from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 4:08-cv-00023-WTM-GRS
TJOFLAT, WILLIAM PRYOR, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.
WILLIAM PRYOR, CIRCUIT JUDGE
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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
Lawton Enjoys Qualified Immunity from Echols's Claim of
Retaliation Under the First Amendment.
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).
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