric of substantive due process cannot be used to govern a claim that is otherwise covered by the specific text of the First Amendment.

         A. Lawton Enjoys Qualified Immunity from Echols's Claim of Retaliation Under the First Amendment.

         Lawton contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity from Echols's complaint of retaliation in violation of the First Amendment. "Qualified immunity shields public officials from liability for civil damages when their conduct does not violate a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged action." Bailey v. Wheeler, 843 F.3d 473, 480 (11th Cir. 2016). To obtain a dismissal based on qualified immunity, "a government official must first establish that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the alleged wrongful act occurred." Id. If he was, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to overcome the official's qualified immunity. Mikko v. City of Atlanta, 857 F.3d 1136, 1144 (11th Cir. 2017). To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must "plead[] facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011).

         Echols argues that Lawton acted outside the scope of his discretionary authority when he sent the letter to the legislators, but we disagree. To be sure, "[a] prosecutor's most basic duty is to prosecute cases in his jurisdiction on behalf of the State." Mikko, 857 F.3d at 1144. But we have explained "[r]elated to that duty," a prosecutor's discretionary authority also includes "communicat[ions] with other law enforcement agencies, officials, or employees about current or potential prosecutions." Id. Prosecutors must and do regularly communicate with legislators about a variety of issues related to their offices and the criminal justice system. Those issues may involve administrative and financial matters, public safety and criminal justice policies, and past, pending, or future prosecutions. Lawton's letter addressed the public fisc and both a past prosecution and a potential future prosecution, so his communication with legislators was clearly "within, or ...


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